Yo Teach…! Or how to avoid teaching like Jason

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 16 2012

Backwards Planning Educational Debates

I have a lot of mixed feelings about debates surrounding educational reform. On the one hand, I believe that Sweden–where educational achievement has plummeted since it implemented a universal and even egalitarian voucher system in the early 1990s–is the evidence all critics of school choice should point to that even in the best circumstances, school choice will do little on its own to improve educational quality. On the other hand, I believe we are far from figuring out what kinds of instructional practices and school organizations are best to help particular groups of students succeed academically, and don’t think top-down control from cities, states, the department of education, or unions, over how schools should be run, how teachers should be paid/evaluated, etc. is in the best interest of students. While many on this platform will disagree, I don’t think this view makes me necessarily a sympathizer with reformers. Plenty of city, state and federal educational reform policies are overly prescriptive in these ways, including NCLB, RTTT, and Mayor Emanuel’s proposed changes to education in Chicago (though I am sure there is an argument to be made that the presence of expansive union contracts requires that policies are fought at the city/state/national level rather than the school level).

I find myself talking myself in circles. So instead I am going to try to mix up what it is we are arguing about. Instead of reform v no reform, how about “teacher autonomy versus administrator/district/state/union control.” I would imagine that almost all teachers and educational thinkers would agree that in most situations, more autonomy is better than less autonomy. Possible exceptions? First year teachers may need more structured teaching environments to be successful, and teachers may buy into a school that has a particular and rigid instructional approach (uncommon schools, for example). In return for such autonomy, it is reasonable to ask in return some form of nuanced accountability.

Does anyone strongly disagree with this general ideal for a school organization: teachers are given more autonomy and in return are held accountable to jointly created mastery assessments and some form of cross-school growth assessment? If so, I’d be interested in hearing why. If not, then let’s think about what kind of policies are likely to promote this kind of autonomy.


High stakes testing; First of all, if any principal or superintendent feels a lot of strong pressure to boost scores quickly, it is likely that they will respond by limiting teacher autonomy (a bad idea, but attempts to control come out of crisis). So high stakes testing will likely limit autonomy, though I think this outcome could be avoided if tests benchmarked schools based on growth over the course of a year, and then made reasonable goals over a 3-5 year period that did not force administrators to desperately juke the scores by invading every single classroom. As most teachers know, high stakes testing can also lead administrators to be more intrusive in adapting school assessments so they are perfectly aligned with state assessments. Perhaps, purposefully unpredictable federal assessments could fix this problem (covering the same standards but it in different ways). However, this would certainly complicate the attempts of schools to track their own progress year-year.

School Choice: School choice relies on competition. Unfortunately, evidence I’ve gathered from Sweden suggests that the pressures from competition can manifest themselves in similarly short-sighted ways to bureaucratic pressures, in the end diminishing teacher autonomy as administrators step in to instill their vision of how schools will attract customers (probably driven by consumer data than pedagogy). Perhaps strong informational systems could combat this trend, where schools are judged in some way on how autonomous teachers are (their satisfaction, their ability to articulate why and when they are teaching a particular skill, etc.)in a ranking system analogous to US News and World Reports. Indeed, competition doesn’t lead to diminished autonomy in all sectors of the economy: it’s possible we could rig the game, but that would take most policymakers coming together in agreement about what education should look like, rather than what ends it should achieve. The latter is a lot easier to agree upon. But school choice isn’t just about students choosing, it’s about teachers choosing. If teachers voted with their feet more often, that could be a local bargaining chip that could be a free-market replacement of unions (especially in charter schools where unions have no presence anyways). But I see two problems:

  1. Who wants to go to school or teach in a climate where teachers jump around all the time? I think a bunch of new students each year is enough change for the average teacher, not to mention the financial insecurity that results and the cost to parents who value a cohesive and long-term staff.
  2. The school I teach at currently embodies the downside of this kind of world: the school limits teacher autonomy. Therefore, good teachers leave, resulting in more new teachers, leading to even more restrictions on teacher autonomy, etc. etc. Before you know it, 75% of the teachers are either TFA or on their way out (or both).

Principal Autonomy: If you want a compelling defense of how school choice à school autonomyà teacher autonomy, read Chubb and Moe’s Politics, Markets and America’s Schools. Best case for school choice ever written, I believe. Their main message is that if principals can choose the staff they want, they will trust them more, and grant them more autonomy. I’m sympathetic to the idea that it is harder for a principal you see everyday to essentially deny your expertise in running your own classroom than it would be for an off-sight administrator, policymaker, etc. But I’m realizing in practice this doesn’t always happen. Principals, especially of charter schools, rarely exist in a vacuum, and are often beholden to charter authorizers, grant-givers, CMO’s, who often have a particular vision of what they want to see in a classroom, and could care less about whether or not the teachers agree with their educational vision. I also believe that many principals aren’t sold on this vision of education, and therefore might very well think the key to improving academic quality is giving teachers “best practices” scripts.

Unions: I am least versed in the history/politics of teachers unions. In the context of a school system that largely centralized, I see their value for both teachers and students to stand up for teachers against obtuse politicians or administrators. But I also see how unions might also enhance into the need for educational decisions to be done centrally, since many union contracts are city or district wide. I wonder, if school choice is inevitable, if larger unions could exist as financial support for teachers who want to strike or leave a school for egregious teacher-related policies. But the idea of cities battling with unions seems suboptimal for teachers, students, and those who believe in school choice.

How about Teach For America? We certainly increase the percentage of first or second year teachers in a school, which probably justifies schools in diminishing teacher autonomy overall. We also replace older teachers who are less likely to submit to top-down lessons and curricula. I would say, in our defense, that TFA teachers are probably more likely not to need school-based support (than non-TFA first year teachers), primarily because of the support we receive through MTLD’s, TFANET, etc. But TFA teachers have less to lose than a veteran teacher supporting a family. That makes us amenable to high workloads, low pay, long hours, etc., potentially screwing over those teachers with lives. TFA teachers also are a bit more political than your average teacher (probably for the same reasons…less to lose). I think if TFA gave us more of a normative foundation of what we ought to expect as teachers, and empowered us to be change-agents in our schools (I’m thinking more for those of us dropped in the slimiest of charter and district schools) on behalf of our staff, TFA could tip the scale a bit in the other direction. But that certainly is not the case today. Indeed, TFA acts as if they need those teacher-alienating charter schools more than the schools need TFA. It would take a lot to get TFA to stand up to (or condone CM’s standing up to) one of the schools they send us to. This is cowardly and one of my biggest problems with TFA.

In Conclusion? I had no idea what side I would end on after this little intellectual exercise, which is why I had fun doing it. It seems like my arguments generally support the idea that most of the current reforms would be bad for teacher autonomy, unless they were done in a very clever way. However, what I neglected to address is the fact that most states now have some muddled form of school choice based on bad assessments, scant data, etc. On the margins, I’m not sure I’m convinced that embracing some of these policies couldn’t be beneficial. Did I miss any big arguments in any category? Is my goal of assessment-informed teacher autonomy stupid? I’d love to hear back.

5 Responses

  1. veteran

    I think you raise many interesting points in this post.
    The part about Sweeden is new to me-so I appreciate learning that part.
    I’m an early TFA so when I was placed we could literally pick what standards we wanted to teach and what time of the day and for how long, and in what way, etc. We had so much autonomy and teaching was definitely more creative and fun. However it is hard to know with that much autonomy if you are making the best decisions for students all the time.
    Flash forward – Now I feel so micromanaged in terms of curriculum, schedule, decision making,etc. etc. that I feel very little control. I’m not sure what the answer is- I’m guessing as with most things it’s somewhere in the middle

    • Personally, I like to know exactly what content and skills are to be taught when (within reason – say, within a 9-week marking period) and have autonomy to decide how to teach them. That way I know I am hitting the objectives and if the students transfer within district they’re on basically the same page as the students at their new school, but I can choose the implementation that suits my particular students, my strengths as a teacher, and our situation.

      • eta: basically, I want a clear scope and sequence – in fact, I would love it if the state would produce state-wide scopes-and-sequences for the core classes and common electives, so we would all know clearly what’s expected of us, and the students transcripts would more meaningfully represent their learning – but I want my students and I to be able to approach the content and skills in our own way.

        • yoteach

          Parus, personally I totally agree with you. That’s really all I need. If there were strong assessments I would find them useful as well to compare my students to similar students in other classes. Putting your and Veteran’s comments together, what I’m deciphering is (I believe) close to what I initially espoused: autonomy as to how you teach something, with common objectives being taught at similar times.

          I think it’s a bit of a sad irony that schools whose existence is grounded on the philosophy of freedom with some form of reasonable accountability fails to apply that same philosophy to their teachers.

          • Yes, I would also like exemplar assessments. Not standardized ones that I would be REQUIRED to administer – I like being able to give alternative and performance assessments. But sample assessments with exemplars of student work that demonstrate various levels of proficiency could be useful in gauging how my students stack up compared to others in the state and compared to state expectations.

            Of course, we do have state graduation exams, and yearly bubbletests, so there is some state-wide measurement there, but they kind of feel like – if you will pardon the Palin-ism – “gotcha” tests rather than assessments designed to be a practical gauge of student progress. Also, they don’t exist for all subjects and grade levels, and they are very broad.

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