Another Study Shows that School Autonomy Does Not Increase Student Achievement

Yet, another study of school autonomy has cast doubt on its effectiveness in raising student achievement. It also suggests schools may use greater autonomy to target resources to particular students at the expense of others.

An evaluation of a school autonomy program in Chicago found that it had no impact on average student results in reading and mathematics. It also found that schools targeted resources at students in the middle of the achievement range at the expense of low and high achieving students to increase proficiency rates.

In the 2005–06, the Chicago Public Schools system initiated the Autonomous Management and Performance Schools (AMPS) program. Principals in schools selected for the program were given increased decision-making authority in four areas: budget; curriculum, instruction, and assessment; calendar and schedule; and professional development. Principals had the option to choose any of ten specific forms of autonomy across these areas.

The most frequently chosen form of autonomy was the ability to transfer money across line items without having to require approval from the local area office. Over 80 per cent of AMPS schools chose this option. Clearly, principals saw budgetary control as the most critical component in the provision of autonomy over school operations.

Three-quarters of the schools opted to design their own school attendance plan and school improvement plan instead of following district plans and oversight, while 70 per cent of schools also chose greater flexibility in after-school programs. About two-thirds of schools chose to opt out of district curriculum initiatives and to use more innovative and non-traditional programs.

About 15 per cent of Chicago’s public schools were selected for the program. Those selected were quite different from those not selected. The AMPS schools enrolled fewer students from economically disadvantaged circumstances – 61 per cent of AMPS students received free or reduced-price lunch, compared with 83 per cent in non-AMPS schools. AMPS schools also served a smaller share of minority students – 68 per cent of students in AMPS schools were African American or Hispanic, compared with 90 per cent of students in non-AMPS schools.

The study found that there was no statistically significant difference in the average student results in reading and mathematics between the AMPS schools and non-AMPS schools after two years. However, the autonomous schools had higher reading proficiency rates after two years of autonomy, although there was no significant impact on proficiency rates in mathematics.

The study suggests that the different impact on average test scores and proficiency rates was due to schools using their autonomy to target improvements in proficiency rates because this measure was used in decisions about applying sanctions to under-performing schools under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. It said that it was likely that schools tended to focus on improving their proficiency rate by allocating resources to students at the margin of proficiency thresholds at the expense of very high- and very low-achieving students.

… it is clear that autonomous schools may have used their autonomy for more targeted instruction, or perhaps even allocated resources to enhance the potential that students at the margin of proficiency would meet achievement standards. [p.29]

The study warned that the success of education programs such as greater school autonomy should not be measured by changes in proficiency rates alone as they can mask adverse effects. Using proficiency rates to measure achievement effects creates incentives for schools to target resources at students on the threshold of proficiency to the detriment of low and high achieving students.

Trevor Cobbold

Matthew Steinberg, Does Greater Autonomy Improve School Performance? Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity Analysis in Chicago, Education Finance and Policy, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1-35.

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