Autonomy for principals
Around the country, the role of a principal has changed a lot through the years. Once upon a time, a principal was responsible for the logistical operations of a school, and not much more. Then in recent years, the focus turned to "instructional leadership." In Baltimore a few years ago, during Bonnie Copeland's tenure as CEO, the city school system was trying to shift administrative responsibilities back to the central office to clear principals' plates so they could focus on instruction.
But for the last decade, principals in Baltimore have had little autonomy to shape their schools' instructional programs. That's about to change.
On Tuesday, Dr. Alonso will present a budget that increases principals' responsibilities astronomically, while a dismantling of the central office begins. Those principals who are successful will be rewarded -- some with merit-based bonuses possibly as early as next year. Those who are not successful will be removed.
I'm hearing that a number of principals in the city are nervous about their newfound responsibility, in some cases urging Alonso to keep making certain decisions at the central office. Some of them feel like they're being set up for failure. Decentralization didn't work when Baltimore tried it in the 80s and 90s -- I'm told because there wasn't an adequate support structure for principals, nor was there meaningful accountability.
But a study published last year by the Fordham Foundation and American Institutes for Research, called "The Autonomy Gap," found that principals nationally believe they don't have the autonomy needed to make effective changes in their schools. (The report talks more about autonomy in personnel decisions than spending decisions.) Research by UCLA professor William Ouchi found that the most successful urban school districts are those with decentralized management.
In reporting my story for today's paper, it was interesting to compare what Alonso is planning for Baltimore with John Deasy's strategy in Prince George's County: to give autonomy to principals whose schools are successful or showing improvement. The idea there is earned autonomy, not autonomy for all. I can see the advantages to both approaches. Alonso's model of universal autonomy will probably make it easier to attract new talent to the system. Deasy's model of earned autonomy will probably provide better safeguards for schools with weak leadership.
Which structure do you prefer? And what do you see as the role of a principal?
UPDATE 3/11: Sorry I didn't have the energy last night to do a separate post on my story today, but it should answer many questions about what's coming. Until 5 p.m., I wasn't planning on having a budget story until tomorrow's paper, but, well, I guess it pays to check BoardDocs ... (The budget presentation was taken down right away when the system realized what had happened, but I think it will be reposted at some point later today or tomorrow.) Much more to come, in the newspaper and on this blog, in the next few days. Wondering which positions at North Avenue are being cut? The system is scheduled to release a new organizational chart -- with names of positions, not people -- on Wednesday.
UPDATE 3/12: Last night's documents aren't up yet at BoardDocs but check back here and there later for more details.