Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Lives of Teachers: Autonomy Versus Control

I have a lot going on right now, but I had to write a post for a project I'm working on about teacher autonomy, so I thought I'd post it here. 

Clearly, if we just leave teachers to their own devices, to teach with their doors closed and no supervision, we cannot be assured of high-quality instruction.  At the same time, if we ask teachers to be automatons who parrot pre-packaged lessons, they will not be able to discern or respond to the nuanced needs of their students.  Being a good teacher requires a remarkable amount of professional judgment, which can only be developed and honed through experience and reflection.  Trying things out, seeing how they work, tweaking them, and trying them again is one of the best ways to become a skillful teacher.

I teach at a school that has, in general, erred on the side of requiring less of teachers, of leaving teachers more or less to their own devices.  As someone who loves creating curriculum, this has suited me well, and we have ended up with a great deal of creative and engaging curriculum.  At the same time, it's not effective in all cases, and we have also ended up with a great deal of misguided and dull curriculum.  New teachers are overwhelmed at the prospect of having little guidance; we have not had enough vertical alignment and differentiation (for example, we see teachers in grades 1 through 5 teaching nearly identical mini-lessons in writing! Ah, Lucy Calkins.); and there are times when all teachers, no matter their experience, realize they don't know enough about how to teach a certain concept, and would like some help.

So as a school, we are trying to navigate the space between too much autonomy and too much control. We are asking teachers to documents their lesson plans each week, but in whatever way works for them -- in other words, you plan your week in the way you always have, and you post it online.  As long as plans are there by Sunday, you're good to go.  There is quite a bit of flexibility in terms of how teams carry this out.  And there is definitely more leeway given to experienced teachers.  If you have proven, over the years, that you achieve results with your students, others will rarely question what you are doing in your classroom.  If a teacher is judged to be struggling, more oversight and guidance come into play -- her plans might be more closely monitored, for example, and she might be asked to explain the thinking behind her plans.

This question of autonomy, in the end, comes down to whether teachers are meeting students' needs. There are certainly a number of ways to teach nearly any concept -- the question is, is your instruction effective, and does it meet the emotional, developmental, and cultural needs of your students?  How you figure out whose instruction is effective is, of course, a bigger conversation.  It is clear you can't tell only by looking at test scores.  It's also clear that it's complicated.

I often make comparisons between running a school and my father's job managing employees at a retailer.  I do not agree with people who think schools should be run just like businesses -- but I think there are definite similarities.  The process of supervising and evaluating employees at my dad's work involves goal-setting, 360 evaluations, mentoring, and many conversations.  When someone is not performing well enough, they talk a lot, they let them know specifically what they have to get better at and how it will be measured, they try to help them get better, and they document all of the steps taken. If it works, great.  If not, that person is asked to leave -- including the higher-ups.  The bottom line might seem clearer in business than in education -- making money is the goal -- but that's not all they focus on. They look at adherence to the mission and vision of the organization, communication and people skills, risk-taking, etc.  And they manage to evaluate all of these things, not only by looking at a number (ie. a test score), but using a more complex system.

It seems like there are things that must be non-negotiable in a school.  A teacher must follow and adhere to the mission and values of the school where she teaches.  She must meet the developmental, emotional, and academic needs of her student.  She must be able to work with colleagues and families. And she must be permitted to use her professional judgment to make decisions about all of these things.

PS. Until recently, I might have talked about adhering to curriculum standards. It's no longer really permitted, in education, to question the validity of the standards, and I do think that having standards, or competencies, that we expect of students is in theory a good idea.  But I have a lot of questions about the standards we currently work with.  I am reading a book I think everyone should read: "Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us," by Daniel Koretz. And he says, "The process of setting standards -- deciding just how much students have to do to pass muster -- is technically complex and has a scientific aura, but in fact the standards are quite arbitrary ... Standards-based reporting provides a very coarse and in some cases severely distorted view of achievement."

So I am more ambivalent about the standards than ever, but try to keep those thoughts to myself so as to avoid being run out of town on a rail.

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