School Autonomy – It’s a System Thing!

“Letting a thousand flowers bloom does not guarantee a garden full of flowers”  Diane Ravitch.

I started my teaching career in 1974 in the heady days of the new ACT Schools Authority. During my Dip Ed year I became part of a group of parents, community members, teachers, and teacher trainees, that developed a successful community based campaign to set up a School-without-walls (SWOW) in the ACT designed for those students who did not thrive in the dominant school model.  In making our case we quoted the Hughes Report, A design for the governance and organisation of education in the Australian Capital Territory: Report of the Assessment Panel on the A.C.T. Education Authority, because this report said that the new ACT system should lead to genuine diversity of education offerings driven by the goal to cater for all students without exception.

SWOW had its successes and disappointments.  In the early years there were many students who attended SWOW and thrived – it catered for them exceptionally well.  But it also became a convenient solution for principals struggling to deal with difficult, disruptive and disengaged students.  It ended up with a bifurcated population of students who needed very different things.  Eventually the needs of the system to place difficult students won out over the vision of the teachers and the other students.  Eventually SWOW was absorbed back into the mainstream system.

I tell this story for two reasons.  Firstly to say that not all school based autonomy initiatives are the same. The vision of the ACT school authority was informed by tremendous optimism about what could be achieved in a small system through high expectations on teachers and genuine school community partnerships. It was a bottom-up empowerment movement with a focus on school based curriculum development and student assessment, school community partnership and openness to innovation in order to cater effectively for all comers, without exception

The Federal Government’s “Empowering local schools Initiative  (ELSI) may use some of the words of this earlier optimistic model but it is a very different animal.  It is being imposed on states through financial bribery no state can afford to pass up. It also includes autonomy in matters of school staffing – a path the ACT considered but did not take.  Moreover, the climate is not one of hope and optimism about what schools could achieve if given opportunities for new ways of working.

Secondly, the SWOW story shows that many well-intentioned initiatives can be blind to some of the unintended consequences of a decision.  In our enthusiasm about the idea of SWOW, we failed to consider how it would work and operate as part of a system of schools.

This tendency to think of schools as individual entities serving consumers has intensified since 1973.  It is now the taken for granted framework through which school policy is considered.  The dominant school reform movement in the US, UK and Australia assumes that schools are isolated, stand alone units and teachers isolated stand alone entities within them.  They – individual schools and individual teachers – have sole responsibility to improve learning outcomes through the school management decisions.

Under this model the role of government, is to adjust the drivers of improvement – through accountability frameworks and metrics, incentives set at school and teacher levels, and resourcing policies – human and otherwise.  Thus we have MySchool with its assumptions that accountability resides entirely with individual schools.

But of course, schools are not isolated units.  They are profoundly influenced, not just by the resourcing and support they receive systemically, and not just by the school community that they serve, but also by the operations of other schools around them.

The Gonski Report has underscored this final point. It documents how the choice polices of the last 15 years have radically altered the demographic character of Government schools and how this works to their detriment.

In this paper I argue that the Commonwealth’s ELSI has been packaged as being all about individual schools.  Indeed the concept of school autonomy as a key plank of school improvement and the arguments for it are based on assumptions that only makes sense in this light.

I also argue that the only responsible way to look at our education policies and practice is through a lens that sees education as a system – as an interconnected collection of parts and pieces that function well, only if each of the parts and pieces work in such a way that its operation supports the positive functioning of all the other parts and pieces[1].  When the school autonomy concept is examined from a system perspective the issues and problems because very clear.

Autonomy – its foundational assumptions

1.  The ELSI treats all schools as though they are isolated and hermetically sealed units – identikit isolated units at that. 

A major component of the funding for this program will go directly to the participating school – an amount of between $40- 50,000 for each and every school to use to prepare themselves for school autonomy.

It is hard to imagine what a high SES independent school will to do with $50,000 that has any relevance to school autonomy.  They already hire and fire their own staff, manage their own very significant capital works program and decide how their teacher profile and subject offering can best be aligned with the desires of their school community.  And speaking of school community, they can already choose who will be part of their school community and how big they will grow – both things that are, and will remain, out of scope for most Government schools.

The idea that each systemic Catholic and Government school will require $40-50,000 sounds less wasteful but when we look at how schools in the trials of school autonomy decided to use their funds, it too starts to look odd.  Trawling through the news reports looking for good news stories about the NSW and ACT school autonomy trials I found that these were the sorts of things that principals claimed they were able to do through school autonomy

–        employ an additional year 3 teacher

–        implement a speech pathology screening

–        introduce a boys mentoring program

–        develop a professional learning partnership program for new teachers

–        changing school start times

–         installing solar panels

–        set up a partnership with a local university

–        employ an attendance coordinator

This list is depressing. To undertake these activities the only things schools should require is additional needs based and flexible funding.

And of course what can be bought in a metro area would cost at least twice as much in a remote community.  Even the cleaning contract would cost twice as much, let alone any initiatives that might result in more teachers, for this will require the building of a house. The fact that there was no consideration of the differential costs of services in remote and non-remote contexts suggests that this money has not been seen as critical or essential and is not really part of the main game.

I am left wondering if this funding is “a spoonful of sugar”.

If this money was really to be used to support moving from a centralized system to a devolved one, it would have been attached to the things that most needed to change to support a devolved system – teacher recruitment and placement systems, better data about teachers, negotiations to better align teacher pay and career structures with teaching standards, improved teacher and principal performance management and development systems and so on.   It would not have been indiscriminately, and thinly spread, across all schools commencing the scheme regardless of circumstances

2. ELSI assumes the individual school experience and the systemic experience are the same – with a staged implementation starting with a small number of sites and building to all schools by 2018. 

The assumption behind a trial is that if it works on a few locations then it will be scalable to all schools, as long as context factors are considered.

According to Ann Dreyfus[2] there are a number of serious concerns emerging about the implementation of the Independent Public Schools (IPS) model in Western Australia. Many of these relate to the impact on the non-participating schools.  This is an impact that will increase as the program is ramped up. She reports that the problems are not just because IPS schools can refuse teachers and transfer teachers out who then need to be placed elsewhere. It appears to be more insidious that that because with such a high profile ‘ pilot’ there is strong pressure to ‘ make it work’ and this has meant cherry picking out the highest performing teachers across the board so that it can be seen that IPS produce better student learning.

If I was a principal I would do whatever it takes to be included in the empowering local schools initiative early in the piece, even if I hated the idea, because as more and more schools are freed up to hire and ‘fire’ (really to move on) the backwash of this is going to have a pretty unpleasant impact on the non autonomous schools

During the NSW preliminary pilot stage when there were only 47 schools involved in the trial, the impact of their decisions on the rest of the state would not have been noticeable.  But there would still have been an impact.  The NSW public school profiled on the ABC 4 Corners program  (Revolution in the Classroom) claimed that they used this trial to change their entire senior team.

Yet principals in government schools are not CEOs – they are not employers.  The language that is used might fool us into thinking otherwise.  These senior members of the faculty were not fired, they were moved on but are still system employees.  So where did they go? What was the impact on them as professionals? What is the impact on the schools where they ended up?  I hope that these questions are in scope for the trial evaluation.

3. ELSI sets up a model where schools are no longer part of a collaborative system or region but for all intent in competition with one another

 The message of school autonomy to principals is “we have now taken all of that bureaucratic burden off you.  There are no more excuses.  If you can’t make your school deliver the goods its all on your head.”

 This can only decrease collaboration, except on non-strategic matters such as sharing a cleaning contract and can only increase competition.  And this competition is on an uneven playing field.  As Chris Bonnor[3] rightly warns

 The bigger danger is that we risk losing many equity safeguards. If every school chooses its own teachers, the best will gravitate to those with the more valued location, easier-to-teach students and money…

 Unless closely monitored, many autonomous public schools will also gain greater control over enrolments. The better-placed schools will join their private counterparts in applying enrolment discriminators, worsening the complex equity problems revealed by the Gonski review.

While pitching principal against principal and turning them into pseudo small business managers is problematic, the idea of a system being able to run efficiently when all the parts of the system are working against each other creates all sorts of unnecessary problems.

At the recent 2nd international summit on education that took place in March 2012 in the Shanghai  – a high performing PISA country – reported that they did learn important things from looking at the education system in New York City (NYC) [4] .  They took the idea of schools tracking their student learning progress using data but rejected the set up that turned schools into units competing with each other.

Instead they set accountability (low stakes) at the local school level but placed their most able principals across a group of schools in a region with the responsibility of ensuring that ALL of the schools did well.  These super-principals prioritized teacher capability development and would also move staff around to ensure that all schools improved on a comparable basis.

4.  ELSI assumes that systems (regions or larger) are incapable of making wise decisions in the interests of equity and quality in student learning, but principals with their school board or councils can and will.

Now this is an interesting assumption even when thinking about schools at the level of the individual school, but it becomes even more problematic when looked at systemically.

To explain this I will look at the challenges as though I am the principal of a school that has just being given local powers over staffing and a flexible funding envelope. How should I invest these funds to bring about the greatest return on investment for my school?

The first thing that I would notice is the constraints, because the vast bulk of my budget is already committed to teacher salaries.

Do I invest in my current medium performing teachers who are paid at the top of the pay scale or do I move them on and replace them with novice teachers who I can pay less and put on a contract for maximum flexibility.  This would give me more money to play with, but this less experienced group would require more support and development.  How much will I invest in them and at what point will I say, it is cheaper to move on than to improve anyone who struggles.

Next I will need to do some strategic thinking.  The aim of this new game is to manage within my budget and still be able to demonstrate student improvement – either through NAPLAN results or retention to year 12 (because they are the only student learning targets we measure).

Do I go all out to achieve improved results for student learning – lifting those just under the NAPLAN baseline and stretching those at the top?  Do I go all out for attracting ‘desired new enrolments’ to my school.  Or am I going to take the harder path of investing these funds into making the student learning experience the best it can be, and ignore the accountability drivers.

These are three very different investment plans:

  • If going for the first strategy I might invest in such things as, literacy specialists, early intervention or remediation programs, more time spent training for tests, better assessment diagnostics, school entry screening programs, student after school coaching or a university partnership program
  • If competing for a ‘ better school enrolment profile” I might be better off going for reduced class size in critical years because parents think this is s important,   might still invest in test training because NAPLAN is part of marketing but I might also invest in a speciality arts or music program to attract the right sort of family.  This might require a trade off in say the ESL investments’
  • Ideally of course I would ignore these imperatives and focus on making my school the best that it could be – I would invest significantly but judicially in my staff by investing in better team collaborative planning, performance management, peer observation and support, or even the structuring of regular ongoing instructional observation

In reality principals might use a mixed model approach, where they push out some long serving staff bring in high performing senior staff that that they select from other schools and take in numbers of novice staff on contract.  They can try and both appeal to potential ‘desirable enrolments’ but balance this with a focus on their more vulnerable students.  But this will be a high wire act requiring strong and discerning leadership. And it will involve continual tension because, in spite of the rhetoric, what parents look for in a school is not always the best or only driver of school improvement.  Taking time to develop a shared vision and culture of mutual accountability, building a strong and stable senior team, investing in developing teacher learning through high quality feedback are not quick fixes, or sexy or very visible to the parent community.

Now the critical question here is, even if principals can use the opportunities provided by school autonomy to improve student learning outcome data associated with their school, will this contribute to an overall positive effect systemically?  Or will it just lead to a musical chairs where competition for the best students and the best teachers creates more churn and more demoralised and untenured staff and less overall high quality investments in teacher capability development of the kind that impacts on classroom practice.

This highlights the problems of holding up the independent school as the model of a high performing school suitable for all schools.  An individual school can mix and match their staff.  They can draw from a large external pool of teachers – they can cherry pick the best and/or develop young teachers of promise.  But when all systemic schools are set up to behave similarly the game changes.  They are all trying to improve their teacher quality profile by competing with each other and drawing on the same pool of teachers. It is hard to see how this will lift the quality of teachers across the whole pool.

We need teachers in large numbers and we need them reliably every day of every term.  Threatening teacher tenure will devastate teacher retention and destroy teacher moral and professional standing without building quality. Teachers are highly skilled but not highly paid relative to other like professions.  Given the size of this workforce, tenure is the trade-off and we should tread carefully around any initiatives that threaten it.


[1] Definition provided by Marc Tucker, on borrowing bets practices and even better policies, Ed Week, 19 March 2012 http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/top_performers/2012/03/on_borrowing_best_practices_and_even_better_policies.html?cmp=ENL-EU-VIEWS2

[2] Ann Dreyfus, “All’s NOT Quiet on the Western Front” Education Review, March 2012

[3] From “Will local autonomy improve public schools?”, National Times, 17 March 2012 http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/the-question/will-local–autonomy–improve–public-schools-20120316-1vae6.html

[4] Marc Tucker,  op cit

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2 thoughts on “School Autonomy – It’s a System Thing!

  1. John Hughes says:

    Excellent article; noticed it first in Educational Review. The 47 schools pilot in NSW led to many schools creating ad hoc projects that had little evidence base and no evaluation. Also, the pilot guaranteed that no school would lose funding and that any school that fell below the state average staffing cost would receive additional funds to reach the state average. So it was not in fact a realistic trial because there were no losers only winners.

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