Three “Must-Have” Areas of Freedom that Autonomous Schools Need to Succeed

My colleagues and I have been working with districts in several states to design and launch autonomous district schools, and over the past several months, we’ve rolled out a series of blog posts and other resources to explain how these kinds of schools can work best, including the new video below:

An obvious question in this work is: Which types of autonomies are crucial to the success of autonomous district school efforts?

Having worked with hundreds of high-performing schools around the country over the past fifteen years, I believe that strong alignment within and across three key areas is necessary to deliver excellent outcomes for students:

1. People

In a traditional district school, the principal likely has a number of people on her team who she did not hire. Maybe a few of them are not bought into the principal’s vision and would rather be on another campus. 

Principals in autonomous schools must have control over who is on their team, how roles are structured, and how teachers use their time, as my colleague Tresha Ward has written extensively about. Think about high-performing charter schools or networks: inevitably they have a leadership team and staff that believe deeply in the mission and unique instructional approach. 

Similarly, principals in district autonomous schools need to be able to select and support a team that is aligned around a common vision and strategy for educating children, wants to be part of the school, and is committed to professional learning and growth.

2. Program

In a traditional district school, the district provides a standard curriculum. Families attend because they live in the attendance zone, even though some of them wish they could send their students to a school with a special program. Staff attend district-wide trainings that the principal knows is only a good fit for a small portion of her team.

Autonomy around programming inside the school building gives leaders the ability to select the curriculum, define the calendar and schedule, shape how instruction is delivered, choose professional development sessions for her team, and determine what culture makes that campus unique. This autonomy leads to a program that is fully aligned to the vision shared by the adults in the building.

3. Governance

In a traditional district, school board members turn over each election cycle and bring new priorities. Rarely does the school board achieve alignment across a majority of members for more than a year. The superintendent turns over every two and a half years, and the new person brings a new vision and approach.

Many district autonomous schools are governed by a nonprofit board, whose members are selected because they buy into the vision of the school. A strong board aligned to the vision of the school or network is incredibly important and critical to outcomes. First, the board ensures that the district honors the autonomies that have been granted. If districts do not deliver on these autonomies, the board applies pressure to ensure the promised conditions are met. Second, the board holds the bar for quality, and ensures that the staff never settles for “good enough” by lowering expectations for students.

If the board is aligned around the school vision and program approach, and is actively holding the leader accountable for the outcomes the school has signed up for, then all of the adults associated with the school are rowing in the same direction. When all of the adults are rowing in the same direction, students benefit.

It’s worth noting that these three ingredients also drive the outsized success of high-performing charter schools. Certainly building autonomous district schools can be more complex and difficult than building charter schools because they exist within a large bureaucratic system, but focusing on these three areas can help districts get off to a strong start.