More autonomy for top-performing principals

Photo by Max Herman

CPS education chief Janice Jackson says top principals can earn extra autonomy from district mandates, a status that would follow them to new schools. Photo from the July 2015 Board of Education meeting.

CPS officials announced on Monday that they will resurrect an Arne Duncan-era program to give 25 principals more freedom from red tape in running their schools, managing their finances and attending network meetings.

Unlike the previous iteration of the program, it’s the principals themselves – and not the schools – who will be granted extra autonomy and flexibility under the new Independent Schools Program.

“We’re actually granting those autonomies to the principals,” says Janice Jackson, the district’s newly appointed chief education officer. The status “will follow the principal to a new school, though we will also look at the principal’s performance at the other school.”

Principals who are chosen for the program will be:

  • Exempt from network chief oversight, including building walk-throughs, evaluations and budget approval
  • Evaluated through a modified process coordinated by Jackson’s office
  • Granted more flexibility on budgeting and purchasing matters

Only principals who have been on the job for at least three years and have earned a “proficient” rating or better in the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years, can apply. Jackson says 312 current principals would qualify.

The decision to grant some high-performing principals more autonomy follows up on a campaign promise made earlier this year by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Asked whether the new Independent Schools Program will save the cash-strapped district money by cutting back on the oversight from network offices, Jackson said CPS will “still maintain the same level of network structure,” although network teams will have fewer principals to evaluate and oversee. “This allows the network teams to better support teams in their portfolios that may be struggling,” she added.

Principals were notified about the program today and given only a week to apply. The program will go into effect this fall.

Level of prestige

The new program is reminiscent of the Autonomous Management Performance Schools program (AMPS) that was created in 2006 during Duncan’s tenure and killed off in 2011 by the-CEO Jean Claude-Brizard. The program gave dozens of schools greater control over their budgets and freedom from certain performance assessments and area instructional oversight.

“Everybody aspired to be an AMPS principal. It carried with it a certain level of prestige or bragging rights,” says Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. “The less red tape principals have and the less bureaucracy there is from CPS, the happier they are.”

District officials could not say on Monday whether the revival of principal autonomy means the end of principal bonuses. Emanuel had launched a principal bonus program four years ago – with four years’ worth of private funding. During the first two years of the program, CPS officials made big announcements and went public with information about the principals who won the extra cash.

No such information came out last year, and nothing has been said about bonuses for the 2014-2015 school year – the final year of the program. (Catalyst has been asking the district since May for information about who received bonuses last year.) Berry says many principals have reached out to her in recent weeks, asking for news about the bonuses.

Jackson says the district is still developing the parameters to determine whether a principal who is chosen for the program will retain the status the following year — although the designation will be based in part on their school School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP). “We would also zero in on growth metrics, looking to see if a principal’s leadership is leading to greater growth,” Jackson said.

“Once principals are in the program, that’s something we could introduce at a further time,” she said. “Principals do know the program is based on continued success.”