Over the past 15 years, the fastest improvement in urban public education has come from cities that have embraced charter schools’ formula for success — autonomy, choice, diversity of school designs, and real accountability for performance. To compete, many districts have recently tried to spur charterlike innovation and increase student achievement by granting their school leaders more autonomy.
District-run autonomous schools are a hybrid model, a halfway point between charters and traditional public schools. They’re operated by district employees, but they can opt out of many district policies and — in some cities — union contracts.
Our recent analysis of state exam scores from 2015 and 2016 in Boston, Memphis, Denver, and Los Angeles showed that public charter schools outperformed both traditional public and in-district autonomous schools on standardized tests in three of the four cities studied. In the one exception, Memphis, the district concentrated its best principals and teachers in, and provided extra funding and support to, its autonomous iZone schools.
However, when the political landscape makes chartering difficult, in-district autonomous models may be the second-best option. Districts can increase the success of these schools if they heed these nine lessons learned by the four cities in our study.
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