No Compelling Research Evidence For School Autonomy

School autonomy is yet another of Julia Gillard’s education initiatives to be found wanting for a sound research base. A recent review of research studies has found there is no compelling evidence to support giving autonomy for principals in hiring and firing teachers and for financial management of schools.

The Federal Government’s plan is turn government and systemic private schools into autonomous schools by giving school principals the power to hire teachers and control their own school budgets. It wants autonomous schools to be the norm across Australia by 2018 and proposes to start with a roll-out of 1000 schools in 2012 and 2013. It will cost about $500 million to implement.

The case for greater school autonomy is that shifting power and responsibility for performance to schools will raise student achievement. According to the Prime Minister, devolving power to principals will increase flexibility and innovation in schools and drive better student outcomes.

A review of the research evidence on these claims was recently published in the Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy. Its conclusions are a devastating rebuttal of the Prime Minister’s claims.

Placing schools at the centre of the policy frame, freeing them from bureaucracy and exhorting them to do better has not by itself generated many of the systemic improvements, innovation, or productivity gains that policy makers hoped for. [p.410]

Two decades of experience and research provide compelling evidence that simply setting schools free and holding them accountable for results is not in itself sufficient to conjure the attributes of effectiveness into being. Detaching schools from the bureaucratic structures within which they are embedded may enable the most privileged or resourceful schools to strike out in new and positive directions, but the rewards of enhanced autonomy for less advantaged schools are uncertain at best. [pp. 414-415]

The review found that the outcomes from school autonomy are “mixed”, “generally small”, “not greatly encouraging” and “have disappointed”. It states:

A considerable body of empirical work has developed on school-site management (SSM) and budgeting that examines whether these initiatives produce the effects and outcomes promised by theory. A line of studies conducted across many countries and contexts offers remarkably similar conclusions. Overall, the record suggests that outcomes range from the insignificant to the modestly positive. [p. 407]

When supported with fiscal and other resources, SSM reforms have been found to encourage a stronger sense of efficacy and enhanced teacher influence and engagement. Some studies also suggest improved relations between schools, parents and their communities.

However, successful implementation and positive outcomes from SSM are most often observed in more advantaged schools with an already established tradition of informal participatory governance. Many studies have emphasised the benefits of collaboration and professional community in schools which can be fostered without any changes in school governance.

Even in conditions where SSM has been found to operate reasonably well, few studies have identified linkages between increased autonomy and changes in teaching. Studies conducted in Canada, Australia and the UK suggest improvements in planning and communication linked to SSM can shape conditions that influence classroom practice, but they find little direct impact on teaching behaviours or student outcomes.

Research on effective schools demonstrates that many sources of variation in school performance are located within schools. Schools with talented principals, committed and effective teachers, deep parental engagement, and a culture of high expectations can often beat the odds and ensure success for even the least advantaged students.

However, these schools tend to be outliers. The fact that these attributes exist in some schools does not mean that they can be easily cultivated in other schools, especially those serving disadvantaged communities. Being effective is very different from becoming effective.

The reality is that school improvement requires resources that go beyond those of individual schools.

…. the research record continues to show that school improvement is a Sisyphusian struggle against shortages of money, time, knowledge, and imagination plus, more recently, staff and leader turnover and external policy shifts that deflate and reverse commitment and progress.
For many this catalogue of stubborn challenges has effectively laid to rest the notion that schools can innovate or improve themselves if left to their own devices. This seems especially true when considering schools serving poor and minority communities. [pp. 410-411]

The capacity of schools to change is limited by the absence of spare resources within schools that can be used to make a significant difference. In schools overwhelmed by challenges developing new capacities is doubly, or more, difficult.

Devolving greater powers over the management of existing resources does not significantly change the quantum of resources available in schools. At best, some greater efficiencies and some better mix of skills may be achieved, but these have strictly limited effects on overall student achievement, as the research shows.

As a result, recent research has turned to more comprehensive school improvement efforts guided by external partners using specifically designed programs locally tailored for teacher learning, program implementation and progress assessment. The study says that these more comprehensive approaches, while not successful in every case, have produced compelling cases and more detailed proposals on how to advance school level capacity for effective teaching and learning.

The review study found that there is a clear need for institutional support for schools. Significant improvement in school and student performance requires external support with targeted resources and educational support services that are beyond the reach of individual schools. This is especially the case in providing support for schools serving disadvantaged communities. Only the central office operates on a scale that allows technical assistance and capacity building in schools.

The study notes that some recent scholarly research in the United States has focused on how school district administrations might function as assets in school improvement rather than liabilities. Some studies have shown how school district administration can drive improved organisational performance through vision creation, the alignment of resources to goals, stronger instructional support systems and strategic human resource development.

However, the challenge for central office administration in this regard is to shift from a focus on compliance to a focus on outcomes and support. The study says that turning around central office administration “may equal or exceed the challenge of turning around individual schools” [p.415]. As a result, governments may also need to look to other institutions such as universities, education organisations and school improvement networks to support improvement in individual schools.

…the State must cultivate and support a variety of intermediary institutions to provide technical and other assistance to schools, particularly those schools where performance consistently falls short of expectations. [p. 416]

The clear implication of this review of research studies is that school autonomy over staffing and budgets is not the answer to school improvement, especially for schools serving low income communities. Indeed, one-line budgets and full control over staffing decisions can disadvantage such schools in recruiting and retaining high quality teachers.

However, some measure of school autonomy within a framework of system policies, support services and funding is needed to provide schools with the flexibility to adjust to local needs and expectations. Flexibility is needed to adapt the curriculum to the learning needs of different students. Teachers should be involved in the development of school policies and programs to best meet the needs of their students. School autonomy is also needed to provide opportunities to involve parents in the development of school policies.

A working party of the council of education ministers is to be established to consult on the Government’s proposals. It should have regard to absence of any compelling evidence to support the Government’s policy for one-line school budgets and principal control over staffing. It should look at how to best balance school autonomy with system requirements so as to better meet the needs of all students and to increase involvement in decision-making by teachers and parents at both the school and system levels.

Trevor Cobbold

David N. Plank & BetsAnn Smith, Autonomous Schools: Theory, Evidence and Policy. In Helen F. Ladd & Edward B. Fiske (eds) Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy, Routledge, New York, 2008, pp. 402-424.

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