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.

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  • JustinMinkel

    “It’s all in your head.”

    Barnett, thanks for speaking out so forcefully and eloquently against this kind of “Stop whining! It’s all in your head,” excuse for research. We need to make the case why teacher autonomy has a direct link to student learning. But we also need to respond quickly when groups outside teaching try to discredit direct feedback from teachers about the conditions we live everyday.

    Those less tangible “working conditions” like autonomy, shared leadership, and opportunity for collaboration are at least as important as “bread and butter” working conditions like class size, especially for Generation Y, and they have a significant impact on recruitment, retention, and effectiveness.

  • Julie Hiltz

    “What do you have to complain about?”

    Well said, Barnett. The other thing I would mention when discussing teacher morale issues with strangers is the response I most frequently hear…”What do you have to complain about?” Since there is the perception that I work 6 hour days for only 9 months out of the year, my job is easy. Since I like children, managing elementary students comes easy. Since I have tenure, I have job security. None of those things have ever been true, but the perception remains. We must continue to promote those platforms, like the Collaboratory, that elevate true teacher voice- and perhaps more importantly, provide for an exchange of ideas and solutions.

  • Anne Jolly

    Collaboratory Think Tank

    I like that Julie brought up the Collaboratory.  Can you just imagine the power of a Collaboratory Think Tank to work on this problem?  The Collaboratory is over 4,000 strong and growing.  How can we set up (maybe “pin”) a topic such as Teachers and Instrutional Control so that we see it everytime we enter and have a chance to add ideas before moving on?  We could possibly find several critical issues around teaching and learning to rally around.  Just saying . . .  

  • BillIvey

    Great piece, Barnett!

    On a whim, I Googled “Center for American Progress” and “Bruce Baker,” my cousin and many people’s go-to person for all things edu-statistical. I found this piece in which Bruce characterizes one of their reports as “a manifesto against class size reduction as a strategy for improving school quality and student outcomes,” noting that they provided no other alternative as a basis for comparison, and where he takes down another report for sloppy analysis of data that don’t at all lead to their conclusion that high need – low performance districts are wasting money on frills like ceramics and cheerleading. So they have some history of reaching dubious conclusions. That’s worth noting.

    And then, as you say, let’s always focus on solutions as well – ones that are known to be effective. I often push AMLE’s “This We Believe” as a research-based framework from a respected professional organization that works well in schools (such as my own) that implement it completely. And I love Anne’s idea of using our collective brainpower to weigh in with practice, effective solutions.

  • Barnett

    Fabulous comments

    These are fabulous comments – and as usual — you guys keep me thinking and on my toes! Justin, there is a growing literature base on the relationship between teacher autonomy and student learning. One is Ingersoll’s work that shows the relationship between autonomy and teacher retention…and the long-term retention ot teachers has long-term impact on school improvement and greater student learning. Anne and Julie, those who wrote this report have very little understanding of what schooling is like. CTQ has offered to bring more taeachers to their data analysis – but it appears that as Bill suggests – they typically already have their conclusions in mind before they go find data to support them. One thing that i did not mention in my blog post was that the SASS items they drew upon – while useful questions to ask i 2014 — was develop in the mid-1980s! 

    The best i know is that we are in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century and they are mkaing jusdgments about the qualities of teacher autonomy today with items designed 30 years ago. WOW!

    If the Common Core demands of students to independent thinkers and appliers and even creators of interdiscipliary knowlede then what are the working conditions that teachers must have to create the stage for students to achieve as such? Perhaps we should do a CTQ Collab-wide response to this issue!