Skip to main content

Is more autonomy better? How school actors perceive school autonomy and effectiveness in context

Abstract

Although policies aiming to increase school-based autonomy are commonplace, we know little about how school actors use autonomy to improve organizational performance in varied contexts. This paper surfaces perspectives from school leaders and teachers on the effectiveness of autonomy and describes how these perspectives vary across schools. We use contingency theory to guide our analysis of case study data from eight schools in the Denver Public Schools (DPS) district which vary in school governance, performance, and demographics. We interviewed school principals, teachers, teacher leaders and other charter and district administrators in the 2016–17 school year, totaling 53 participants. School cases consistently reported high levels of accountability pressure from the district central office to improve student test scores that, in turn, informed their mission and goal setting. Schools also reported different levels of autonomy that varied according to school governance model and consistently described these levels as optimal for achieving school goals. Several internal and external contingencies shaped these perceptions albeit in different ways depending on autonomy level. Relevant contingencies included task uncertainty in each school’s mission, teacher organizational fit, school leadership, support from intermediate entities, and procedures to coordinate decision-making across school actors or organizational sub-units.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    At the time of our study, there were only a few elementary grade-level standalone charter schools in Denver Public Schools and none agreed to participate in our study. While the research team tried to recruit schools across rankings in the School Performance Framework, we were unable to recruit a school rated in the “orange” or “accredited on priority watch” category which falls inbetween red (accredited on probation) and yellow (accredited on watch).

References

  1. Abdulkadiroğlu, A., Angrist, J. D., Dynarski, S. M., Kane, T. J., & Pathak, P. A. (2011). Accountability and flexibility in public schools: Evidence from Boston’s charters and pilots. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 126(2), 699–748.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Abdulkadiroglu, A., Angrist, J. D., Narita, Y., & Pathak, P. A. (2017). Research design meets market design: Using centralized assignment for impact evaluation. Econometrica, 85(5), 1373–1432.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Angrist, J. D., Pathak, P. A., & Walters, C. R. (2013). Explaining charter school effectiveness. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 5(4), 1–27.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Arce-Trigatti, P., Lincove, J. A., & Harris, D. N. (2016). Is there choice in school choice? Investigating product differentiation across New Orleans district and charter schools. Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

  5. Berends, M. (2015). Sociology and school choice: What we know after two decades of charter schools. Annual Review of Sociology, 41, 159–180.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Blau, P. M. (1970). A formal theory of differentiation in organizations. American Sociological Review, 201–218.

  7. Braun, A. (2017). Education policy and the intensification of teachers’ work: The changing professional culture of teaching in England and implications for social justice. In Policy and inequality in education (pp. 169–185). Springer.

  8. Bulkley, K. E., & Hashim, A. K. (2020). Portfolio management models. In J. T. Guthrie, A. Primus, & M. G. Springer (Eds.), Handbook of Research on School Choice (2nd ed.). Taylor and Francis Group.

  9. Burns, T., & Stalker, G. M. (1961). The management of innovation. Tavistock.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Caldwell, B. J. (2016). Impact of school autonomy on student achievement: Cases from Australia. International Journal of Educational Management, 30(7), 1171–1187.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Chubb, J. E., & Moe, T. M. (1990). Politics, markets and America’s schools. Brookings Institution Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Cohodes, S. (2018). Charter schools and the achievement gap. The Future of Children: Princeton-Brookings. https://futureofchildren.princeton.edu/file/1086/download?token=lSVqUhm0

  13. Dobbie, W., & Fryer, R. G. (2013). Getting beneath the veil of effective schools: Evidence from New York City. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 5(4), 28–69.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Donaldson, L. (2001). The contingency theory of organizations. Sage Publications, Inc.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  15. Dou, D., Devos, G., & Valcke, M. (2017). The relationships between school autonomy gap, principal leadership, teachers’ job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 45(6), 959–977.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Epple, D., Romano, R., & Zimmer, R. (2015). Charter schools: A survey of research on their characteristics and effectiveness ((Working Paper No. 21256); NBER Working Paper Series). http://www.nber.org/papers/w21256

  17. Eyles, A., & Machin, S. (2019). The introduction of academy schools to England. Journal of the European Economic Association, 17(4), 1107–1146. https://doi.org/10.1093/jeea/jvy021

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Finnigan, K. S. (2007). Charter school autonomy: The mismatch between theory and practice. Education Policy, 21(3), 503–526.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Fredriksson, A. (2009). On the consequences of the marketisation of public education in Sweden: For-profit charter schools and the emergence of the ‘market-oriented teacher.’ European Educational Research Journal, 8(2), 299–310. https://doi.org/10.2304/eerj.2009.8.2.299

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Fryer, R. G. (2014). Injecting charter school best practices into traditional public schools: Evidence from field experiments. The Quarterly Journal of Economics. https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qju011

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Gawlik, M. A. (2007). Breaking loose: Principal autonomy in charter and public schools. Education Policy, 22(6), 783–804.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Glazer, J. L., Massell, D., & Malone, M. (2019). Charter schools in turnaround: Competing institutional logics in the Tennessee Achievement School District. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 41(1), 5–33.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Gobby, B. (2016). Putting the system into a school autonomy reform: The case of the Independent Public Schools program. Discourse Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 37(1), 16–29.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Gobby, B., Keddie, A., & Blackmore, J. (2018). Professionalism and competing responsibilities: Moderating competitive performativity in school autonomy reform. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 50(3), 159–173.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Greany, T. (2020). Place-based governance and leadership in decentralised school systems: Evidence from England. Journal of Education Policy. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2020.1792554

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Gross, B., McCann, C., Murtagh, S., & Campbell, C. (2017). Are city schools becoming monolithic? Analyzing diversity of options in Denver. New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington.

  27. Hage, J., & Aiken, M. (1970). Social change in complex organizations (Vol. 41). Random House Trade.

  28. Hanushek, E. A., Link, S., & Woessmann, L. (2013). Does school autonomy make sense everywhere? Panel estimates from PISA. Journal of Development Economics, 104, 212–232.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Hashim, A. K., Bush-Mecenas, S. C., Strunk, K. O., & Marsh, J. A. (2021). Inside the black box of school autonomy: How diverse providers use autonomy for school improvement. Leadership and Policy in Schools.

  30. Holloway, J. (2019). Teacher evaluation as an onto-epistemic framework. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 40(2), 174–189. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2018.1514291

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Holloway, J., & Brass, J. (2018). Making accountable teachers: The terrors and pleasures of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 33(3), 361–382.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Holloway, J., & Keddie, A. (2018). Make money, get money: How two autonomous schools have commercialised their services. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 40(6), 889–901.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Honig, M. I. (2009). No small thing: School district central office bureaucracies and the implementation of new small autonomous school initiatives. American Educational Research Journal, 46(2), 387–422.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Honig, M. I., & Rainey, L. R. (2012). Autonomy and school improvement: What do we know and where do we go from here? Educational Policy, 26(3), 465–495.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Huerta, L. A. (2009). Institutional versus Technical environments: Reconciling the goals of decentralization in an evolving charter school organization. Peabody Journal of Education, 84(2), 244–261.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Huerta, L. A., & Zuckerman, A. (2009). An institutional theory analysis of charter schools: Addressing institutional challenges to scale. Peabody Journal of Education, 84(3), 414–431.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Keddie, A. (2014). “It’s like Spiderman… with great power comes great responsibility”: School autonomy, school context and the audit culture. School Leadership & Management, 34(5), 502–517.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Keddie, A. (2015). New modalities of state power: Neoliberal responsibilisation and the work of academy chains. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 19(11), 1190–1205.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Keddie, A. (2016a). Maintaining the integrity of public education: A comparative analysis of school autonomy in the United States and Australia. Comparative Education Review, 60(2), 249–270.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Keddie, A. (2016b). School autonomy as ‘the way of the future’ Issues of equity, public purpose and moral leadership. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 44(5), 713–727.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Keddie, A., & Holloway, J. (2020). School autonomy, school accountability and social justice: Stories from two Australian school principals. School Leadership & Management, 40(4), 288–302. https://doi.org/10.1080/13632434.2019.1643309

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Kulkarni, V. (2017). Contingency theory The international encyclopedia of organizational communication. Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Lawrence, P., & Lorsch, J. (1967). Organization and environment. Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Lincove JA, Bulkley KE (2020) School supports: Administration, instruction, compliance. In Authors (Ed) Challenging the One Best System: The portfolio management model and urban school governance (pp 172–208) Harvard Education Press

  45. Marsh, J. A., Albright, T. N., Brown, D., Bulkley, K. E., Strunk, K. O., & Harris, D. N. (2020). The process and politics of educational governance change in New Orleans, Los Angeles and Denver. American Educational Research Journal, 58(1), 107–159.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Marsh, J. A., Strunk, K. O., Bush-Mecenas, S. C., & Huguet, A. (2015). Democratic engagement in district reform: The evolving role of parents in the Los Angeles public school choice initiative. Educational Policy, 29(1), 51–84.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Marsh, J. A., Hashim, A. K., Daramola, E. J., & Mulfinger, L. (2020). Chapter 6: Autonomy: Flexibility in response to student needs. In K. E. Bulkley, J. A. Marsh, K. O. Strunk, D. H. Harris, & A. K. Hashim (Eds.), Challenging the one best system: The portfolio management model and urban school governance (pp. 121–148). Harvard Education Press.

    Google Scholar 

  48. McEachin, A. J., Welsh, R. O., & Brewer, D. J. (2016). The variation in student achievement and behavior within a portfolio management model: Early results from New Orleans. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373716659928

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. McEwan, P. J., & Carnoy, M. (2000). The effectiveness and efficiency of private schools in Chile’s voucher system. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 22(3), 213–229.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. Jossey-Bass Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Meyer, A. P., Donaldson, M. L., LeChasseur, K., Welton, A. D., & Cobb, C. D. (2013). Negotiating site-based management and expanded teacher decision-making: A case study of six urban schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 49(5), 695–731.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldana, J. (2013). Qualitative data analysis for applied policy research: A methods sourcebook. SAGE Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Morgan, G. (2006). Unfolding logics of change: Organization as flux and transformation Images of Organization. Sage Publications Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Oberfield, Z. W. (2016). A bargain half fulfilled: Teacher autonomy and accountability in traditional public schools and public charter schools. American Educational Research Journal, 53(2), 296–323.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. OECD. (2011). School autonomy and accountability: Are they related to student performance? Author. https://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/pisainfocus/48910490.pdf

  56. Preston, C., Goldring, E. B., Berends, M., & Cannata, M. (2012). School innovation in district context: Comparing traditional public schools and charter schools. Economics of Education Review, 31(2), 318–330.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Roch, C. H., & Sai, N. (2015). Nonprofit, for-profit, or stand-alone> How management organizations influence the working conditions in charter schools. Social Science Quarterly, 96(5), 1380–1395.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Roch, C. H., & Sai, N. (2017). Charter school teacher job satisfaction. Educational Policy, 31(7), 951–991.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Shanker, A. (1996). Our profession, our schools: The case for fundamental reform. American Educator: THe Professional Journal of the American Federation of Teachers, 10(3), 44–45.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Skerritt, C. (2019). “I think Irish schools need to keep doing what they’re doing”: Irish teachers’ views on school autonomy after working in English academies. Improving Schools, 22(3), 267–287.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Skerritt, C. (2020). School autonomy and the surveillance of teachers. International Journal of Leadership in Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603124.2020.1823486

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Stake, R. E. (2005). Multiple case study analysis. Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Steinberg, M. P. (2014). Does greater autonomy improve school performance? Evidence from a regression discontinuity analysis in Chicago. Education and Finance Policy, 1–35.

  64. Steinberg, M. P., & Cox, A. B. (2016). School autonomy and district support: How principals respond to a tiered autonomy initiative in Philadelphia Public Schools. Leadership and Policy in Schools. https://doi.org/10.1080/15700763.2016.1197278

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Stuit, D. A., & Smith, T. M. (2012). Explaining the gap in charter and traditional public school teacher turnover rates. Economics of Education Review, 31, 268–279.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Torres, A. C., & Weiner, J. (2018). The new professionalism? Charter teachers’ experiences and qualities of the teaching profession. Education policy analysis archives, 26, 19.

  67. Torres, A. C., Bulkley, K. E., & McCotter, S. (2019). Learning to lead in externally managed and standalone charter schools: How principals perceive their preparation and support. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 22(3), 261–279.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. Torres, A. C., Bulkley, K. E., & Kim, T. (2020). Shared leadership for learning in Denver’s portfolio management model. Educational Administration Quarterly, 1–37.

  69. Weiner, J. M., & Woulfin, S. L. (2017). Controlled autonomy: Novice principals’ schema for district control and school autonomy. Journal of Educational Administration, 55(3), 334–350.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Wöbmann, L., Lüdemann, E., Schütz, G., & West, M. R. (2008). School accountability, autonomy, choice, and the level of student achievement: International evidence from PISA 2003 (Working Paper Education Working Papers No. 13). Organization of Economic Development and Co-operation. https://dx.doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1787/246402531617

  71. Wohlstetter, P., Wenning, R., & Briggs, K. L. (1995). Charter schools in the United States: The question of autonomy. Educational Policy, 9(4), 331–358.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Zimmer, R., Henry, G. T., & Kho, A. (2017). The effects of school turnaround in Tennessee’s Achievement School District and Innovation Zones. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 39(4), 670–696.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We are grateful for funding from the Lyle Spencer Foundation and for our research partnership with Denver Public Schools in studying the implementation and outcomes of their portfolio management model district. We would like to thank Drs. Katrina Bulkley and Julie A. Marsh for their input on this manuscript. All errors are our own.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Ayesha K. Hashim or Chris Torres.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Appendix

Appendix

See Table

Table 3 Sample of interview questions and codes aligned to research questions

3

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hashim, A.K., Torres, C. & Kumar, J.M. Is more autonomy better? How school actors perceive school autonomy and effectiveness in context. J Educ Change (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10833-021-09439-x

Download citation

Keywords

  • Educational governance
  • Contingency theory
  • School autonomy