Study Finds Two Critical Elements in High-Achieving Traditional and Charter Schools: Autonomy in Both Staffing and Designing the School Day

Concord, MA. – A study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) sheds light on the specific strategies and practices that may account for differences in student achievement among Boston’s traditional, pilot, and charter schools. According to the study, high-achieving schools of all types—traditional, charter, and pilot—share a critical common characteristic: school leaders with enough autonomy to deliver support and the ability to adapt to the changing needs of students and staff quickly.

Although the study examined six areas of autonomy possessed by Boston’s charter and pilot schools, two areas appear to have a critical “gateway” role in enabling a leader to optimize the use of the other elements: autonomy over scheduling, and over time and staffing.

The study, Out of the Debate and Into the Schools, was commissioned the Boston Foundation. It provides the first evidence-based research that analyzes strategies and practices in traditional, pilot, and charter schools and within a single school district.

“One of the most interesting findings of this report is that there are two autonomies – scheduling and time and staffing that strongly influence the degree to which school leaders are able to optimize autonomy in other areas. Even more interesting is that while principals of high-achieving traditional schools were able to exert autonomy over staffing by maneuvering around the district hiring system and developing a strong school culture, even the most effective traditional school leaders were constrained in their ability to control the schedule and time in school,” said Dr. Susan Bowles Therriault, a senior researcher on the study who is based in AIR’s office in Concord, Mass.

“It was also notable that while the longer school day at charter schools was important, how the extra time was used by staff and students was the most significant factor in high-achieving schools. The best schools allow time for teachers to plan cooperatively, focus on professional development, and assess and work with individual students.”

Students who attend charter schools have an 8.2-hour school day on average, while traditional school students have a 6.1-hour school day. Based on the Massachusetts requirement that students attend school for 180 days, this is an estimated difference of 378 hours per year, which is the equivalent to 62 days of schooling. The key to this finding is not the length of the school day, but how that time was used in high-achieving schools. These schools embedded support for students into the regular school day and provided for more opportunities for teachers to participate in collective professional development, student-focused discussion, and collaborative planning time.

While scheduling and time were primarily something that only charter schools—and some pilot schools—were able to control, staffing is a different story. High-achieving traditional schools were able to control staffing on a par with pilot and charter schools. By developing relationships with teacher training programs and investing time in recruitment of candidates that met the needs of students, traditional school principals were able to ensure that new teachers fit the needs of their school. Principals at traditional schools described taking this control as a “risk.”

AIR’s researchers surveyed school principals and conducted case studies, classroom observations, and a document review. The study focused on the main difference between traditional and charter or pilot schools: school level autonomy in the areas of leadership and governance, budget, staffing, professional development, scheduling and time, and curriculum and instruction.

The study is a follow up to the Informing the Debate report, which found that students attending charter schools significantly outperformed their counterparts in traditional schools. The new report was authored by four AIR researchers who are specialists in educational organization and leadership: Susan Bowles Therriault, Allisson Gruner Gandhi, Julia Casasanto, and Samantha Carney.

About AIR

Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education, and workforce productivity. For more information, visit


Media Contact

Dana Tofig

Managing Director, Corporate Communications