"Earned autonomy" comes to Washington

"Earned autonomy" is an education-reform idea whose time has come--and should come to federal policy. Increasingly, superintendents (in places like Chicago, Las Vegas, New York City, etc.) are allowing schools with a track record of improving student achievement to gain more freedom from central office control. Everybody knows that effective principals need--and make shrewd use of--authority to run their schools as they think best and that kids end up benefiting (see here). Everyone also knows that not every principal is up to that challenge. So smart school systems look for evidence of successful leadership and then enhance it.

The charter-school domain is trending in a similar direction. While charters have always been about "accountability in return for autonomy," more and more of their sponsors (including Fordham's Ohio operation) understand that autonomy is something to be granted with care. Once upon a time, some of us thought we should plant as many charter seeds as possible as quickly as possible and let a thousand school flowers bloom, the theory being that we could always close them down. Well, it turns out that closing schools is bloody hard and, as we've witnessed, many charter schools founder (or worse) because their leaders weren't prepared to make effective use of the autonomy they had been given (see here, for instance).

As a consequence, conscientious charter sponsors are more apt today to screen applicants carefully, just as venture capital firms appraise prospective business start-ups. We also reward charter schools for good performance by granting longer charters, hassling them less, and encouraging their replication. (The leash is shorter for low-performing schools.)

The appeal of this idea is obvious: It encourages desirable behavior (especially stronger pupil achievement), it recognizes that some entities are better at handling autonomy than others, it keeps more support systems in place for those that aren't ready, and it reduces risk.

Unfortunately, "earned autonomy" has very little traction at the federal level, due mainly to Washington's proclivity to treat all states (and districts) exactly alike. The architects of No Child Left Behind looked upon states with distrust, assuming that, without strong oversight, they would fail to put in place serious accountability systems--or least systems focused on the needs of poor and minority students. Thus the law's many prescriptions and mandates. By so doing, they doubtless catalyzed activity in some laggard states but they also made life more difficult for those that already had well-functioning accountability (and choice) arrangements of their own. (Dual accountability systems--state and federal--continue today in confusing and contradictory ways in far too many places.)

Why not ease the regulatory burden on states that are clearly succeeding? Probably too simple and obvious an idea for federal policy to embrace. But we persevere. Here are some ways that "earned autonomy"might be imported into NCLB:

1. Grant greater flexibility to states that sign up for rigorous national standards and tests. Washington need not (indeed should not) create these standards and tests, but could encourage their use. Volunteer states might earn freedom from federal spending restrictions. Today, Uncle Sam's dollars pour into myriad silos, categorical programs that may or may not meet the needs of individual communities. NCLB's "transferability" provision began to address this problem by allowing states or districts to shift funds from one silo to another, or into Title I. But it set a cap at 50 percent. President Bush and Congressman McKeon have recommended expanding transferability to 100 percent, allowing states or districts to send all their ESEA dollars into the Title I program and then ignore all rules and regulations for the other programs. This would cut red tape while also driving more federal dollars toward needy students.

2. Let successful states devise their own "school improvement" timelines. Sure, it's important to take action when low-performing schools repeatedly fail to improve. What's not clear is whether NCLB's rigid sequence of prescribed annual interventions (including choice and tutoring, corrective action, restructuring) is any better than those that states might devise. In our view, such actions are likelier to succeed if decided as close as possible to the problem and on timetables that make sense to those who must implement them. Moreover, ample sunlight shining down on school/district/state performance vis-à-vis clearly specified national standards will give state and local officials (and voters, taxpayers, parents, etc.) good information by which to repair their own schools.

So lawmakers should let states where achievement is rising out from under the prescribed intervention sequence. And free them to distinguish between abysmal and mediocre schools--and treat them differently.

3. Allow schools that make AYP to ignore HQT. The impulse behind NCLB's "highly qualified teachers" provision is understandable. Teacher quality matters and most states have woeful standards for incoming teachers. Still, the HQT mandate has created undesirable consequences and just about everyone knows that its obsession with paper credentials makes a poor proxy for classroom effectiveness. So reward schools for getting great results by allowing them flexibility around staffing. To continue making AYP, schools will have to make good decisions around teachers--and should be free to do this without federal red tape. (This is especially important for high-performing charter schools, which are supposed to be freed from such regulation but in fact are tangled in NCLB's subject matter requirements like everyone else.)

These ideas would begin to align federal policy with a maxim from Management 101: Treat all of your units fairly, but don't treat them all the same, because not everyone needs the same level of oversight or autonomy. If Uncle Sam wants to keep playing a leadership role in education, he should learn to treat different states (and districts and schools) differently. Some may benefit from heavy-handed federal oversight. But those that produce great results should earn their way to greater autonomy. It's a pragmatic notion that both liberals and conservatives should love.

This essay is adapted from Finn's June 7 Congressional Testimony in front of the House Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee.

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