Education Opinion

Managed Instruction vs Teacher Autonomy

By Tom Vander Ark — March 01, 2013 4 min read
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Urban districts trying to ensure consistent rigor in every classroom have implemented programs of managed instruction--a common curriculum, shared lesson
plans, pacing guides, periodic assessments, and associated professional development. While these programs can feel stifling, they often lead to incremental
improvement. Combined with focused leadership, extended learning opportunities, targeted tutoring, and youth and family supports they can yield significant

Ted Kolderie, Education Evolving is concerned “that good teachers we know are quitting because of the way
the district is trying to ‘manage’ their time. They don’t understand how the instruction can be scripted without regard to the characteristics of the
students, either by school or as individuals.”

“Here’s a video of a single classroom teacher who went totally off on his own,” said Kolderie. “Radical
departure. Ignored what the district told him to do. Appears to be getting wonderful results. Innovation, yea. Now other teachers in the school are
interested. Parents interested, are talking to the district administration...What if the ‘sameness’ imposed by a district is misguided?”

Kolderie asked a local teacher if she could do this. She said “No, we don’t have the freedom to do anything like that. We’re directed what to do, by
five-minute periods. This means a supervisor can come by the classroom at a given time and know exactly what s/he’s going to see.”

Ted checked in with the other urban district in town and they want to have every school doing the same thing. About autonomous sites the superintendent
said, “We’re trying to get rid of those as soon as possible.” Call it “focused learning” or “managed learning,” is it all bad? Isn’t that what the
‘no-excuses’ folks taught us in the last decade?

Trading Autonomy for Collaboration.
With similar aims of coordinated instruction, Professional Learning Communities (PLC) are “composed of collaborative
teams whose members work interdependently to achieve common goals linked to the purpose of learning for all,” according to a Solution Tree sponsored site. Managed instruction tends to be top-down while PLCs rely on teacher leadership.

Mark Edwards, Mooresville North Carolina, used what I call an enterprise approach--same curriculum,
same device, same structures and systems--to achieve great results and being named National Superintendent of the Year. What feels different than managed instruction programs is a high
level of teacher engagement. Mooresville puts on a summer institute where a high degree
of teacher leadership is evident. (See It’s Not About The Machine, It’s About Heart.)

Whether top-down, bottom-up, or engaged system, all three of these examples aim at learning focused coordinated action--and mark a big change from
individual practitioner mentality of the past.

Autonomy to Choose.
Autonomy is a big sloppy concept. As a charter school, Minnesota New Country School has lots of autonomy,
but individual teachers have limited ability to go completely off the ranch without checking with their colleagues. They have a shared commitment to model
fidelity and school success.

Autonomy means that a group does indeed get to decide the vision and mission of a school...and a lot more,” said Robert Wedl, Ted’s associate at Education
Evolving. “They get to decide the schooling model, select who gets to work there”

Kolderie explained, “We’ve found it important to distinguish between the two very different concepts of ‘teacher autonomy’. One is the individual teacher
closing her door and doing whatever she pleases. The other -- which tends to use the same words -- is the teachers collectively/collegially holding the
authority to arrange/run the school and its learning. As teachers are doing in the ‘partnership’ model schools around here.”

Personalized vs Homogenized.
I visited a school last week that made a lot of progress with managed instruction--high expectations, pacing guides, periodic assessments, professional
develop. The new principal wants to take the school to the next level with personalized and blended learning model.

Lots of teachers have flipped their classrooms and pushed content home with students. It’s usually an individual teacher practice. Even more than a PLC,
blended learning is a team sport. Most blended models incorporate differentiated staffing models that leverage teacher talent (see Opportunity Culture for 10 examples).

Blended learning refers to school models where students spend a portion of their day in an online learning environment. Innosight adds some level of student control of pace, time, and
location. Both definitions implies a schedule change.

As you may have gathered, I think coherent school models--where everything works together for students and teacher--are really important to producing and
sustaining high levels of performance. How you get to coherence can determine commitment and fidelity. Bottoms-up may be haphazard; top-down breeds
resentment; an engaged community of adult learners is clearly the best choice. (See Blended Learning Implementation Guide of
process suggestions.)

In most cases, school communities should have the budget and ability to act autonomously. Because schools are (or are becoming) so interdependent,
independent teacher autonomy should be a design feature (like the autonomy afforded a High Tech High teacher) or an experiment observed by colleagues.

For more, see:

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.