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Thompson: Autonomy for Change.

Autonomy If there is any organization that should understand the need for holistic, systemic reforms, it is Mass Insight, the organization responsible for the brilliant The Turnaround Challenge.  If one ingredient is left out, it is nearly impossible to turnaround the "complex ecosystems" of persistently failing schools. 

As Mass Insight seeks to "give school level leaders the freedom to make staffing, scheduling, curriculum and related decisions, in return for being held accountable for dramatic student achievement gains within two years," we should ask, however, whether they have neglected the single most important factor in their otherwise outstanding model.  Their turnaround project rightly promised balanced autonomy to school leaders. But what about the professional autonomy of teachers?

I am glad that Mass Insight recognizes that Partnership Zones need autonomy as "air cover" during their transition. And I understand the advantage of giving turnaround schools the power to quickly change staff.  But seeking a proper balance between the autonomy of school leaders and the autonomy of teachers who lead in their classrooms is the type of wisdom that I would expect to be articulated by the authors of The Turnaround Challenge.

Mass Insight had previously written in the The Turnaround Challenge that "turnaround school leaders must have the ability to shape the staff in their schools, without regard to seniority or other contract bargaining restrictions." But just a few pages afterwards they said "‘authority to make choices’ does not necessarily mean untrammeled school-level flexibility over all aspects of school operations." And they affirmed "turnaround cannot succeed and endure without broad engagement and buy-in" and "researchers agree that reform only works if those most directly involved in it (teachers, school staff, school leaders, parents, and students) buy into it."  The study emphasized "positive incentives for different stakeholders in the system" ... including "increased autonomy and increased compensation."  It recognized the danger of "sanction oriented incentives" and the need to respect "the point of view of local union leaders" who must guard against "potential loss of its union membership."

I may have been naive when interpreting Mass Insight’s indictment of a "light touch" approach to reform but even as I reread it, there seemed to be a balance in The Turnaround Challenge that seems to be missing today.  If Mass Insight seeks quick and dramatic change, and plans to keep its schedule for negotiating collective bargaining contracts by the fall of 2010, I would have expected to see the names of its union partners on its press relase.

The Turnaround Challenge was astute in describing how "the ecology of high-poverty schools is inherently much more unpredictable, variable, and irregular than that of low-poverty schools. This turbulence is foundational: lying below symptoms like poor teaching ..." It was candid in acknowledging that "Intervention into struggling schools and districts is the least developed and least-understood dimension of the nation’s standards-based reform movement." (Emphasis theirs)

I keep remembering  the "reformers" concept of "earned accountability" where schools are "struggling precisely because they don’t know what to do and need help… It makes sense for a school district to give its high performers autonomy, work with the middle tier to turn them into high performers, and then really get intensive about the low-performers including bringing in outside service providers and so forth."

There are two obvious responses to that immodest view of determining who deserves autonomy and who does not.  Firstly, it is easy to unfairly judge educators in failing schools that lack so many essential ingredients, especially the power to enforce their codes of conduct due to a lack of alternative schools. Secondly, it is awfully easy to exaggerate the knowledge base of reformers.  As long as they remember their limits, I have confidence in Mass Insight. 

It is one thing to staff a limited number of separate charter schools with leaders who have the moral character to resist abuses like pushing out low performing students, using credit recovery to pad numbers, and ignoring the professional judgements of other educators as the clock ticks down on their need to show dramatic gains in student peformance.  When such a reform expands to clusters of schools over several states, a number of school leaders will still retain their integrity, but it is inconceivable that a cluster of tens of schools will not have plenty of administrators who seek improper shortcuts.  Before taking reforms to scale, a balance of power and shared leadership must be institutionalized. To paraphrase the fundamental principle of democracy, if educators are too flawed to govern their own classrooms, what makes educators competent to rule others? 

I very much want to see successful partnership zones, and I want my union to take prudent risks to assist.  I hope this post is taken accordingly. 


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Good teaching and leadership to support good teaching! Accountability for student perfromance is in the eye of the beholder. A person seeing it as a bad thing is going to fight it and the person seeing it as helping them focus on student success will see it as a positive step. Working with a high need school, I have seen both sides of accountability.

Turnaround school leaders play an important part in helping other schools turn around the fortunes of schools that are not functioning educationally effectively. I am a teacher myself and my opinion is that the entire management team at a failing school should be forced to leave and a successful school leader at another local school should be the head of both schools. This idea works where elsewhere and parents are in full support to turn the education at the failing school around.

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