Defining and Organizing for School Autonomy

Many states have found a solution for how to better serve their inner-city students through portfolio districts, urban districts that prescribe to a continuous improvement model based on seven key components. Ohio is no exception to that as Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus all participate in the portfolio district network. In order to become a portfolio district, central offices must learn to give the decision making authority to school leaders.  In transitioning, however, district officials are left wondering how much power to give and who to give it to. Simply giving all schools full autonomy is a bad idea. In a short piece by Paul Hill, creator of the portfolio school district, management strategy provides advice to central offices by determining what authority schools should receive and which ones should be chosen.  Hill delineates between two types of autonomy—basic and advanced. If a school is selected to be autonomous, basic autonomies are those that are “non-negotiables.” The list of basic autonomies include control of spending, control of hiring, control of student grouping, and control of funds for professional development. Advanced autonomies are those that, according to Hill, “ensure that the school is fully in charge of itself and can be held accountable for student learning.” Among the advanced autonomies are the control of teacher pay, control of firing, and freedom to make purchases for academic support services. In developing the first pilot group for school autonomy, Hill recommends that central office staff consider schools that, more than anything, are willing to take on new freedoms. While many would assume giving high performing schools autonomy first, Hill argues that they have thrived in the current system, and if unwilling to take on the freedom, could flounder in the new role. As Ohio’s urban districts venture into the portfolio arena, it is of paramount importance to take Hill’s advice to heart.

Paul Hill, Defining and Organizing for School Autonomy (Seattle, WA: Center for Reinventing Public Education, July 2013)               

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