Blog: The future of school autonomy in Boston

Boston, of all urban school districts, is probably best known for its stability and its predilection for its incremental, don’t-rock-the-boat approach to school improvement. Boston was the first ‘modern’ governance conversion from an elected school committee to mayoral control, and remained under the same Mayor for 20 years. It has repeatedly bucked the 2.5 year tenure trend of urban superintendents, being led by only 3 from 1995 to 2013. Boston is the poster-child for what can happen with sustained, focused, committed leadership.

Despite its steady growth in student achievement, Boston Public Schools has come face to face with the edge of a policy cliff. Former superintendents drove much of the initial district-wide improvement from central office, but as schools began to find their footing, the one-size-fits-all approach stopped working. To continue to drive improvement, Boston began to give (and in some cases principals just took) autonomy to schools. Close to one third of all Boston Public School students are now enrolled in district schools that have some meaningful level of autonomy.

Not unpredictably, there have been opinions on autonomy and its effect on the system as a whole. One report calls out Boston on its lack of a “well-articulated theory of action for improving student achievement beyond granting more autonomy in decision-making to schools.” A second report points out that “The system lacks a clear, coherent vision for how autonomy can empower school leadership teams in their efforts to improve educational outcomes for every student.”

While it is obvious that Boston has chosen autonomy, questions about Boston’s future remain. Both of these reports highlight a critical decision in the making for Boston- will it embrace an open system of powerful schools or will it continue to stifle the true power of individual school leaders and teachers?