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Guest Posts, Learning at its Best

Managing School Autonomy (Guest Post By Kim Farris-Berg)

School’s out. And for many Los Angeles Unified School District administrators and teachers, summer will be more about changing the design of their schools than reviewing test scores and prepping for their classrooms. For the first time, they have professional authority to make many of the decisions that influence whole school success.

An agreement made between LAUSD and the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) last December provides that school administrators have autonomy to choose the teachers who will work in their schools. They can select the teaching materials and assessments. They can allocate a portion of school budgets, set the school schedules, and make school rules. They can also put a serious amount of collective authority in the hands of teachers, the professionals who know students best.

All eyes are on LA. What will school leaders do with this opportunity? What kind of schools will they create? And will these schools better serve students and families?

There’s great news on these fronts. As my colleagues and I reported in Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teacher Call the Shots, when teachers and administrators are trusted with collective autonomy in district and chartered schools, they create the kinds of schools that many of us profess to want. They individualize learning. Their students are active (not passive) learners who gain academic and life skills. The teachers make decisions associated with high performance. They accept accountability and innovate, and make efficient use of resources. These are promising results.

But there is another important question we ought to be concerned about. That is: Will LAUSD and UTLA adapt their management practices to support what works well in the schools that administrators and teachers create? Looking at various school districts’ experiences with school autonomy, including those of Boston and Minneapolis Public Schools (BPS and MPS), management’s ability and willingness to adapt will have a lot to do with whether the whole effort will succeed.

An evolving approach to managing school autonomy in Boston Public Schools

In BPS, the superintendent grants the governing boards of so-called “pilot schools” authority to try new and different means of improving teaching and learning in order to better serve at-risk urban students. In six of the 21 pilot schools created since the idea’s inception in 1994, the governing boards have used their autonomy to put their decision-making authority into teachers’ hands.

The boards don’t tell teachers what to do and how to do it. Instead, they hold teachers accountable for collectively meeting clear, mutually agreed-upon objectives for whole school success and let teachers determine how to meet those objectives. Families flock to the very different kinds of schools that these teachers create. What’s more, the teachers have reported that when they make the decisions and then accept responsibility for those decisions, teaching is a much better job.

Teacher Melissa Tonachel guides a student one-on-one while other students self-direct their learning at Mission Hill K-8 School in Boston. (Amy Sue Photography)

Boston’s “pilot schools” arrangement makes teacher autonomy and the resulting innovations possible, but there are other factors allowing for the innovations to be sustained. Early teacher-leaders working in pilot schools wisely started an outside organization, called the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE), to support and assist them with their entirely different management needs.

Teachers running whole schools, for example, need different professional development than teachers running classrooms. They also need research to learn and demonstrate if their different approaches, such as those for student assessment and teacher evaluation, bring about high performance. But since these teachers are busy running schools, they look to CCE to address these needs and to broker support from BPS central management and the Boston Teachers Union (BTU).

One of CCE’s most important roles has been to help BPS and BTU understand the need to maintain, and at times even widen, some areas of autonomy for pilot schools. CCE and others have found that the areas of autonomy matter for innovation, as does the degree of autonomy administrators and teachers have in each area. BPS and BTU have shown reasonable willingness to adapt their management practices when CCE communicates findings like these, no doubt contributing to a successful experience with school autonomy. After 18 years, pilot schools are alive and well in Boston. But not every district’s autonomy experience proceeds so well.

An eroding approach to managing school autonomy in Minneapolis Public Schools

Louise Sundin, 22-year president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), recently wrote in a commentary in Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story why her union local has turned to chartering schools as a means to meet teacher and student needs. (Notably, the Los Angeles agreement puts a three-year moratorium on “charter take-overs of district schools” because UTLA felt it

offered the autonomy strategy a better chance at success. Minneapolis teachers once felt the same.)
Sundin chronicled story after story in which Minneapolis teachers and administrators used autonomy to advance major schooling innovations in their district. Yet, one by one, the innovations were “sucked back into the district, their uniqueness eliminated, turned back into plain vanilla by a bureaucracy couldn’t tolerate…differences in delivery or design.”

Sundin and other innovating teachers have reported that the merits of their collectively autonomous decisions were not the determinants of their innovations’ fate. Instead, central district managers were unwilling or unable to adapt their cultures and roles to support what evolved from autonomy. Trusting Teachers describes that district managers aren’t the only ones struggling in this regard. Teachers around thenation have reported that their union leaders, too, have held fast to conventional contract stipulations rather than granting members much needed flexibility to bend their work rules in order to improve their jobs and their schools.

After working with schools that are all “the same,” these district and union leaders did not adjust their policiesand procedures to accommodate differences. Efficient transportation schedules and union rules for teachers’ work hours, for example, became reasons for preventing individual campuses from shortening or lengthening daily school hours or going to a year-round schedule.

Teachers who have authority to manage a school in Washington State reported how they had to continue to spend a required line-item amount on textbooks even when teachers in the school had decided to rely more on resources available on the World Wide Web (available to all students at their desks) to individualize student learning. The potential for cost efficiencies lost out to central management’s devotion to conventional budgeting.

Will LAUSD and UTLA management set the right conditions for school autonomy to succeed?

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen has dubbed managers’ temptation to rely on past successes and capabilities in the midst of change The Innovator’s Dilemma (Collins Business Essentials). While managers are steadfastly accountable to the products and processes that have led to years of success, they fail to discover and recognize—even stifle the development of—creative ideas that make good use of newly available technologies. Eventually, innovation occurs from the outside and once-dominant organizations fail.

Christensen documents how some forward-thinking managers have been able to overcome this threat by experimenting with autonomy. They create groups that are affiliates of the larger organization, but are free to pursue new and different ideas with the support of entirely new and different management. Target Corporation was famously born this way, when the managers of the now defunct Dayton-Hudson Corporation (owner of Marshall Fields) foresaw the eventual demise of department stores as people moved out of cities and into suburbs.

Creating independent leadership to support autonomous schools within their respective organizations, LAUSD could become a national model for district transformation and UTLA could become a national leader in securing and fostering professional roles for teachers. All, of course, in the name of improved student learning. Both LAUSD and UTLA must avoid expecting autonomous school leaders to work within existing management and work structures that were designed for conventional schools and schooling. Otherwise, Los Angeles’s experience with school autonomy will be made into an example of how even the well-intentioned districts and unions just cannot change.

Readers, what management practices and union work rules do you think might need to be made more flexible at local levels in order to support school and teacher autonomy as a strategy to bring forth innovation in K-12? This list of ten potential autonomies might get your wheels turning.
Kim Farris-Berg is a senior fellow of the Center for Policy Studies and lead author of the forthcoming book Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots (R&L Education 2012). She lives in Orange County, CA. Twitter: @farrisberg



6 thoughts on “Managing School Autonomy (Guest Post By Kim Farris-Berg)

  1. Kim, I’m incredibly excited about the publication of your upcoming book, and a shout out for you and the Center for Policy Studies long-time work on real solutions to the policy and professional dilemmas that beset our sector and our work. I am a real admirer. From your list of ten potential autonomies, I like them all, with the proviso that for teachers and administrators to embrace them, we/they will have to believe that we are entitled to create the conditions of our work, to choose our colleagues, and to make well-informed professional decisions about the lives of the learners and colleagues in our care, based on a set of evolved professional distinctions and assessments. Many of the educators I work with, unfortunately, do not have this view of themselves. Might this be an essential piece of the “story” of transformation your work highlights?

    With respect and anticipation of the book,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | June 30, 2012, 10:20 am
    • Kirsten, Great to hear from you and thank you very much for the compliment.

      This post barely touches on what you are talking about, but–YES–culture is a critical aspect of any autonomy strategy and one of our motivations in writing the book. A central question in the book is what happens when teachers are in the position to make some or all of the decisions related to school success. The teachers/schools we looked at have chosen to work this way and their schools had existed for three or more years (although some had been doing it since the 1970s!). I am aware of some 60 public schools–district, chartered, pilot, magnet, alternative–in which this arrangement exists already. I am aware of five or so working to open in the next year. Some models are union-affiliated, others are not. It’s already possible. No new law needs to be passed for it to happen. Just an awareness among managment, teachers, and school administrators that it CAN be done and then a willingness to do it. After that, supportive and evolving management is crucial (the topic I focused on above).

      As more schools appear–as more districts like LAUSD take this on–the big question is going to be what teachers DO with the autonomy (and, just as important, whether management can/will support what emerges). What you’ll see in the book is that the arrangements for autonomy (such as a memorandum of understanding with the district and union) help evolve the professional distinctions from a formal perspective. The teachers then have to do the cultural work, and it can take time and a lot of leadership for teachers to grasp their new role. But they do! The book describes–even opens with a story about– teachers’ perspectives evolving while working in autonomous arrangments.

      So, considering your question, the “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” debate comes to mind. Currently we ask teachers to accept accountability for what results from other peoples’ decisions. But where states and school districts and chartered school boards do give teachers authority, then they CAN make the decisions. And THEN (as you will see in the book) there is there a real willingness to accept accountability for those decisions. The book talks about the kinds of decisions they make in these new working conditions. In many cases the teachers develop their own assessments/evaluation structure, for example, which is based on the work they do (which at this point contains many added, and sometimes quite different, responsibilities). This is how evaluation is designed and managed in countless other professions.

      If it’s accountability we seek, and/or a change in culture such that teachers and administrators see themselves as professionals who are entitled to do all the things you say above, my perspective is that we need to make teaching into a very different kind of job first. Run this opportunity parallel to the existing job (no total replacement necessary; no forcing teachers who don’t want to do it into it), and give the opportunity to those who ask for it. Let’s see what happens.

      Here’s a statistic that usually stuns people. Particularly because the question was asked in the context of chartered schools. In 2003, Public Agenda tested a national sample of teachers’ attitudes for new arrangements as reported in Stand By Me: What Teachers Really Think About Unions, Merit Pay and Other Professional Matters.

      Findings were that 58 percent of teachers were somewhat or very interested “in working in a (chartered) school run and managed by teachers”; this includes 65 percent of under-five year teachers and 50 percent of veteran (20 years and over) teachers.

      The willingness to do it might not be as big of a barrier as getting the word out that it is already happening, can be done, and is a real possibility.

      I hope this helps answer your question. Willing to keep dialoguing, as always…

      Posted by Kim Farris-Berg | June 30, 2012, 1:35 pm
  2. Kim, the exemplar schools you cite in Boston and the number of similar schools you mention in your comment give me hope. I think that one way to retain more teachers is to let them build the schools they envision. This kind of permission – the permission to create your own workspace and/or job – is one of the many positive things that the private sector seems to allow much more readily than public education does.

    In crafting these schools in Boston, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, how does the involvement of students and parents in school design differ, if at all, from their limited involvement in shaping traditional public schools?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 4, 2012, 12:45 pm
    • Chad, hi. Thanks for your insights and question.

      My vision is that teachers will read Trusting Teachers with School Success and see the possibilities/conceive of new possibilities for their own work and schools and students. Then they will gather up colleagues who want to pursue those possibilities and ASK for the authority to pursue those possibilities, using the book to lay out “how it’s done” to those who would grant them such authority. In other words I see teachers pursuing first, getting permission second. A superintendent or state leader who wants real change could definitely advertise their openness to this… My suspicion, though, is that if this is going to happen in droves teachers will be the driving force. (Please know that I am not suggesting you are saying otherwise… Just adding on…)

      Now, to your question. We learned that students and parents have quite a lot of involvement in school design. Teachers definitely define their shared purpose and vision for the school; students and parents influence how it evolves.

      First, teachers in most of the schools we visited opt to put students in an active learning role (versus a passive one that is about receiving and memorizing information). We visited 11 schools, and 7 of them had elected to use self-directed learning (at all grade levels). In these schools, students’ experience of school and learning has a lot to do with their individual design choices. And at the middle and high school levels, students in these schools personalize their workspaces to reflect their learning choices and personalities. There are photos in the book, but I’d be happy to tweet you one now. They look like an office space in a creative industry.

      Second, teachers who have the highest level of autonomy elected to use 360 degree, multisource evaluation methods. Students and parents are among the sources, and their insights matter especially in regard to parent communication, relationship building, and the ability to create a strong learning environment. Insights gathered are examined by a personnel team made up of teachers who are selected by all teachers. While corrective action is sometimes necessary, most of the time it is not. Individual teachers instead use their evaluations from all sources to set improvement goals. The personnel team supports and assists this process and holds teachers accountable for accomplishing these goals. Evaluation is focused on supporting continuous improvement.

      Third–and probably most exciting–is this: teachers in nearly all the schools we visited address social and discipline problems as part of student learning. All comply with zero-tolerance laws and due-process requirements. But for everything else, most autonomous teachers work with students to determine school-level disciplinary policies and consciously decide against the practice of “dictating” (their word) a lot of blanket rules with specific consequences. They give students real responsibilities to co-create and co-enforce community norms and expectations.

      For this purpose, circles are used in nine of the schools to open and close the day. Generally, circles are for team building and problem solving. They enable a group to get to know each other and develop mutual respect, trust, and concern. In these schools, circles are also a place to co-create school rules and influence school operations. Examples in the book talk show how students identified themselves that the bathrooms were not kept in good order, and solved the problem themselves. Students thought the school schedule wasn’t working out well, but through dialogue realized that student opinions about the schedule varied. So they came up with a compromise, proposed it to the teachers, and teachers adopted the schedule.

      In two of the schools we visited, student congresses exist and are a voting branch of the school government! Student’s authority is formally written into the school constitution, solidifying teachers’ commitment to take seriously students’ proposals. Via congress, students have the power to write and pass ills affecting school policies. Teachers have veto power, but they generally use it to encourage students to strengthen ideas, not to squash them entirely. At one school, students strengthened the attendance policy because they saw it as importance to improving their collective chances at college admission! In another, students negotiated a cell phone use policy that enabled them to use cell phones to coordinate their personal lives and schedules in the same way that adults in the school were doing. THEY proposed the terms of responsible use…

      Not only is this student influence on school design, but teachers report that students learn skills such as self-awareness, empathy, questioning, objectivity, analysis and synthesis, appreciation for differences, self-expression, collaboration, and compromise. They also learn that their role in creating and following community norms is an important part of maintaining free and peaceful communities. In other words, “discipline” is not something that adults do. Having a disciplined, safe, learning-focused community requires involvement from all members.

      Another short question with a long response. Can you tell I’m passionate about this topic?


      Posted by Kim Farris-Berg @farrisberg | July 5, 2012, 1:38 pm


  1. Pingback: Managing School Autonomy (Guest Post By Kim Farris-Berg) | edtechkit | - June 30, 2012

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