Principals' Perspectives on Autonomy in New York City Schools

Open Access
Lewis, Tiffanie C
Graduate Program:
Educational Theory and Policy
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 30, 2013
Committee Members:
  • David Alexander Gamson, Dissertation Advisor
  • Erica Frankenberg, Committee Chair
  • Mindy L Kornhaber, Committee Member
  • Vivian Yenika Agbaw, Special Member
  • Mayoral Control
  • Urban Schools
  • School Reform
  • Policy Implementation
  • Principal Autonomy
School principals across the nation are asked, each year, to implement policy changes in schools that are meant to improve student performance on standardized tests and increase student achievement. Principals, however, face numerous obstacles that prevent them from implementing policies with fidelity to the policy designs. In New York City (NYC) schools, for example, principals were given autonomy to make decisions over operational functions like budgeting, staffing, and curriculum, in exchange for increased accountability. The principals in this study reported that their ability to activate their autonomy was constrained by numerous factors. This case study of NYC schools explores the relationship between mayoral control and principal autonomy in addition to the factors associated with limited principal autonomy by examining, specifically, the process of policy design in the NYC school district and the actual policies created under mayoral control of schools that hinder principals’ abilities to implement the autonomy policy. The findings from this study shed light on the complex nature of mayoral control and centralization of urban school districts. First, while mayoral control was a tool to remove unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles, like the elected school boards, it inadequately addressed the looming social issues facing schools and principals daily. Moreover, because the language surrounding the Children First policy was vague policy and the NYC DOE did not provide clear messages for practitioners, implementers developed their own understandings of what autonomy would look like in schools and pursued actions, like firing teachers, which was beyond their sphere of power. Second, top-down policy making impedes policy makers’ ability to understand the local context of NYC schools that impacts implementation. The policy process is intricately connected from top to bottom. Without backward mapping from the final stage of implementation to policy design, policy makers were unaware of the low capacity issues that impeded principals’ abilities to implement policies with fidelity. Collectively, the findings in this study suggest that policy makers should, first, be clear about what they expect from implementers. The clearer policy makers are about policy goals, the more certain implementers can be about what is expected from them. Second, policy makers should backward map from implementation to policy design in an effort to understand the behaviors that act to cause policy problems and the resources needed to help achieve policy goals.