4.1 Establish and Define School Autonomy Provisions 


+ School autonomy acknowledges school leaders as the primary driver of school quality based on the assumption that an empowered leader is the best positioned agent to make decisions about how to serve their students.

Proponents of the SGS strategy identify schools as the “unit of change.” This means that schools should be where most of the decision-making power is located because, on a daily basis, the actions taken by school staff affect students the most. The SGS strategy holds that as much authority as possible should be “pushed down” to the school level so that individual school leaders can develop, adapt, and react to the specific needs of their school community.

School autonomy can be enacted through a specific set of policies designed to give the school leader the authority to make key decisions for their school.

Districts implementing school autonomy provisions generally adopt some or all of the below four basic policies to push authority to school leaders. The specific types of autonomies granted, and who they are granted to, will naturally differ from district to district. Consider the below a high-level set of potential freedoms that you can consider offering to school leaders.

People: Principals have full and final decision making power regarding hiring and firing of staff. Ineffective teachers are no longer force placed into schools and may be dismissed through a process based on effectiveness, not seniority.

Time: Principals are given authority to redesign school schedules to include additional learning time for students and to allow for greater collaboration and professional development for teachers.

Money: Schools control their own budgets for salary, operations, curriculum, assessment, and professional development.

Program: Schools control what curriculum they use and have funds dedicated in the budget to pay for curriculum and program offerings.

Districts implement autonomy provisions in a number of ways, but it is important to keep in mind that school autonomy does not mean “absolute freedom” or “no accountability.” The central office must always hold school leaders accountable for results.

+ Accountability and autonomy go hand-in-hand in SGS districts. These districts have implemented this exchange of autonomy and accountability in a variety of ways.

Earned Autonomy: The district identifies criteria for gaining autonomy in critical areas and requires school leaders to meet these criteria before granting authority. For example, a school leader may be required to achieve a high-rating on her evaluation in the area of finance before being granted increased control over her budget.

Full Autonomy with Expectations: A district may also choose to grant full autonomy to all school leaders, with the expectation that certain performance benchmarks must be met to retain authority. A leader may be granted initial autonomy in hiring, but if he starts the school year with a number of vacancies that exceeds a pre-determined benchmark, that autonomy will be revoked. This option should be approached with caution given the potential for variant outcomes, some principals may perform well with increased autonomy while others may struggle.

Specific Programmatic Autonomies: A district may adopt a request for proposals process, asking school leaders to request specific autonomies and outline a plan justifying why these autonomies are needed to achieve a specific set of outcomes.

School autonomy can take many forms, but in every case, it is imperative that the central office has a plan for holding leaders accountable to ensure that all students are receiving the services they need. Many districts outline accountability through “performance contracts” with individual schools. These contracts outline the autonomies given and the expected outcomes, and provide specific criteria for how and when the district will intervene if outcomes are not met. See the Resource Exchange for some examples of performance contracts.