From the Field

Research Notes: How Giving Principals More Autonomy Impacts Learning

Seven years ago, Chicago granted some of its school principals more control over budgeting and operations in their schools. A new study by C. Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University shows that this increased autonomy improved student performance and teases out the circumstances that makes the approach more successful.

The Independent School Principal program, instituted in 2016, allowed high-performing principals in Chicago Public Schools to seek more autonomy over their budgets and staffing. Jackson compares results at schools where principals were chosen for the program to what happened at similar schools that remained under the more centralized system.

Among his key findings: High-quality principals of schools with a history of improving test scores experience more positive effects with more autonomy. Also, schools with unique student populations, such as a concentration of bilingual learners or students with disabilities, benefit more from increased autonomy. On average, the power shift resulted in a 4 percent increase in math and English passing rates at the school level. The policy also reduced principal turnover and improved school climate.

This study provides some clarity to an inconclusive area of research, by parsing the circumstances in which school leaders would benefit from increased autonomy. Likewise, Jackson highlights that not every school would flourish with more autonomy. About a quarter of the effects on test scores that were measured in this analysis are negative. Thus, it is important to consider the leadership and climate of schools when considering levels of autonomy for individual schools.

Read the Research

When Does School Autonomy Improve Student Outcomes?

July 2023

C. Kirabo Jackson