Recruitment & Retention Opinion

How Much Autonomy is Right for Professionals?

By Justin Baeder — February 08, 2011 3 min read
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Dear Steve,
Thank you for your thoughtful response to my recent post on curriculum-based assessment.

You make a compelling case that over-standardizing teaching may have the unintended consequence of making it a less appealing profession:

Imagine that you are a talented principal in Seattle and that your job consists of little more than doing what the state has written in a book for you to do. Everything that is important in your work is specified in such a way that you know when and what to do; your job is effectively standardized and is no different than the job of any other principal in your state. Does this seem like a very respectful and satisfying way to treat a professional like yourself? Does it encourage you to go the extra mile or to make the most of your talents? Does it even encourage you to develop new talents knowing that at any time your state can tell you not to use them? And what if you're a writer for EdWeek and the publisher specifies when and how each concept you write about will be written? Not very good either, I would imagine.

As the author of this blog, what would happen to the quality of my posts and my motivation to continue writing if I were assigned specific topics, word count, and editorial point of view? Would I like to be told exactly what to write about, and when and how to write it? Clearly not, but I’m an unpaid contributor, so the dynamic is somewhat different.

I understand that many people were attracted to teaching because of the opportunity to exercise their creativity and ingenuity to help students learn. Autonomy is a significant motivating factor; as Daniel Pink notes in his bestselling book Drive, people are more intrinsically motivated when they have autonomy over their time, task, and team—in other words, when they can choose what to do, when to do it, and with whom to work.

Pink suggests that more autonomy is almost always better, and even advocates an extreme innovation known as a ROWE—a results-only work environment, in which people are held accountable only for what they produce, not the hours they work or the way they work.

On the one extreme, we could allow teachers to teach whatever they want with no guidance whatsoever—no mandated curriculum, no standards, no mandated teaching methods. On the other extreme, you could script teachers’ every word and action.

Let’s set aside for now the issue of what’s best for students instructionally and look only at the workforce issue. We’ll assume that teachers generally value autonomy, so the fewer restrictions on their practice, the more we’ll be able to attract and retain talented teachers.

Does this assumption hold in other professions? If not, how does this affect their ability to attract and retain qualified professionals?

In some professions, autonomy isn’t valued at all. I don’t know any pharmacists personally, but I would guess their work is rather lacking in autonomy—all of their tasks related to prescription drugs are prescribed (literally) and regulated by strict rules, procedures, professional standards, and even laws. They may also be asked to recommend over-the-counter remedies, but their core work is filling prescriptions, over which they have very little autonomy.

But perhaps pharmacy is a poor comparison, because teaching is inherently a more creative endeavor. We may not want creative pharmacists, accountants, or auditors, but we certainly want creative teachers.

Let’s instead consider architecture, a profession in which one operates within parameters defined by the client, but uses one’s own creativity and ingenuity to produce remarkable results. I would consider this a closer parallel with teaching, given that outcomes are somewhat prescribed, but there is wide latitude to use one’s creativity to produce stellar results.

Finally, let’s consider a successful artist, perhaps a painter who takes orders from no one and paints whatever her muse drives her to create. She has full autonomy—she can collaborate or work alone; she can rise with the sun or sleep until noon; she can paint portraits, forest scenes, or abstract works.

At this point in the history of American public education, different stakeholders have different views of the teaching profession—some see it like pharmacy, others like architecture, and others like painting. Many people entered teaching with the expectation that they could be painters, yet they are now being treated more like architects or even pharmacists.

Based on the autonomy patterns I see in other professions, I don’t accept the idea that only infinite teacher autonomy will allow the profession to remain appealing, but I do see important reasons to pay close attention to autonomy as a motivational factor. Plenty of professions offer less autonomy than teaching, and many creative professionals operate within far more restrictive parameters than teachers.

In a sense, standards-based accountability could allow us to have a results-only education system, which I would argue has long been the reality in many places. The Dr. Phil question, then, is “How’s it working for you?”

In a forthcoming post, I will examine the relationship between teacher autonomy and system-level outcomes for students.

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