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The success of internet giant Google is a testament to the power of employee autonomy. Famously, the online search firm gives employees 20 percent of their time to work on new projects, free from management interference. And this appears to work—employees have used their free time to develop popular products, like Gmail and Google News. Taking a lesson from the success of companies like Google, many educators and policymakers have pushed for similar freedom and flexibility in schools.
When Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Roy Roberts announced their new plan for turning around Detroit's lowest performing schools—the Educational Achievement System—they promised to give these schools greater autonomy and empowerment over key decision areas, like hiring and budgeting.
But the schools in the EAS aren't starting from the same place as Google.
Instead of granting freedom to a workplace of carefully selected engineers, Snyder and Roberts are promising to give more flexibility and control to the lowest performing 5 percent of schools in one of the lowest performing districts in the country. This effort could pay off in innovative instruction and improved achievement. Or it could be akin to handing over the car keys to a teenager before he goes to driving school.
Evidence from decades of school reforms shows that giving schools more flexibility is no magic solution. Indeed, the mixed performance of charter schools across the country is evidence that it takes more than just removing central office interference for schools to improve substantially. And while there are examples of schools that use their autonomy to create exceptional results for students, like the nationally known Knowledge is Power Program charter school network, expanding that success across a system of low-performing schools is a different challenge. It's a challenge that requires the EAS to first build schools' ability to make good educational decisions and reorganize the central office to provide schools with the individualized support they will need as they strike out on their own.
It is in this critical area—providing schools with support and building their capacity—that the current plan for the EAS is worryingly light on details. While the plan cites districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, New Orleans and New York City as examples of successful autonomous school reforms, it's important to understand how those districts support their newly autonomous schools. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, autonomy is limited to schools already meeting performance targets—schools that are likely to already have the leadership and staff in place to make good educational decisions. New York City created formal "school support networks" to provide schools with assistance in areas like budgeting, professional development and hiring. New Orleans has benefited from an influx of national and local support groups, including New Schools for New Orleans, Teach for America and Tulane University's Cowen Institute, that support the district and individual schools.
With the EAS, it's not clear who will assist these newly autonomous schools. And the recent decision by Eastern Michigan University's School of Education faculty—the partner university in the plan—to pull support if the plan involves "breaking" union contracts is hardly an assurance that the EAS has the strong, well-organized support its schools will need.
Expanding school autonomy can be an effective tool for increasing innovation and student performance. And more flexibility can be a catalyst for low-performing schools to make significant changes. But to achieve this end result, Michigan needs to do more than just empower principals—it needs to infuse schools with leadership and professional capacity and provide schools with support to make the right decisions on behalf of kids.