Teacher autonomy and teaching quality: Putting more think into the think tank

Barnett Berry addresses a report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) that questions long-standing evidence about teachers’ growing dissatisfaction with their jobs (and their lack of autonomy)?

Hey, turns out teacher working conditions are better than we thought. Just kidding.

Have you seen the recent report of the Center for American Progress (CAP), questioning long-standing evidence about teachers’ growing dissatisfaction with their jobs (and their lack of autonomy)?

Report authors Ulrich Boser, Robert Hanna, and Kaitlin Pennington, drawing on the 2011-12 School And Staffing Survey (SASS) data, concluded that the vast majority of our nation’s teachers have “a good or great deal of control” over choosing their teaching methods. They note that the recent reform regime of top-down curriculum and testing mandates has not discouraged teachers as claimed by “pundits” like teacher blogger Vicki Davis.

To back up this claim, CAP analysts tout high percentages of teachers in a number of states who report they have a good or great deal of control over teaching techniques, grading students, selecting instructional materials, and the like.

The Huffington Post and Forbes ran pieces on CAP’s cursory analysis of SASS data, quoting Boser’s claims that the “cookie-cutter approach” to teaching reforms of late doesn’t actually stifle the teaching profession’s appeal. But neither piece included thorough analysis of CAP’s use of the data.

Don’t get me wrong—the CAP authors make a number of important points regarding differences between teachers’ reports on what they are expected to teach versus how they are supposed to do so. And they do admit that teachers’ current working conditions are far from what they should be. However, the authors’ analysis does not go very deep—as pointed out by my colleague Kim Farris-Berg in Education Week.

(Haven’t heard of her? Farris-Berg is the author of Trusting Teachers With School Success, in which she documented the stories of highly effective teacher-led schools where classroom autonomy goes well beyond grades and daily teaching techniques.)

In her blog post, Farris-Berg poignantly notes:

It is probably more accurate to say that the (CAP) 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.

But there is more to the CAP critique.

I am stunned by the authors’ failure to conduct more sophisticated analyses of the SASS, including the fact that they did not disaggregate the data according to teaching contexts, which can vary dramatically.

The authors ignored the erudite investigations of sociologist Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania, who knows the SASS dataset (dating back to the 1980s) like the back of his hand. Ingersoll has produced a powerful portfolio of studies on teacher autonomy and satisfaction and their relationship to teacher attrition from the classroom. Over the years, Ingersoll has shown that:

  • Teaching has far higher annual turnover than many higher-status occupations—e.g., lawyers, engineers, architects, professors, and pharmacists;
  • High-poverty, high-minority, and urban public schools have the highest rates of teachers both moving between schools and leaving teaching—and the majority of those who leave report they do so because of dissatisfaction with their jobs; and
  • Schools that allow teachers greater professional autonomy in their classrooms, and that provide better opportunities for teachers to learn and grow as professionals experience significantly less teacher turnover—especially in math and science.

Teacher autonomy is an important issue—and so is morale.

Let’s not allow one think tank’s shallow analysis of data to distract us from the problems at hand—issues well-documented by researchers over time and that can be confirmed by frank conversation with nearly any teacher you know.

Denying the existence of a problem doesn’t make it go away.

Instead, let’s focus on solutions. For years, teachers themselves have been proposing practical ways to change school conditions so they can teach students more effectively. And plenty—like the 4,000 members of CTQ’s virtual community, the Collaboratory—would be willing to step up to help administrators solve this puzzle.

I’ve gotta say, I look forward to the day when the first sentence of this blog post holds true! But we aren’t there yet. Let’s work together to make it happen.

Related categories: ,