How Autonomous Schools Should Be Held Accountable — It’s Complicated

Across the country, many states and local districts are establishing autonomous school policies, which delegate to principals and school leaders significant authority over school operational decisions that are traditionally held by district central offices. This theory reflects part of the charter school theory of action, which relies on granting increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. 

However, the accountability side of this bargain is much murkier for autonomous schools and so are the outcomes, raising questions about the extent to which these policies are able to capitalize on lessons learned from successful charter sectors. 

cover of Bellwether report "Staking out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools from Feb 2020, features graphic of three school buildings with different but overlapping colors

The strongest charter sectors have pretty clear and consistent approaches to accountability: charters are managed to a performance contract that has specific goals for outcomes. They are subject to periodic renewal based on a data-based assessment of progress on those goals. The consequences for not meeting those goals are clear, often culminating in non-renewal or closure.

Autonomous school policies vary significantly from place to place, and even sometimes within the same city, in ways that create thorny questions about the best structures for holding schools accountable. There tend to be two ways that districts keep autonomous schools accountable to high performance, as we outline in our new report

  1. Autonomous schools are subject to the same accountability structure as every other district-run school
  2. Autonomous schools are subject to possible revocation of autonomy if they fail to meet the expectations outlined in their school plans

In the first arrangement, autonomous schools are subject to the same accountability structure as all other district-run schools in the state. This scenario raises questions about the inherent value of autonomy if the schools aren’t treated any differently than their traditional counterparts. Maybe autonomy, in and of itself, is good. If that’s the case, though, then why not let all schools operate with full autonomy? The answer comes, in part, from evidence from the charter sector. We know that charter sectors with weak accountability policies tend to produce weaker student outcomes, suggesting autonomy alone is insufficient. The accountability side of the bargain is critical. 

For example, some cities highlighted at eightcities.org have granted schools autonomy and seen subsequent gains in student achievement. But they didn’t implement autonomy alone. Critically, school autonomy in those cities is kept in check by performance contracts and systems to regularly monitor schools’ data. In other words, leaders implemented both sides of the bargain — autonomy and accountability. 

In the second arrangement, states and cities essentially add another layer of accountability on top of the standard district model. This makes a lot of sense in places where autonomy is a “privilege” for schools that perform well under a traditional model. These schools “earn” increased freedom and independence. Like parenting a teenager, meeting high expectations results in increased freedom; but if your performance declines, so do your degrees of freedom.     

Things get complicated for this model in cases where autonomy is itself an intervention for poor performance. In several places, such as the Springfield Empowerment Zone in Massachusetts or the iZone in Tennessee, autonomy is granted to struggling schools with the hope and expectation that school leaders empowered to make strategic decisions based on the specific needs of their students will be able to tailor their program to drive rapid improvement. In some cases, these efforts are showing promising results. But when it doesn’t work, what’s the plan? Do we revoke autonomy and return the school to a governance model that also wasn’t working? If not, what’s the next step if the school continues to flounder? The logic starts to break down. 

One option would be to borrow from the charter sector or the Eight Cities by establishing performance contracts, renewal processes, and consequences for low performance, up to and including closure. This adds some tools for districts to deal with struggling schools instead of just closure. This is particularly important since districts rarely close schools and doing so successfully requires a strong commitment to data and transparency, and ensuring available seats in higher performing schools. 

But what if a district has just one autonomous school? The need to establish a whole separate accountability infrastructure for one school is a heavy burden and could be a disincentive. 

The bottom line is that autonomous school policies must deal with the question of how to hold struggling schools accountable. We have strong models for accountability in the charter sector and promising models emerging in some districts, but leaders still have work to do to ensure autonomous schools have the accountability in place to ensure they are producing good outcomes for students.

Read our report released yesterday, “Staking out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools.”