School Autonomy Isn’t The Cure-All You Might Think It Is

Cross-posted at Education Week.

After my last blog on charter school management companies was posted, I got a note from an old friend.  Referring to the section of my blog in which I said that NCEE’s research method is to look for common principles that underlie the structures of the top-performing education systems that distinguish them from less successful systems, he asked whether it might make more sense to simply identify the principles that underlie those systems, rather than assume that it is the structure of the system that accounts for their success.

He uses the case of Finland to make his point.  Finland is a top performer.  But, he says, it has a very different system than the U.S.  What he means is that we have a system in which the state is very weak and the district level of governance is uniquely strong.  It is obvious to him that our system of “local control” will never change.  He sees Finland as having weak central control, just like the U.S. So we need, he thinks, to figure out how to get the kind of autonomy that Finnish teachers have (that, in his mind, is the “principle”) and the obvious answer is to weaken district control, thus giving school faculties more control.  In this formulation, the core issue is teacher autonomy, which is equated with teacher professionalism and the way to get it is to push authority down from the upper levels of the system of governance to the school.

My reply follows.

From my perspective, this picture is half right.  It is true that most top-performing countries do not have district-level offices anywhere near as large as those typically found in our suburban and city school districts.  The schools either report to small offices in units of government comparable to our mayor’s offices or county executive offices, or, much more often, to regional offices of their ministries of education.

If we stop the description there, then the picture that emerges would be the one presented: local schools with much more autonomy than schools have in the United States.  But if we widen the lens, the picture is very different.

Many of the top-performing countries have what I think of as a unitary system.  The teachers report to principals who report to managers of clusters of schools who report to regional offices that report to the top officials in the Ministry.  It is all one organization, the highest salaried officer of which is the top civil servant in the Ministry.  Most of the decisions that in our system are made at the district level by the superintendents, unions and school boards are made at what would be the state level by the Ministry civil servants.

In your description, the authority that in our system resides in the district offices goes to the schools in the top performers.  But that is not true.  That authority is actually split between the schools and the state in most of the top-performing countries.  That split is not haphazard. The authority that goes to the state in the top performers produces much more equity in school finance, much higher standards for getting into teacher education institutions, much more equity in the distribution of excellent teachers, a much stronger curriculum, more consistency in curriculum, much higher expectations for poor and minority students, and more.

The result may seem paradoxical to citizens of the United States.  There is both much more power at what we would think of as the state level but, at the same time, much more autonomy with respect not to policy but with respect to practice at the school level than we find here.  We tell ourselves that we have local control.  But the reality is that there is much more control at the district level in the United States and much less control at the school level.  That is the principal reason that there is more scope for teachers’ professional judgment in the top-performing countries and less in the United States.  And that in turn is one reason that it is easier to attract higher performing high school graduates into teaching in the top-performing countries than in the United States.

This division of authority in the top-performing countries makes it possible for the ministry (think of our state departments of education) to attract much more capable educators; policies are more effective, fairer and more consistent than in the United States and schools have more autonomy when it comes to the way those policies are translated into practice than in the United States.

The picture I have just painted is one in which, in the top-performing countries, teachers are treated like high status professionals.  They are not told what materials to use, what teaching methods to use, what ‘proven programs’ they are required to adopt, as they often are in the United States.

One state department of education I know of that not so long ago employed 2,000 people now employs—if you strip out the people who are there to administer federal programs—about a dozen professionals.   While the numbers are different from state to state, this picture is not at all unusual.  Legislatures all over the United States have eviscerated the capacity of the state departments of education to run effective education systems.  They were weak to begin with and are much weaker now.  You would like to do the same thing to the capacity of the school districts.  That will leave the schools to run themselves.  I know of no country with a first-rate education system that does it that way.

You pointed to Finland.  It is impossible to understand how Finland rose to the top of Europe’s performance curve without taking into account the decision by the Finnish government some years ago to shut down all their teacher education programs—there were close to 40 of them—and establish eight new ones exclusively in their research universities.  The idea that Finland reached the top simply by trusting its teachers and providing its schools an extreme form of autonomy is a myth.  Would that it were that simple.

In my view, the issue is not autonomy for teachers and schools.  The issue is how to distribute authority among the schools, the center and points in between that creates the mix of incentives and supports that is most likely to lead to the highest possible student achievement with the most equity. My sense is that the countries with the most effective systems have done a much better job of figuring that out than any of our states have.

One more point needs to be made here.  I am constantly told that this or that feature of the structure of the American education system—from local control to letting almost any four-year college run a teacher education program and set their own admission standards—will never change.  The implication is that no proposal for changing our system will ever be implemented if it fails to abide by these constraints.

One of the distinguishing features of the top-performing systems—from Finland to Singapore—is the ability of the governments in those places to upend their sacred cows when they need to upend them to improve system performance. Americans think that the performance of Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and South Korea is explained by their common Confucian heritage and the great value placed by the Confucian culture on education.  But many people who live in those places see the devotion to exams and the authority vested in elders irrespective of merit that are characteristic of countries with Confucian cultures as holding them back.  Many analysts think that what appears to be a strong commitment to education in the Confucian countries is actually a devotion to doing well on examinations and they think this commitment militates against the kind of creativity, spontaneity and out-of-the-box thinking that is now needed.  A strong case can be made that the top-performing Asian countries are doing as well as they are doing not because they have an immutable set of Confucian values but because they are prepared to preserve what they most value in the culture and ditch what is no longer useful.

I have already cited the decision of the Finns years ago to completely upend their system for preparing teachers as an example of the same kind of readiness to junk sacred cows in the country.

Plants and animals that fail to adapt to changes in their environment die out and those that adapt do not.  Social systems face the same imperatives.  The evidence that our education systems are no longer very well adapted to the world in which we now live is overwhelming.  We hang on resolutely to our sacred cows at our peril.