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.
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