Empowering Principals—In the Right Ways

Picture this: A principal in a large high school wants to create a ninth grade academy—a personalized learning community focused on supporting students’ transitions to high school. It will require adjustments to the staffing model to allow for several ninth grade teaching teams, block scheduling, a double dose of English and math, and a freshman seminar. Across town, the principal of a different high school is designing a school model that uses a computer science-based curriculum with a private sector partner and a university partner, so students can work toward an associate degree in applied science and get a first crack at jobs after graduation.

These schools are in the same district, but their leaders are trying different strategies to meet students’ needs. That kind of flexibility—and empowerment—for principals is becoming an increasingly important priority for school districts.

Common sense suggests that those closest to students during the school day—teachers and principals—should make the big decisions about what will best help students succeed. But the prevailing approach in many school districts has been to use top down, one-size-fits-all management, with most decisions controlled by the central district office. This structure relieves school leaders of both the flexibility to innovate and the responsibility to deliver results for their students.

Districts’ reluctance to relinquish control is understandable. After all, the research on school autonomy is inconclusive: It suggests that autonomy for schools has a positive effect on student achievement in some circumstances, but not in others. 

But done right, empowering teachers and principals through more autonomy may be our best hope for attracting and retaining top talent in our schools. Teachers routinely suggest that a lack of autonomy in their classrooms is a big source of frustration. And as one Boston principal, who led a high school through the turnaround process and dramatically improved student achievement, noted, “Autonomy allows you to cultivate a school environment that meets the needs of the community and the individuals there.”

Decentralized decision-making for schools is not a new concept. School-based management was popular in the 1980s and ‘90s, but didn't dramatically improve educational practice or outcomes. In practice, district policies and institutional practices, coupled with state laws, were obstacles to meaningful flexibility. Ultimately, the conditions were not in place to make school and principal empowerment a central strategy for improving educational outcomes.

Today, districts are reimagining school autonomy under new circumstances including: higher academic standards, new accountability structures, and improved data systems. New York City has been experimenting with more school-level autonomy—and greater responsibility on school leaders’ shoulders—since 2009. This approach led to positive results: These schools have increased graduation rates for low-income students of color, and they’ve produced innovative practices in school design, like Generation Schools, where students have 30 percent more hours in the school year.

Lawrence, MA, where the school district was taken over by the state in 2011, is also experimenting with a range of autonomy levels, while being intentional about what schools manage and what remains within district control. Leaders reimagined the school district to allow educators to design a variety of school models, while district leadership establishes basic policies and flexible supports for all schools. In the first two years of this effort, student achievement improved and the district reports 9 and 17 percentage point increases in student growth in English and math. (Disclosure: TNTP worked with Lawrence on teacher compensation and career pathways.)

Without cutting schools loose all together, district leaders nationwide are using proven strategies like mutual consent hiring and pupil-based funding to shift responsibility and autonomy to principals. Principals can make key decisions about how they want to run their schools, but they’re also tasked with setting—and meeting—goals for their teachers and students. This accountability is a way to leverage innovative practices, not to threaten or punish leaders. A leader held accountable for having a coherent instructional vision, tailored to meet the needs of her students, will hire a team aligned to that vision, and use her authority over budget, personnel, and curriculum to sustain consistent advancement toward that vision. If a school fails to meet a measurable, consistent definition for quality, it should receive less latitude and appropriate support.

The early lessons of school-based management suggest that empowerment without the right framework—and the right accountability conditions—won’t dramatically change student outcomes. Each district must determine for itself how to deliver on the spirit of autonomy and accountability. But school by school, we’re beginning to see that an effective principal, armed with the flexibility to put their students’ needs first—can deliver strong results. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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