Dwindling Teacher Autonomy


In this article from the blog section of the American Enterprise Institute, Nat Malkus describes a study he worked on while at the National Center for Education Statistics which found that teacher autonomy has declined in the last ten years.  From 2003 to 2012, there was a statistically significant drop in teachers’ perception of how much control they have in their classrooms.  In 2003, 18% of teachers felt they had low levels of autonomy, 65% responded they had moderate autonomy, and 17% believed their autonomy was high.  By 2013, those numbers had changed to 26% low, 61% moderate, with only 12% claiming a high degree of autonomy in how their classes were run.

As we’ve been discussing for the past couple of blog entries (see this article and this one), teacher independence (another term for autonomy) is a crucial factor in making public education succeed.  The trend, of course, has been for outside, non-teacher influences to grab more and more decision-making authority from teachers, attempting to reduce teachers to little more than clerks who follow the orders of those “smarter” than they.  Micro-managing school boards, state mandates, federal programs, media stars, and wealthy hobbyists have all taken shots at trying to take control of classrooms, with varying degrees of impact.  None of them has succeed in making education better, however; only dedicated, enthusiastic teachers who believe in what they are doing can inspire our kids to learn and achieve.  But studies such as this one make it clear that the outsiders are succeeding in one thing—discouraging teachers.

It’s important also to consider the source of this particular blog—the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of the most conservative, pro-business think tanks in the country.  Among its stands include challenging the veracity of human-induced climate change, supporting voter picture ID legislation (which has been shown to decrease minority groups’ participation in elections), and opposition to minimum wage increases.  Normally, you would be safe in assuming that I would be on the opposite side of any AEI position; when it comes to political thought, I have very little in common with this group. But that polar opposites like AEI and me can agree that the trends on teacher autonomy are alarmingly negative speaks loudly to the problems that public education faces.

An overused and not always applicable modern cliché is that until you recognize the problem, you can’t begin to address it, but with an issue as large as teacher autonomy/independence, it does take a long time to affect practices and acknowledging the issue has to be where we start.  Because of the glacial pace at which the thousands of public school districts/bureaucracies in the U.S. can implement any changes to how things are done, we have to hammer home certain basic truths over and over until a large enough majority can exert its will to try to push the massive bulk of school systems in positive directions.  For the last twenty years, most of the pushing has been toward more centralized decision making, into the hands of fewer people.

In the case of public education policy, the power to make changes in the form of laws and mandated procedures has become increasingly concentrated with politicians, who are in turn influenced by large campaign contributors.  And in the last few years, campaign finance law has devolved to the point that money is considered a form of protected speech when it comes to contributions to SuperPacs and the like.  Single individuals can, and have, summoned Presidential candidates to their homes for auditions not unlike beauty pageants to determine who merits their largesse.  One person can donate enough money to keep any candidate in the election process, despite lack of interest from actual voters.  Hence, many public education government programs in recent years have been influenced by these wealthy contributors.  Granted, the corrupting power of money has always been part of American politics, so this process is hardly new, but the degree to which our current laws have impacted how our system works has been significant.  I happen to believe it’s significantly awful and would love to see the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission overturned tomorrow.  I’ve wandered a bit, as you can see, but Citizens United is just one more point where my view is the antithesis of what AEI would advocate.

Which leads us back to our rare area of agreement: Declining teacher independence is hurting public education.  Unfortunately, few others have acknowledged this as a key issue affecting our schools.  This lack of awareness has led me to the conclusion that the best way to fight this erosion is for teachers to take back their power, one classroom and one teacher at a time.  Yes, this will entail disobedience, stealth, and work arounds; but the stakes are too high for teachers to ignore the issue or quit teaching entirely.  That teacher shortages are starting to crop up in some areas of the country (see this for more) suggests that frustration in the faculty room is boiling over.  But leaving the profession doesn’t solve the problem; I believe it only makes it worse as the replacements for those who quit will be in an even worse position to do anything about it.  What we need is a strategy that teachers can implement on their own, without the permission of those trying to steal their authority, who would never willingly allow teachers to assert themselves.

This quiet revolution starts with teachers recognizing that many of the problems in their work lives come from others trying to control what they do and their beliefs that they know better how to educate their kids.  Teachers not afraid of the inherent challenges of teaching have to be able to separate those necessary hard things (like grading papers or dealing with uncooperative parents) from those imposed by outsiders that have done nothing to improve public education, only adding futile workloads on the backs of teachers (standardized testing emphasis, Common Core mandates, and Response to Intervention components of No Child Left Behind).  Even those negative programs have some saving graces—some of the standards proscribed in Common Core have led staffs to look more closely at existing standards and revise them for the better—which only proves that teachers are willing to listen to ideas from others, adapt them to their unique situations, and move their students forward.

Nobody here is suggesting that outside influences and input should be eliminated from public schools; instead, those wanting to help need to understand their goal has to be to convince teachers of the worth of their concepts.  Simply buying enough influence to get puppet politicians to enact legislative mandates is not only the wrong way to effect change, but ultimately a waste of money as those changes won’t last as resentful, uncooperative teachers will undermine and eventually kill any program which they find not in the best interests of their situation.  We’ve gone over and over the truism that until teachers are on board, nothing really positive or lasting can take place, but that basic lesson seems impossible for these brilliant, wealthy, politically connected people to understand.  Even if these programs do have some value—of which most of them do have at least a scintilla—unless teachers believe in them as well, they will crash and burn.  Then, the brilliant outsiders (with some justification) will blame the teachers for the waste of time and money, and then attack teacher rights, such as collective bargaining and unions, leading to the dysfunctional mess we have been creating for many years now.

All sides need to work together, to cooperate, and to accept the importance of each player’s role in the process before public education can function as well as it is supposed to work.  Right now, teachers have been relegated to a minor, walk-on, no-lines parts in the public education movie; and many of them are just walking off the set.  Periodically throughout the next year, we’ll suggest ways for those underappreciated extras to start pushing back, to help their kids without caving to idiotic procedures and unworkable programs created by the well-intentioned but ignorant non-teachers who believe they know all because they have accumulated billions of dollars or millions of votes.  Eventually, the tide will turn and teachers won’t have to sneak, rebel, or resort to passive-aggressive behaviors.  Until that time, however, we all need to work to help them hang on to what autonomy they still have and to encourage them to find ways to educate our kids that work best for the unique situations in which they all exist.

We’ll be back in the new year, but until then, Snowflake Schools would like to wish you and yours a safe, happy holiday season.  And if you’re looking for a last-minute stocking stuffer for the public education fan on your list, you can always check out Snowflake Schools, the book, excerpts of which can be found here.  Thanks and we’ll see you next year.




  1. Pingback: The Next Education Secretary |

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