BOULDER, CO (October 27, 2020) – School districts around the country have launched new reform strategies that are designed to expand autonomy for public schools. Often called “Innovation Schools,” these state- and local-level plans create more autonomous schools, granting school leaders greater amounts of authority over school operations such as curriculum, budgeting, and hiring, while districts continue to manage services related to teacher payroll and benefits.
Compared to traditional district schools, these autonomous schools operate in ways similar to charter schools that function outside district systems. Important differences exist, however, because autonomous schools are organized within districts, an arrangement that can ideally improve educational quality via autonomy without abandoning structures for democratic participation. Yet this type of autonomy-based school improvement plan still has limitations, as it shifts a host of responsibilities (and often blame) for the education of children from districts to individual schools and school leaders.
NEPC released a policy brief today, Rethinking “Innovation Schools”: Strengths and Limitations of Autonomy-Based School Improvement Plans in Contexts of Widening Racial Inequality, authored by Terrenda White and Anna Noble of the University of Colorado Boulder. The authors consider two questions about these reforms. First, as systemic inequities persist in the form of deepening poverty, racism, segregation, and unequal funding in schools and in society, what supports and conditions should districts provide to ensure that school leaders and educators are empowered, rather than beleaguered, in their efforts to improve the quality of education for their students? Further, what role should districts play to ensure that decentralized management and decision-making leads to greater democratic participation and community engagement on the part of local stakeholders?
Using an equity framework informed by critical theories of race and education policy and the role of districts as institutional actors in advancing achievement and equity in public education, the brief highlights examples of state and district initiatives that rely on school-level autonomy as a primary improvement strategy, focusing on in-district models. The authors summarize the various designs of in-district autonomous schools in different states and districts, their impact on student performance and equity compared to each other and compared to non-district and traditional models, and the challenges they face in light of widening racial inequality and the need for community input and support.
Based on its analysis of these reforms, the brief provides seven recommendations for leaders of schools and their districts, designed to further autonomy and democratic participation while ensuring that the responsibility for addressing equity is shared at the district and the school levels.
Find Rethinking “Innovation Schools:” Strengths and Limitations of Autonomy-Based School Improvement Plans in Contexts of Widening Racial Inequality, by Terrenda White and Anna Noble, at: