Teaching Profession

For Teachers Seeking More Autonomy: Have You Tried North Dakota?

By Ross Brenneman — January 23, 2014 3 min read
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Control over textbooks. Control over curriculum. Control over instruction. Control over discipline. For direction over areas at the heart of teaching, a new study suggests that North Dakota and South Dakota may be Teacher Mecca.

The report, released Tuesday by the Center for American Progress, examines teacher autonomy across the United States. To arrive at its results, CAP distilled a series of teacher surveys on various aspects of professional autonomy, including material selection, content selection, instruction, grading, homework assignment, and discipline.

North Dakota ranked at or near the top of every category, and finished with the highest overall average, followed closely by South Dakota. Consistently ranked near the bottom of each category were Virginia, Rhode Island, and Delaware.

“We were very pleased,” Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota’s superintendent of public instruction, told me. “In North Dakota, we’ve always included our teachers in our educational process. They have been and continue to be a central part of our team effort that develops any sort of educational process.”

The contrasts between the high ends and low ends are striking:

(Click to enlarge)

CAP published the study partly in response to other surveys and thought pieces suggesting that many teachers are deeply unhappy, with top-down mandates, micro-management, and lack of professional discretion being frequent sources of frustration. Many teachers implementing Common Core State Standards claim that the new standards have caused a reduction in autonomy over curriculum and instruction, but CAP’s analysis, which includes periods during which common-standards implementation had already taken effect, seems to suggest that teachers remain largely in control, though individual experiences may clearly vary.

“I believe in a centralized standard set of expectations,” Baesler said. “But I believe we need to leave that instructional strategy and the resource decisions up to the teachers. They know their students best.”

CAP doesn’t deny that common standards may lessen teacher autonomy, but the report argues that standards can be a foundation on which to create a better body of professional development and teacher training. Additionally, it says, if states also improved compensation, school funding, and working conditions, all these factors together would strengthen the teaching profession.

“Most certainly, teachers should be given a great deal of leeway over how they teach, but the country also needs to do a far better job defining what teachers teach—in the end, the teaching profession will be all the better for it,” the authors write. (Also, as the authors clarified to me in an email, they are not supporting a common curriculum.)

So why do many teachers seem to feel differently? Why is the perception of weakened autonomy so prominent that CAP could create a study out of it? Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that it’s largely a matter of the way the common standards are being implemented. When Education Week Teacher blogger Justin Minkel tackled autonomy in the context of the common standards, commenters noted a lack of training provided by schools and districts, which echoes the CAP report’s conclusions, as well as overbearing administration. In a follow-up post, Minkel notes that common core is being used to perpetuate and exacerbate pre-existing administrative flaws in schools:

“These teachers are experiencing a drastic suppression of their autonomy in common core’s name. Apart from the negative impact on teacher recruitment and retention that comes with squelched autonomy, students are experiencing inferior instruction as a result.”

North Dakota, bastion of teacher autonomy, wants to avoid that.

“It’s important for us to continue to include our teachers in our decisionmaking process so they maintain that professionalism, and help them bring the profession of teaching to a level that is really deserved,” Baesler said. “It is truly an art and a science, and it takes a unique skill set and a lot of guidance and support.”

Image credit: Wikipedia/Ross Brenneman

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.