Autonomy to what end?

By Dr. Susan F. Lusi

Is school autonomy a necessary precondition to school improvement, or something that should be earned by virtue of a school meeting some type of performance threshold?  When I was superintendent of schools serving a low-performing district, I didn’t find this either/or dichotomy very helpful.  I thought of autonomy as a helpful condition for improving schools only if there was the capacity within the school leadership and staff to use that autonomy well.  Giving a school with poor leadership, a divided faculty, and/or no vision or plan for improvement autonomy seemed ill-advised at best and educational malpractice at worst.

Autonomy, by itself, does not equip people with the will, skills, and abilities they need to dramatically improve their schools.  Nor does it ensure that these people will develop a vision and thoughtful plan for progress and the trust and cohesion needed to implement it.  Conversely, forcing autonomy to be “earned” can maintain barriers that low performing schools cannot overcome.  District and contractual rules can prevent schools from hiring the people needed to work effectively with students, for example, or from deploying them in flexible ways over the course of the year based on student needs.  Sometimes district or state improvement efforts themselves create barriers.  Low performing schools need to execute on a few high leverage improvement strategies.  They do not have the capacity to juggle, much less execute well, multiple and often incoherent reform initiatives.  Low performing schools need the autonomy and flexibility to focus on a few important things.

This is why MIE’s new theory of action talks about conditions:  sufficient school-level control over people, time, money, and program to address the root causes of low performance.  Autonomy can be a means, but it is not the end, and it is only a means if the surrounding context allows for it to be well-used.

Autonomy isn’t magic fairy dust, but it can be an important catalyst for school improvement.  Magic fairy dust, as we know from childhood tales, can fix everything regardless of the original presenting conditions, whereas a catalyst causes or accelerates activity among conditions that are already present.  We need to work to ensure that the conditions needed for improvement are present, before automatically assuming that autonomy will help.

I invite you to join us for a panel discussion on School Autonomy: To What End? Wednesday, December 6 at 7:45 am at State Street Financial Center, 1 Lincoln Street, Boston, MA.  For registration information, click hereThe discussion will also be live streamed on MIE’s Facebook page at