Education report examines impact of school autonomy, lays out recommendation to strengthen Boston as “system of schools”

June 3, 2014

Boston – Autonomous schools within the Boston Public Schools are finding popular and academic success, but substantial hurdles must be overcome for the district to establish a fully developed system of successful schools, according to a new major report released Tuesday.  

The Path Forward: School Autonomy and Its Implications for the Future of Boston’s Public Schools coverThe report, The Path Forward: School Autonomy and Its Implications for the Future of Boston’s Public Schools, was prepared by Education Resource Strategies and the Center for Collaborative Education at the request of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) with the support of the Boston Foundation, and was released at an Understanding Boston forum at the Boston Foundation.

View a video of the forum.

View a video, prepared by Education Resource Strategies to accompany the release of the report, that discusses the effects of school autonomy on Boston's public school operations and leadership and its impact on students.

Researchers explored the effects of current school autonomy structures on Boston's public school operations and leadership, and looked at case studies from five other U.S. cities, drawing on those in part to lay out seven recommendations for expanding autonomies that can strategically allocate resources, scale innovation and empower school leaders to improve equity and student performance throughout the district. 

"Our Superintendent has extended hiring autonomy to some of our public schools, and school leaders are using this leverage to make sure every child has a great teacher in every classroom. We've also seen positive changes in schools where we position our central offices in support of our educators,” said Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “But regardless of organizational structure, the priority is creating the right conditions for success in every single school. I'd like to thank Boston Public Schools and the Boston Foundation for their partnership in this review and report, which is a strong contribution to our roadmap to success for all Boston students."

“The Boston School Committee wishes to thank Superintendent McDonough and the Boston Foundation for taking on this work,” said Boston School Committee Chair Michael O’Neill. “This report helps inform a broad discussion about the right balance between a system that supports consistently high-quality instruction no matter what school a student attends, and one that encourages creativity and leadership by principals and teachers at the school level.”

“This report is noteworthy on two levels,” said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “First, the recommendations themselves provide a valuable roadmap for expanding autonomy, improving student performance and empowering teachers and principals throughout Boston. But none of this would be possible without the courage of Superintendent McDonough and his willingness to set Boston on a path of educational innovation that is unmatched in the nation.”

Researchers, tasked by Superintendent McDonough with exploring how Boston Public Schools “can strengthen and support autonomy and accountability across its portfolio to promote innovation and high performance,” sought to outline a vision of if, how and when school autonomy can be a powerful lever for improving student outcomes.

“We have to challenge the barriers to success wherever we find them,” said Boston Public Schools Interim Superintendent John McDonough. “We developed this report to learn more about those barriers and to determine how we can create the conditions for success for every school, regardless of structure. This report demonstrates the need to pair autonomy with accountability, and with this information we will develop a clear and consistent set of tools that every school leader can use to ensure every child has the best education possible.”

Researchers conducted interviews with more than 100 school leaders, district leaders, teachers and others, reviewed available data and explored how five other urban districts assign and manage school flexibility. Simultaneously, they convened a cross-functional working group of more than 30 district and school leaders who met monthly to discuss some of the most difficult questions related to school-based autonomy, modeling the collaborative culture necessary for implementing systemic change. 

BPS school autonomy in 2014

The researchers found that nearly one in three Boston Public Schools students attend one of four types of “autonomous schools” within BPS – pilot, innovation, turnaround and Horace Mann Charter schools. As a group, researchers found the more autonomous schools were far more likely to appeal to parents, and that schools with formal autonomy status could more easily organize resources to match student need and facilitate teacher learning and growth.

Despite the popular and academic success of more autonomous schools, however, researchers found the current approach to autonomy to be overly complex and lacking an overall strategic vision. Researchers found that the current system also places traditional schools at a disadvantage in purchasing power and budget flexibility, and suffers from widely varying capacity among school leaders and inconsistent levels of support and flexibility from the central Boston Public Schools office.

“BPS has high and low performing autonomous schools and high and low performing traditional schools. What sets high performing schools of all types apart is the way they organize resources. But without the flexibility available to autonomous schools – that is, for the majority of schools in the district – this is much harder and sometimes more expensive to execute,” said David Rosenberg of Education Resource Strategies, part of the research team for the report. “Boston Public Schools has an opportunity to create a far more effective system that clearly establishes roles and expectations, creates added flexibility for all schools, creates equitable access to resources, and strengthens and supports all school leaders, regardless of each school’s autonomy status.”

“Our research showed the Boston Public Schools has already begun to respond to school leaders’ desires for autonomies in hiring, which principals ranked as a critical priority,” said Dan French of the Center for Collaborative Education. “But there remain a number of opportunities in other areas where expanded flexibility at a school level could have a substantial impact on school operations and ultimately the success of students.”

In their review of the autonomous school types, researchers found each type has a different set of autonomies over personnel, budget, and the structure of the school day, as well as differing flexibilities over accounting for teacher salaries, for example, or paying for extended school hours. In one cited example, researchers found that school leaders at the Edison K-8 school, a traditional school, had flexibility over just 8% of resources, whereas under the rules pertaining to a Pilot school, Edison leaders would have flexibility over at least 23% of resources – even before considering the flexibility over staffing and assignment of core teachers and administrators that Pilot schools also enjoy. 

Learning from Peer Districts 

The researchers then explored the approaches to school autonomy in five “peer districts,” Baltimore, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City and Lawrence, Mass. Reviewing school autonomy in these five districts generated a set of six themes that could have implications for Boston:

  • Each district had a distinct theory of action that viewed autonomy as a means to leverage innovative practices to improve student achievement;
  • Districts not only varied in their approach to autonomy at the district level, they typically operated with a portfolio of autonomy levels within the district;
  • Each district had restructured their central office staff to provide targeted support to schools, with most creating specialized offices to manage autonomous schools;
  • Denver, Baltimore and Los Angeles, in particular, aggressively invested to support instruction and teacher and leader learning, with an eye toward more effective performance evaluation, teacher and leader career paths and compensation structures that reinforce strong results and leverage the most effective professionals;
  • Each district focuses on developing human capital, particularly to develop the leadership skills of autonomous school leaders;
  • Districts couple the expanded autonomy with strong accountability systems that are applied universally and enable leaders to identify low performing schools, provide support and close chronically underperforming schools.

As a result, four of the five districts reviewed (Baltimore, Lawrence, New York and Denver) have demonstrated documented improvement in their student outcomes on recent evaluations.

The Path Forward

Boston has taken crucial steps over the past nine months to empower schools, the researchers note, with full implementation of Weighted Student Funding, which provides dollars based on the number of students adjusted to reflect student needs instead of allocating staff positions, the extension of hiring autonomy to all schools and the beginnings of a new approach to school accountability.

To build on these initial efforts, the researchers make seven recommendations:

    1. Establish the district’s vision as a “system of schools,” rather than a “school system” with consistent high expectations, support, and accountability for performance, with the school as the unit of change;
    2. Extend maximum flexibility to all district schools, and encourage any school that is ready and has capacity to pursue adopting an autonomous schools model;
    3. Decentralize non-core central services to the maximum extent feasible, and transition to a purchased services model for the remaining non-core central services;
    4. Create a Cabinet-level Office of Innovation, reporting to the Superintendent, to incubate and oversee development of new school designs and conversions to autonomous school models, and scale currently successful autonomous school designs based on community needs and demands;
    5. Cultivate and support leaders and leadership teams to effectively use their flexibilities to make wise resource decisions that enable school and student improvement;
    6. Further construct and implement a school accountability model for all district schools that emphasizes effective practice and student success, with clear supports and consequences based on school performance;
    7. Prioritize candidates for the Superintendent position who are committed to sustaining a system of high-performing schools that balances autonomy and accountability, and who brings a track record of uniting people in a culture that values collaboration, leadership and performance.


“Taken together,” the researchers note, “these actions have the potential to empower a force of increasingly effective school leaders who will be able to more strategically organize resources to drive student learning across a diversity of programs, while fostering innovation, increasing teacher voice and ultimately, making it possible for all students to learn, grow and ultimately realize our vision for the BPS Graduate.”


The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, is one of the largest community foundations in the nation, with net assets of close to $900 million.  Founded in 1915, the Foundation is approaching its 100th Anniversary.  In 2013, the Foundation and its donors made nearly $98 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and received gifts of $130 million. The Foundation is a partner in philanthropy, with some 1,000 separate charitable funds established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. 

The Boston Foundation also serves as a major civic leader, provider of information, convener and sponsor of special initiatives that address the region’s most pressing challenges.  The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), an operating unit of the Foundation, designs and implements customized philanthropic strategies for families, foundations and corporations around the globe. Through its consulting and field-advancing efforts, TPI has influenced billions of dollars in giving worldwide.  For more information about the Boston Foundation and TPI, visit or call 617-338-1700. 

Education Resource Strategies (ERS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming how urban school systems organize resources—people, time, technology, and money—so that every school succeeds for every student. Over the past ten years, ERS has worked hand-in-hand with more than 20 school systems nationwide, including 16 of the 100 largest urban districts, to address challenges including restructuring teacher compensation and career path, funding equity, school design, central office support, and budget development. This work has informed the organization’s School System 20/20 vision for transformation and a suite of tools to help districts move toward that vision. ERS shares research and practical tools based on its extensive dataset, and collaborates with others to create the conditions for change in education. For more information, visit

The Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) is a Boston-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to transform schools to ensure that all students succeed. Founded in 1994, CCE remains steadfast in its belief that schools should prepare every student to achieve academically and make a positive contribution to a democratic society. To achieve its vision of a world where every student is college- and career-ready and prepared to become a compassionate, contributing global citizen, CCE works at the school, district and state levels in New England and beyond to: create learning environments that are collaborative, democratic and equitable; build capacity within districts and schools to adopt new practices that promote collaborative, democratic and equitable learning for students and educators; and catalyze systemic change at the school and district levels through district- and state-level policy and advocacy support. For more information, visit or call 617-421-0134.