Who’s in Charge? The Impact of Greater Principal Autonomy on Student Test Scores

School districts across the country are implementing policies to give principals greater authority over how schools are run. As Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently commented in regard to Chicago Public Schools (CPS), “We hold our principals accountable for the gains or losses our students are making within their schools and they should have the flexibility they need to make the decisions that are best for their schools and their students.”

The idea that greater principal autonomy can improve student outcomes became a matter of federal policy in 2010, when the US Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition gave preference to districts that allowed school leaders more autonomy to choose staff, curriculum, scheduling, and budgetary allocations.

Despite the shift toward greater autonomy for school leaders, few studies have examined the effectiveness of such policies in improving student outcomes. In a recent article published in Education Finance and Policy, Matthew P. Steinberg examines the impact of greater principal autonomy on student outcomes in Chicago.

During the 2005-2006 school year, CPS began a program giving greater authority to some principals throughout the district. Eligibility to participate in the program was determined primarily by student achievement on standardized testing the previous school year; 83 of Chicago’s 576 traditional public schools were given this opportunity.

Schools that opted into the program received two years of autonomy before the district reassessed their eligibility. Participating principals received greater decision-making capacity in four areas: budgeting, curriculum development and instruction, scheduling, and professional development.

To determine the impact of this increased autonomy on student achievement, Steinberg looks at the achievement of elementary schools just above and just below the test score cutoff for participating in the program.

One concern with this approach is that there are likely to be unobservable differences between the schools that were offered autonomy and those that were not. To account for this concern, Steinberg uses a statistical technique called the fuzzy regression discontinuity approach. This allows him to predict the probability of a school receiving autonomous status based on academic performance from the previous year. He then uses these predictions to estimate the effect of autonomy on achievement outcomes.

The results indicate that there was no significant difference in a school’s average math and reading scores as a result of being granted greater autonomy.

In addition to looking at average composite scores, Steinberg examines the impact of autonomy on the percentage of students who achieved proficiency in reading and math. The results indicate that in the second year of the program, there was a significant difference in reading proficiency rates—approximately 18 percentage points—between schools in the program and other CPS schools. The results do not indicate a significant difference in math proficiency rates.

This study provides evidence that, when given greater autonomy, principals may be able to improve on some measures of school performance. It takes time to for principals to learn to utilize this new discretion, which may explain the lag in the improvement in reading proficiency scores.

Steinberg suggests that the improvement in proficiency rates but not in average scores may be the result of schools redirecting resources to students who are close to proficiency, a response to the incentives created by school sanctions under the No Child Left Behind legislation.

Given the current direction of federal policy, policymakers need to know if more school-based authority translates into better student outcomes. One consideration for future research is to look at a broader range of outcomes beyond state standardized test scores, such as student attendance and discipline. Furthermore, more research is needed to determine the impact of these policies on both low-performing schools and secondary schools.

As a result of these limitations, the estimates given by Steinberg cannot be considered to be the final word on the impact of greater principal autonomy on schools in Chicago, let alone the nation. Yet the 18 percentage point improvement in reading proficiency rates suggests that providing principals with greater authority and giving them the time to learn how to use it may prove a promising strategy for policymakers hoping to improve student outcomes.

Article Source: Matthew Steinberg, “Does Greater Autonomy Improve School Performance? Evidence From A Regression Discontinuity Analysis in Chicago,” Education Finance and Policy, 2014.

Featured Photo: cc/(johngirton.me)

Cheryl Healy
Cheryl Healy is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in educational policy. She has also been published in Counterpoint Magazine at Wellesley College.

2 Responses to “Who’s in Charge? The Impact of Greater Principal Autonomy on Student Test Scores