The concept of teacher autonomy refers to the professional independence of teachers in schools, especially the degree to which they can make autonomous decisions about what they teach to students and how they teach it.
In recent years, teacher autonomy has become a major point of discussion and debate in American public education, largely as a result of educational policies that, some argue, limit the professionalism, authority, responsiveness, creativity, or effectiveness of teachers.
While teacher autonomy is most frequently discussed in terms of what teachers teach to students and how they teach it, the issue may also manifest in other ways. For example, some schools are entirely led and managed by teachers—i.e., the schools do not have formal administrators; teachers assume administrative roles, usually on a revolving basis. In addition, the composition and negotiation of teacher contracts may also vary significantly from place to place. For example, local teachers unions will negotiate annual contracts with school districts in some states, while most states have statewide teacher contracts that are negotiated by state teachers unions. Depending on its provisions, teaching contracts can directly affect professional autonomy, given that contracts may, for example, determine the specific number of hours that teachers can work each week or limit the roles that teachers can play in a school or district.
For a related discussion, see autonomy.
While debates related to teacher autonomy vary from place to place, the professionalism of teachers is typically a central issue in the debates. Many educators, and groups such as teachers unions or membership-based professional organizations for teachers, may argue that infringing on teacher autonomy in the classroom undermines the professional status and expertise of teachers. In this view, attempts to micromanage teaching strategies or teacher performance through more prescriptive policies, greater administrative oversight, or strict curriculum requirements will undermine job satisfaction or the perception that teachers are skilled professionals who have earned a degree of public trust in their abilities.
Advocates of greater teacher autonomy may also argue that because teachers are in the best position to make informed decisions about a student’s education, they should be given as much autonomy as possible when it comes to choosing instructional strategies, designing lessons, and providing academic support. In this view, more stringent regulations, tougher job requirements, greater administrative oversight, or more burdensome teacher-evaluation procedures, for example, will inevitability stifle the instructional creativity and responsiveness of teachers, which could produce a variety of negative results, including lower student performance or higher job dissatisfaction and attrition rates among teachers. Given that no policy that is applied to all teachers can take into account the myriad abilities and needs of students, the reasoning goes, important decisions about educating students should be left to teachers. Similarly, local school leaders and administrators are better positioned to determine the performance of teachers, rather than blanket policies that are applied to all teachers in a district or state, such as valued-added measures—i.e., formulas used to estimate or quantify how much of a positive (or negative) effect individual teachers have on student learning during the course of a given school year.
Critics of teacher autonomy tend to cite evidence that teaching quality is uneven, and that problems such as achievement gaps or low graduation rates indicate that measures need to be taken to improve the effectiveness of teachers and public-school instruction. While the proposed solutions to ineffective teaching are numerous, proposals may include greater administrative oversight, increased educational and professional requirements for new teachers, prepackaged or “scripted” curriculum materials, more demanding evaluation systems for job performance, or penalties for poor-performing teachers, for example.
The following examples will help to illustrate a few of the primary issues giving rise to debates about teacher autonomy:
- Testing policies: High-stakes tests—exams used to make important decisions about schools, educators, or students—are widely considered to cause a phenomenon known as “teaching to the test”—i.e., educators focusing their instruction on the topics that are most likely to be tested, or spending classroom time prepping students for tests rather than teaching them knowledge and skills that may be more important. If penalties are imposed on schools, educators, students, or teachers due to test results, critics argue, teachers will inevitably have less autonomy over the instructional process because they will be forced to “teach to the test.” As the use of standardized tests has grown in the United States in recent decades, educators have increasingly expressed concern about the consequences of such policies, including the consideration of student test scores in the job-performance evaluations of teachers—a highly controversial subject among educators and teachers unions.
- Standards policies: All fifty states in the United States have developed and adopted learning standards—concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education—that establish learning goals for students in kindergarten through high school. Consequently, when schools “align” their academic programs and curriculum with the learning goals described in standards, some argue that teachers will have less “autonomy” in determining the knowledge, skills, and content they teach to students. The extent to which learning standards limit the autonomy of teachers remains a subject of ongoing discussion and debate, but many educators argue that standards do not impose significant limitations on the professional autonomy of teachers. For example, some argue that standards only describe broad learning expectations, and that they do not tell teachers how to teach or even, to a great extent, what to teach. For example, a standard that requires students to demonstrate understanding how “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” work in American government does not require teachers to teach those ideas in any specific way—they can use any number of instructional approaches, learning materials, or historical examples to teach students the concepts described in the standards.
- Curriculum policies: Some states, districts, and schools have policies related to curriculum that may affect teacher autonomy to a greater or lesser extent. For example, some districts and schools require teachers to use “scripted curriculum”—i.e., a prescriptive, standardized, prepackaged form of curriculum that may require teachers to follow a particular sequence of prepackaged lessons and, in some cases, read aloud from a teaching script in class. Though the term is now considered pejorative and rarely used, forms of scripted curriculum were called “teacher-proof curriculum” in past decades. Clearly, the professional autonomy of individual teachers will be significantly limited when such a curriculum system is mandated. In other districts or schools, teachers may be required to use certain texts or instructional approaches, or follow “pacing guides” that outline a specific sequence of lessons and content. For example, teachers may be required to have students reading a designated chapter in a particular textbook on a certain day of the school year. Depending on the level of prescription, and whether they are voluntary guidelines or mandates, curriculum policies can directly affect the instructional autonomy of teachers.
- Promotion policies: Some states, districts, and schools have policies related to grade promotion or graduation that may limit the ability of teachers to play a role in the process of deciding how and when students will be promoted. For example, a district policy may require that students be automatically held back if they fail a course, which could, in some circumstances, supersede a teacher’s recommendation that the student be promoted due to certain extenuating factors. Some states may also require students to pass a standardized test before they are promoted to the next grade level or eligible to receive a high school diploma (for a related discussion, see high-stakes test). Other policies may require a particular course of corrective action when students fail a course, which could also have implications for teacher autonomy. For example, students who fail a course may be required to complete a credit-recovery program—such as an online course or summer-school program—that may not mirror the content taught in the course the student failed. In this case, the teacher may not have a say in how their students “recover” the credit they failed to earn in the teacher’s class.
- Evaluation policies: Discussions and debates about “teacher evaluation” and “teacher accountability” have grown more prominent—and contentious—in recent years. Depending on the systems, methods, and criteria used in the job-performance evaluations of teachers, evaluation policies may affect teacher autonomy. If evaluation processes, expectations, and requirements are more stringent or burdensome, it could influence the way that teachers instruct students. For example, if standardized test scores are used in the evaluation process, and if compensation decisions (salaries, bonuses, or “merit-based” pay) are connected to test scores, teachers will be more likely to modify how and what they teach to improve student test results.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.