Education Opinion

Teachers Feel Like They Have a Voice in Schools? Says Who?

By Sam Chaltain — January 27, 2014 6 min read
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Guest Post by Kim Farris-Berg

In June 1941, The New Yorker published a Peter Arno cartoon in which a father says to his teenage son, “Alfred, your mother and I think it would be a good idea for you to knock about on your own for a while -- just on the estate of course.” It’s amusing, but is also confronts what we really mean when we say to someone, “We trust you with autonomy.”

There are at least two ways to ask teachers if they have been trusted with autonomy. In the first way, you ask teachers if they have autonomy to do something, say, “choosing teaching techniques” or “evaluating and grading students” in the context of their classrooms. In the second way, you ask teachers if they have autonomy to co-determine the guidelines for discipline or for evaluation and grading that they work within once they are in the context of their classrooms. These are two very different questions, and they will yield two very different answers.

It’s important that readers of the Center for American Progress (CAP) report released last week, which concludes that teachers are content with their current levels of autonomy, understand that the authors are citing findings from a federal survey that asks about autonomy in the first way (see #62). The Center’s analysis suggests that teachers have all the autonomy they could possibly want and need. But it’s impossible to know if that’s true based on what teachers were asked. The question -- reflecting current culture - assumed classroom autonomy, within limits, is the only kind possible.

As authors of a book that’s all about this issue, and in our related work since the book was published, my colleagues and I have had the opportunity to interview numerous teachers who are arguably the most autonomous in the nation. These teachers have autonomy to collectively make many (in some cases, all) of the decisions influencing their whole school’s success. Most of these teacher groups select their colleagues, determine the learning program, and have partial to full autonomy to allocate the school budget (among other things). They often select lead teachers or hire principals, and these leaders are accountable to the group of teachers who are responsible for setting the direction of the school and accountable for outcomes.

Most research questions about teacher autonomy do not contemplate this opportunity or other opportunities for teachers to have more influence outside the classroom. In this case the federal survey asked, “How much actual control do you have IN YOUR CLASSROOM (sic) at this school over the following areas of your planning and teaching?”

I’ve listened to teachers’ initial answers to questions like this in an interview setting, and I’ve had the clarifying follow-up conversation many times. Here’s how it tends to go:

Interviewer: You just indicated you have autonomy to evaluate and grade your students.
Teacher: Yes.
Interviewer: Does that mean you determine the evaluation and grading methods and guidelines that you use with your students?
Teacher: Yes . . . well, that is, within the guidelines set by the state and school district. And my principal has some preferences that I need to follow, too.

And there is the rub. If you ask teachers if they have autonomy in their classroom, you will get their contextual answer. You can then report, as the Center for American Progress did, that teachers say they have autonomy and freedom (notably, far less so for selecting content than for teaching techniques and determining the amount of homework to assign).

Yet it is probably more accurate to say that the findings show that many teachers say they control what happens in their classroom within the boundaries of policies that have already been determined by other parties. We don’t know from their answers whether teachers have the kind of autonomy they believe would most benefit students, or if they’ve even thought that more autonomy would be possible to secure. It seems far-fetched to conclude from the federal survey data that teachers are content with the status quo levels of autonomy and freedom. CAP sought to strengthen its case with data about teachers’ overall job satisfaction that is equally limited, but that’s another blog post.

Researchers could write better questions to get to the bottom of teachers’ satisfaction with autonomy if they first listened to the teachers and asked about their interest in the gamut of existing opportunities for autonomy.

One member of my research team was Amy Junge, an elementary and middle school teacher and assistant principal currently taking a break to raise her three children. She wrote in a commentary for the book (p. 27), “As a teacher I never gave much thought to teacher autonomy. It wasn’t a term I heard used much in my credential classes or at any of the three schools I worked at. If I had been asked, I would have said teacher autonomy referred to classroom autonomy. It never occurred to me to think of it in terms of my colleagues and I having the autonomy to run a school.”

She continued, “After [observing groups of teachers who have autonomy to run whole schools], I realize that I never had autonomy as a teacher. The district always chose the curriculum, my principal always supplied the budget, and the school rules were well established before my arrival. Within my classroom, I had the freedom to plan lessons and choose discipline strategies that fit my students’ needs and my style, but this didn’t apply beyond my classroom. Because I wanted to make more of an impact on the whole school environment, I went into administration. If I had been aware of collective teacher autonomy, I would have been drawn to the opportunity and the potential to lead without having to completely leave the classroom. This would have satisfied my desire to make a larger contribution to more students’ education.”

If Junge had taken the federal survey while she was a teacher it seems likely she would have answered, “Yes, I have autonomy in my classroom! I have freedom!” If you read the rest of her commentary you will see she also proclaimed to be satisfied in her work with children and parents, and dissatisfied with the overall climate for her profession. Analyzing only her answer to the survey question, we would have missed completely her belief that in order to use her professional talents to impact the whole school environment she had to leave the classroom and become an administrator. We wouldn’t have learned whether she was actually content with autonomy in the classroom.

CAP’s analysis might turn out to be correct -- maybe teachers are more satisfied than the national dialogue would have us believe. But let’s not assume that to be true. Let’s not assume, like so many of us do, that teachers’ autonomy needs to be so limited. Let’s not fail to imagine what teachers could do with autonomy that gives them the opportunity to transform schools. We must ask different questions if we are to truly understand if teachers are content with their current levels of autonomy and freedom, and if they are satisfied with all aspects of their job.

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent education policy professional based in Southern California and is Senior Associate with Education Evolving and Research Consultant with Center for Teaching Quality. She is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots.

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools 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.