School Leadership and School Autonomy
One of the several propositions advanced by the advocates of market (or neoclassical) economic solutions to education ‘problems’ is that independent schools achieve superior outcomes. Charter schools in the US and Academies in the UK continue to be supported despite compelling evidence that they do not address the principal drivers of student achievement. The reforms introduced by the Howard Government provided substantial additional support to independent schools. The latest international tests showed Australian student performance declining and inequity increasing!
The goal is to have individual schools take responsibility for staffing and budgets. Simultaneously this is linked to the proposition that community involvement be achieved by setting up school councils. There is a parallel in the health area with arguments that local hospitals be run by hospital boards comprising community representatives. There seems to be no recognition that governing boards are a very fraught area indeed and that school boards and hospital boards are not features of successful schools or hospitals in the countries where educational achievement and hospital outcomes are high!
The outcome of any change in the management structure of schools must be improvement of student outcomes. That school principals might become responsible for budgets and staffing does little more than turn them into glorified administrators. Much of the financial and staffing area is no more than instrumental!
This misunderstanding is crucial because school leadership is in fact critical to student achievement through the involvement of principals in genuine intellectual leadership in setting high standards for instruction by the teaching staff, in ensuring adequate professional development opportunities and appropriate systems for performance evaluation. In other words, the argument has missed the point (again).
Recently attention has been paid to the emergence of schools in Western Australia which have chosen to become “independent” whilst continuing to be funded by the government. This model is being advanced by the recently elected government of Tony Abbott.
It is appropriate to consider the evidence about independent schools. The indefatigable Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools, in a post entitled “Reports Concede the Lack of Evidence for School Autonomy”, has recently summarised the many studies relevant to this issue.
The studies of charter schools in the US are numerous: they all point to at best inconclusive results in terms of student outcomes and mostly reveal no change. Charter schools funded by government, run by private entities and able to attract private funding, are claimed by some to be a solution to the ‘unsatisfactory’ government run public schools. But a recently published study shows that charter-school students are not outperforming students in traditional public schools. Studies of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), which began in 1990 shows no gain! It was long held up by voucher advocates as a beacon for school improvement; results from 2011 confirm earlier studies. Where students at charter schools do achieve better results than other schools it is because they are able to select what students enrol: regular public schools have no such ‘luxury’.
The evidence that individual student performance is influenced by the average socioeconomic, that is educational, level of the class means that the streaming which flows from independent schools for children from advantaged backgrounds and public schools for the rest results in lower standards and poorer resourcing for the public schools and therefore lower levels of achievement. The issue in school education is not how much better the achievement of the best students can become but raising the achievement levels of the less advantaged. In the countries where students achieve on average to high levels substantial resources are devoted o assisting those less advantaged. In other words equity is a major consideration!
Cobbold cites numerous references in support of his claim.
The Productivity Commission found that delegating decision-making authority “has the potential to exacerbate inequalities unless all schools are adequately resourced.” Disadvantaged schools would find it more difficult to compete for high-quality staff.
The Australian Parliament’s Senate Education Committee, reporting in 2013, found further research to be required.
The Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission in its draft report, Making the Grade: Autonomy and Accountability in Victorian Schools, found mixed results of school autonomy on school performance.
An evaluation of Independent Public Schools (IPS) in Western Australia by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education found little evidence of any improvement in student outcomes. “….there was no evidence of substantial differences in outcomes between schools that were selected into IPS and those that were not.”
The Western Australian Auditor General found, “A possible outcome in an open market is that IPSs are more effective in recruiting teachers with experience and specific skills. Other schools may be left with concentrations of inexperienced staff, or a reliance on fixed term staff that causes problems with teacher continuity.”
A major study by Dr. Cathy Wylie, Chief Researcher, New Zealand Council for Educational Research was recently published as Vital Connections. Why we need more than self-managed schools..] The school-based management introduced in New Zealand in the 1990s has not achieved gains in student performance, and there had been no reduction in inequality of outcomes. The sharpened sense of competition between schools resulted in reduced knowledge sharing and principals became preoccupied with funding and property instead of curriculum.
This reinforced a study over 10 years previously. 
Professor Henry M. Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University at a conference in Sweden convened by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to review evidence about the education reforms in Sweden (as reported by Diane Ravitch in her blog of March 26 2013) observed that Forbes Magazine ‘recommended for the U.S. that: “…we can learn something about when choice works by looking at Sweden’s move to vouchers.”
However, Levin pointed to the ‘dramatic’ rise in private school enrolments and a ‘fairly precipitous decline’ on international tests in reading, science and mathematics. He evaluated the Swedish reforms, based on published studies, on four criteria. In respect of Freedom of Choice he found the reforms to have been highly successful, in respect of productive efficiency he found virtually no difference in achievement between public and independent schools for comparable students.
As to equity Levin pointed out that a ‘comprehensive, national study sponsored by the government’ had found that socio economic stratification has increased as well as ethnic and immigrant segregation: better qualified educators were drawn to schools whose students had higher socio-economic status and were Swedish born; international testing revealed rising variance in test scores among schools. There was no direct assessment of the effect of the reforms on social cohesion though Levin surmised that increasing stratification represented an obstacle to that.
The accompanying essays summarise important research concerning schools leadership conducted in Australia and elsewhere and studies of the south side of Chicago by some of the most distinguished of the World’s researchers. That the studies by one of the leaders in the study of school leadership, Professor Bill Mulford of the University of Tasmania, is never mentioned is an indication of the shallowness of the media reportage of school reform in Australia.
Go to ‘School Leadership’ and ‘The South Side of Chicago’. The essays are edited versions of chapters in the forthcoming book Education Reform: the Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity to be published by Springer.