Successful School Leadership: A Conversation with an “America’s Best High Schools” Principal – Part 4 of 4

We conclude our Successful School Leadership series with a look at autonomy versus centralization. Just how much freedom should a school have? Take a look at our other posts on successful school leadership and let us know what you think:

Part 1: Leadership within a school

Part 2: School leadership as it relates to educating diverse groups of students

Part 3: The accountability of educational leaders


Autonomy vs. Centralization

A report written in 2011 by Erin Dillon, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, studies the correlation between the success of a school and its autonomous capacity. The report suggests that as a whole, successful schools tend to be more autonomous in school management, staffing, and instruction. Greater autonomy can free educators to try new approaches with instruction, staffing, and schedules so they can respond quickly and more effectively to student needs. With expanded autonomy, districts let the schools themselves—the principals and the teachers—make big decisions like how to spend the budget, what curriculum to use, and how to hire and train teachers. As the theory goes, those who know students best are best able to direct resources and take actions on students’ behalf.

The surge in charter schools and other autonomous school reforms points to the theory that granting schools more flexibility can yield more innovation in school management, staffing, and instruction and thereby lead to greater performance levels by students. Not all schools, however, have the capacity to render the resources and effort required by autonomy with actions that improve student learning. Often times, schools don’t have the proper leadership, staff, or vision to make good independent decisions. Union contracts, legal constraints, and financial realities can also limit autonomy, preventing schools from making substantial changes.

So the key question is this: Just how much freedom do you give a school? There are several ways to approach school autonomy (success-based, site-based, partnership schools, collaborative, etc.), so how do you reach a point where individual, autonomous schools are capable of making decisions to improve student performance and where the district can give them the support they need to do so? And is autonomy in school reform really the answer?

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based on interviews with the leaders of five highly successful charters, identified seven “autonomies” essential to success: freedom to develop a great team, freedom to manage teachers as professionals (including giving them merit-based raises), freedom to change curriculum and classroom structure, autonomy over scheduling, financial freedom, freedom of school boards to focus on education instead of politics, and freedom to define a school culture.

But the struggle to make autonomy work must be approached with caution. There must be a balance between autonomy and centralization. It is proven that when those closest to the children are capable of making decisions, student performance improves, as is the case in many charter-based schools. However, there are proven cases whereby increasing centralization and reducing autonomy has led to improvement as well.


In studying winners of the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education, a $1 million award given annually to an urban district demonstrating high student achievement and progress in closing racial and economic achievement gaps, most of the public school district recipients showed significant gains in test scores, particularly among low-income and minority groups, and significantly narrowed the achievement gaps between these groups and white and/or higher-income groups, respectively.

But these improvements did not come from granting schools more autonomy. On the contrary, the districts sought to standardize practices across the district and increase central office control, building a stronger accountability system and focusing on strengthening and energizing its personnel and leaders.

Does the success of these Broad-prize winning districts mean that centralization, rather than autonomy, is the most effective strategy for school reform? Yes and no. Although centralization took place across a district, the common factor among these schools was that each allowed programs, intervention plans, and capacity-building initiatives to be implemented to meet the needs of individual schools.


Steve McLaughlin, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Orange County, California, agrees with the notion that it takes a healthy balance of autonomy and centralization for a school to be successful.

As a district that serves schools at varying ends of the socio-economical scale, Newport-Mesa has made great strides over the last few years in striking a delicate balance between autonomy and centralization. Their increase in statewide test results and overall academic performance is proof that their approach and philosophy of “All kids are successful” is working.

In order to narrow the disparity between schools in lower socioeconomic communities and those in more affluent ones, Newport Mesa has had to maintain a clear organizational vision while providing the appropriate support to individual schools so that they may better serve their communities.

“It’s important for schools to understand the needs of their communities,” explains McLaughlin. “Schools are a resource to the community, and the more welcoming, approachable, and accessible they are, the better they instill the ‘we are here to serve you’ mentality.”

But this type of support and communication has to begin with the district. This service-oriented model must come from the central office and continue to be instilled into each site in a way that is meaningful and achievable. “Because our sites present varying backgrounds, it’s essential for them to have the ability to create local programs. A district must offer guidance, support, service, and accountability and then work with individual schools to personalize the framework,” says McLaughlin. “It’s imperative for districts to use data to cultivate conversations around school needs and then work with the staff to develop programs that help target identified areas.”


Autonomy is a mantra among highly successful schools, and few leaders of the most successful charter schools and district schools would say that they could have achieved highly effective results under typical district rules and regulations, but autonomy is NOT the shoe that fits every school.

Leadership at any level takes time, but the one thing that effective leadership cannot stand without is trust. Trust trumps everything. And everything flows from trust — learning, credibility, accountability, a sense of purpose, and a mission that makes “education” bigger than oneself.


Do you have good leadership at your school or district? What practices implemented by school leaders have had the greatest impact on your school, staff, and students? What leadership practices should be changed? Please share your comments below.

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