The Teacher Autonomy Paradox

For the past six years, the education world has been roiled by debate over the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law, critics charge, is sucking the life out of the public schools, turning teachers into test-driven automatons and driving talent from the profession. It's a legitimate concern; some schools have clearly gone overboard in adopting "drill and kill" strategies that put teachers in a pedagogical straitjacket. But the real problem in public education isn't too little teacher autonomy -- it's too much. As a result, teachers are undervalued, underpaid, and becoming more so by the year. Paradoxically, only by relinquishing some autonomy will teachers finally be able to attain the true professional status they deserve.

Teaching is an inherently complex and difficult job. Decades of research tell us that individual students have very distinct learning styles and thus teaching needs. The most effective techniques, moreover, vary not just by student but by subject. Making those adjustments minute-by-minute for 20 or 30 students simultaneously in different subjects is immensely complicated. It requires a smart, adaptable, skilled teacher. In other words, a professional -- someone with the ability to understand what students need and the power to act on that knowledge.

Unfortunately, teacher autonomy historically has been interpreted to mean much more: not just how to teach but what to teach and how to assess the results. This was part and parcel of the American tradition of local educational control: thousands of districts and tens of thousands of schools, each deciding on their own what students needed to learn. That discretion was often passed down the line to the classroom, where teachers were presented with a room full of children at the beginning of the year and only a few vague directions about what to do with them.

The downsides to this approach were many. There were certain things that all students needed to learn -- reading, history, science, math -- and the more interconnected the world became the truer that was. But what students actually learned was often random. While most schools had some forms of common curricula, teachers had wide latitude to change it as they saw fit. One third-grade teacher, for example, might have a personal interest in botany, another in architecture. One might be motivated and effective, another burned out. And there were no common expectations or accountability for how much students learned by the end of the year. This created real headaches for the fourth-grade teacher, who ended up with students starting the year in very different places, and so on and so forth, cascading through years. Left to their own devices with little guidance or support, many teachers -- particularly new teachers and those with the hardest-to-educate children -- struggled mightily to succeed.

The end results weren't pretty, and over time the public took notice. Test scores stagnated and politicians of all political stripes issued calls for education reform, including common standards for all students and accountability to match. But the educational establishment -- state departments of education, local school boards, superintendents and principals, all unwilling to relinquish authority -- fought back. They were joined by the teachers' unions that grew to power in the 1960s and 1970s. The unions wanted, rightly, to elevate teaching into the realm of respected, well-paid professions. Teachers' rights and classroom autonomy, only recently won in the struggle to unionize, were seen as a key element of that goal.

Unfortunately for teachers, this strategy hasn't worked out very well. As the Economic Policy Institute recently documented, teacher salaries have been declining relative to other professions for years. Even as national wealth grew by leaps and bounds in the 1990s, teachers were largely left out in the cold. And while there are many brilliant teachers in the nation's classrooms, the teaching profession on average still doesn't attract the caliber of college students who enter professions like medicine and law.

The reason is clear: Even as teachers were allowed to vary tremendously within the classroom, from the outside they all looked the same. Autonomy was coupled with uniformity, enforced by bureaucratic credentialing processes and lock-step salary schedules that based pay wholly on years of experience and college degrees. That uniformity became linked in the public mind to the overall mediocrity of the system -- underperformance that was, in part, a function of too much teacher autonomy in the first place. The autonomy ideal was also extended to resist any kind of meaningful teacher evaluation. (Earlier this year, the United Federation of Teachers in New York pushed dead-of-night legislation through the state legislature creating a moratorium on basing tenure decisions on "student performance data" of any kind.)

Unable to discern which teachers were good and with a general sense that many were not, policy-makers long ago reached the limit of what they were willing to pay an individual educator. Education labor became a commodity, with prices to match. Instead of promoting the professionalization of teaching, autonomy held it back.

At the same time, public spending on K–12 education (and thus teachers, whose salaries and benefits make up the majority of school budgets) rose steadily. Sometimes new funding came from lawsuits designed to correct the huge property-tax-based funding inequities that were another consequence of local control. Sometimes it came through the political process, as teachers' unions and Democrats fought to ensure that schools got their fair share of growing national wealth. But since policy-makers were reluctant to use that money to pay teachers more, there was only one alternative: more teachers. In 1965 the national student/teacher ratio was 25 to one. Today it's 15 to one, the lowest in history.

There are good reasons to reduce class size: It's one of the few research-proven ways to boost learning outcomes for disadvantaged students in the early grades. Class-size reduction is broadly popular among parents and many other groups besides teachers' unions. But it's also hugely expensive and can backfire when implemented poorly, as with a recent California initiative that caused rich districts to recruit teachers away from poor districts in order to meet state-mandated ratios. Dollars spent on additional teachers can't be used to raise salaries for those already in the classroom, or to recruit the best and brightest into the field.

From the union perspective, however, trading quality for quantity isn't necessarily a bad thing. What's better, one $100,000 teacher or two $50,000 teachers, each with a vote that can be mobilized and translated into influence? The unions' legitimate teacher-professionalization agenda thus ended up at odds with both their anti-accountability agenda and the logic of their political power. The problem for students is that fewer teachers who are more effective, accountable, and well-paid may be the better choice. But instead of balancing policies focused on increasing teacher quality and quantity, the focus has been on quantity alone. As the labor pool expands relative to the number of students and salaries relative to other professions decline, really good teachers become (boutique programs like Teach for America notwithstanding) even harder to find.

That, combined with little accountability for results, means that a non-trivial percentage of teachers simply aren't up to the job, and they are disproportionately concentrated in the districts and schools with the least money, worst working conditions, and toughest students. In response to the demands of NCLB, some of those districts have gone all the way to the other end of the autonomy continuum by instituting so-called "teacher proof" curricula that are scripted down to the minute. This is, for obvious reasons, repellent to the best potential teachers. But it's also, sad to say, most likely an improvement over the worst-of-all-possible-worlds alternative that has become the status quo in too many high-poverty classrooms: an underpaid, unaccountable teacher with weak training, motivation, and skills.

In other words, when it comes to autonomy, teachers have been sold a bill of goods. They're told that it defines them as professionals, but too often it's simply used as an excuse for lack of support. Teachers are asked to do too many things on their own that would be better done collectively: setting standards, developing curricula, and designing assessments. They're given inadequate training before they enter the classroom and too little mentoring and support once they arrive. They're not held accountable for learning results, which degrades the accomplishments of the best among them. So as their salaries stagnate and their benefits are threatened, and as their long-promised ascension to the ranks of truly respected professionals never arrives, teachers hold on to the freedom of autonomy -- because, frankly, they have nothing left to lose.

The alternative is to trade that excess autonomy for all the other things teachers need and deserve. Studies show that the younger generation of teachers wants more rigorous evaluation to help them improve their craft. They know that standards are the mark of a true professional -- hospitals don't check in on residents one day a year to see if they're giving patients excellent care. Nor do they give them carte blanche to decide which surgical techniques to use.

The autonomy trade-off also extends to pay: Michelle Rhee, the reform-minded chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, recently proposed creating that elusive $100,000 teacher salary but only for those who choose to voluntarily relinquish their seniority and tenure rights and be subject to legitimate annual performance evaluations. Such teachers would, in some ways, have less-comfortable and more-rigidly defined jobs than their peers from days gone by. Someone else would decide what their students need to know. If they fail, the consequences could be severe.

But if they succeed, the benefits would be even greater. And people will know. These redefined teachers won't all look the same to the outside world. They won't have the freedom to define what success means, but they'll have the freedom to achieve it and be recognized for doing so. They'll have a newer, better kind of autonomy -- one that a whole new generation of professionals would be attracted to, one that, for their sakes and their students', more teachers need.