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Report backs autonomy for schools in Boston

Centralized mandates undermine teaching, learning, study says

Boston should unshackle schools from union-contract provisions and central-office mandates that undermine teaching and learning and instead let all of them operate autonomously, much like charter schools, according to a report being released Tuesday.

The premise of the recommendation is that schools best know the unique needs of their student populations and what measures might hold the most promise in boosting achievement. That, in turn, means the schools should have maximum latitude to make decisions regarding budgeting, staffing, curriculum, and length of school day, instead of being hemmed in by central offices or union contracts, the report concludes.

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Providing all schools autonomy would be a dramatic departure from a one-size-fits-all approach to overhauling education that has swept across the nation over the last two decades and has ushered in uniform curriculum, assessments, and other edicts from superintendents’ offices. That movement has flourished even as teachers and principals frequently complain that they are being forced to abandon effective methods for cookie-cutter mandates not suitable for their students.

“Let people follow their passions as long as they are based on sound and reasonable theories,” said Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, a Boston nonprofit that prepared the report with Education Resource Strategies of Watertown.

“It’s common sense,” French said. “If you are going to hold a school accountable, then provide school leaders and faculty maximum control over decisions and resources.”

‘If you are going to hold a school accountable, then provide school leaders and faculty maximum control.’

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The report — “The Path Forward: School Autonomy and Its Implications for the Future of Boston’s Public Schools” — is scheduled to be unveiled at a breakfast forum. It was prepared for the School Department, which has been exploring granting all schools some level of autonomy, and was paid for by the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that favors charter schools and other autonomous school models.

The recommendations are being made on the heels of another independent report, commissioned by the School Department, that found the academic departments in the central offices were “badly fractured.”

John McDonough, the interim Boston school superintendent, said he remains unsure how much autonomy schools should ultimately be granted. For instance, he said, greater central-office intervention might be necessary in cases where academic performance is sliding.

“What I do believe is access to autonomy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for school success,” said McDonough, noting that some traditional schools perform highly.

McDonough has taken steps in recent years to increase autonomy for all schools. This year, he has given principals more leeway to hire the teachers they want, and in his previous post as chief financial officer, he devised a funding method that gives schools more discretion in how they spend their district-allocated budgets.

Expanding autonomy has been a lightning rod in public education, often because some of those pushing it are business leaders. Many educators, even as they crave more independence, scoff at any perception of businesses influencing educational policy and sometimes see the push for autonomous schools as an effort to diminish teacher unions and to ultimately privatize public education.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said a number of reasons beyond educational merit are fueling the movement.

“On the one hand, many parents are demanding choice, and autonomous schools, as distinct from traditional schools, gives the illusion of choice,” Stutman said. “On the other hand, granting autonomy to more and more schools, like charters, will eventually lead to a dissolution of the public school system as we know it.’’

Such a dramatic outcome, he added, “will hurt choice in the long run, even as it makes some, especially those who favor the corporatization of our school system, quite happy.”

Boston currently runs a hybrid system. About a third of the system’s 128 schools operate with varying degrees of flexibility from central office mandates and union contract provisions. The schools are known as either pilot, innovation, turnaround, or in-district charter schools.

While many of Boston’s autonomous schools tend to achieve stronger results, some have suffered from chronically low achievement. Just last fall, the state moved to take over two elementary schools, the Dever and the Holland in Dorchester, three years after the state gave them high degrees of autonomy to assist with turnaround efforts.

Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, said the report makes clear that the successes of autonomous schools far outweigh any shortcomings and that all schools in the system should become autonomous.

“After 20 years of experimenting with various models, the view put forward by this report is this works, and this is the future, and let’s embrace it, rather than staying in the middle,” Grogan said.

Boston has had a fickle history with autonomous schools. It tried, with much fanfare, more than two decades ago to give all schools more control of budgeting, staffing, and curriculum decisions. But that effort faltered because of resistance from the teachers union, the refusal of various departments in the central office to relinquish control, and a change in superintendents.

Boston revived its experiment with autonomous schools a few years later as the state prepared to open charter schools in the city that would operate completely independently of the school system. In response, the School Department worked out an agreement with the teachers union to start “pilot schools,” which operate with some autonomy from the central office.

More coverage:

Scot Lehigh: Calling the bluff on charter schools

Review finds Boston schools in disarray

Mayor Walsh’s top aide on schools steps down

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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