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School autonomy double edged sword

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Giving schools more autonomy was supposed to promote a nimbler, more accountable system both academically and financially, and it has, but not without deficits in fairness, politically, culturally and economically.

Prof Amanda Keddie of Deakin University examined the effects of school autonomy reforms on social justice and schooling in Australia in a recent research project, finding these freedoms are illusory when coupled with aggressive auditing of school performance and that they rarely translate to real professional autonomy for teachers or for principals.

The most recent version of such reforms in Australia is the Independent Public Schools initiative, introduced in Queensland and Western Australia. The federal government has committed $70 million “to help schools become more autonomous and independent if they so choose.” There is strong political faith that this autonomy will improve academic outcomes.

When schools are forced to compete for students and funding, school autonomy leads to political, cultural and economic injustices Prof Keddie said.

“When principals and teachers are dogged by external accountabilities like NAPLAN and when schools feel pressured to compete with each other in relation to these accountabilities, it is more than likely that they will narrow their curriculum to focus on these areas and ‘teach-to-the-test’.”

More ‘autonomous’ education systems shift responsibility from the state sector to schools, local communities, families and individuals. This shift compounds with “the market imperatives of competition, economic efficiency and external auditing” to force schools “to run themselves like businesses.” As such, they must narrow their vision of education and focus on the goals of enterprise and economic efficiency.

Meanwhile, “the social, creative, aesthetic, cultural, moral and spiritual aspects of students’ development” are neglected.

Keddie’s case studies show that self-managed schooling can lead to improvements in learning and promote fairness. It can free up schools to innovate, meet local needs, and break down social barriers to students' achievement.

But overall, “there remains little conclusive evidence linking greater school autonomy to improved academic attainment.”

"Australian schools, are protected from the worst effects of school autonomy and excessive competition because the government still has the power to implement policies and regulations that help all schools meet their social obligations," Keddie said.

But regulation is under threat, she said, pointing to reforms in the USA and the UK. There, a shift toward privatisation “has undermined” public ownership, equity and access, and the public purpose of schools. This has led to “segregation” and “practices of exclusion”, and sidelined “the moral and social purpose of schooling”.

In his book on charter schools in the US, Dr Garth Stahl of UniSA drew on research and his own experiences working as a leader in a controversial charter school showing what radical self-management of publicly funded schools can look like in practice.

Networks of charter schools in the US are publicly-funded but also take philanthropic donations. The majority of charters are run like corporate businesses, following a franchise model. Typically, these networks “serve low socio-economic students in urban centers; have unprecedented autonomy from bureaucracy; and are subject to the […] governance of market forces and lottery systems.”

Like certain financial corporations, many charter schools commit to firing the bottom 10% of underperforming staff each year. They are “free from union involvement”, can “set their own hours and have tremendous flexibility in their ability to hire and fire staff as necessary.”

The very existence of these schools depends on “student performance on high-stakes state testing. Failure to achieve the necessary test scores results in revoking the charter and thus immediate school closure.”

The school Dr Stahl worked for “served African-American and Latino children in an impoverished urban area”. Though it was registered as a not-for-profit, its CEO “received a six-figure annual salary.” The school “consistently gained the top test scores for the state outperforming the white, upper-class suburbs.” The school’s results were achieved through rigid academic expectations, intense pressure, and a “zero-tolerance” approach to discipline.

While such results are impressive, said Dr Stahl, they belie charter schools’ high failure rate, and are not scalable to wider society. They are achieved by isolating a small group of children from their communities, while doing little to address the broader education needs or disadvantages faced by these communities, and neglecting any public vision for education.

Amanda Keddie (November 2017), ‘School autonomy reform and public education in Australia: implications for social justice’ The Australian Education Researcher.

Garth Stahl (September 2017), Ethnography of a Neoliberal School: Building Cultures of Success, Routledge.

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