Based on a national sample of thirty-seven thousand public school teachers, this report from the National Center for Education Statistics’s School and Staffing Survey (SASS) looks at teacher autonomy in the classroom during the 2003–04, 2007–08, and 2011–12 school years. The news in brief: Teachers are somewhat less likely to feel that they have a great deal of autonomy than they have been in the past. But they still report a degree of professional freedom that most of us would surely envy.

To measure autonomy, researchers asked teachers how much “actual control” they have in their classrooms over six areas of planning and teaching: selecting textbooks and other classroom materials; content, topics, and skills to be taught; teaching techniques; evaluating and grading students; disciplining students; and determining the amount of homework to be assigned. Teacher autonomy is “positively associated with teachers’ job satisfaction and teacher retention,” the report notes. Those who perceive that they have less autonomy are “more likely to leave their positions, either by moving from one school to another or leaving the profession altogether.”

With nearly three out of four teachers still reporting a “great deal” of autonomy (down from 82 percent in 2003–04), it hardly seems time to push the panic button. Moreover, if teachers are frustrated, I’m not persuaded that the narrow SASS definition of autonomy gets at the issue. Does my autonomy manifest itself in control over content, topics, and skills to be taught? Control over evaluating and grading students is fine. But myriad competing demands can steal time from evaluating student work, offering meaningful feedback, building relationships with students and families, and other tasks that create a sense that a teacher’s work is fruitful.

By way of example: As a new fifth-grade teacher in a South Bronx elementary school, I spent countless hours planning lessons and writing curriculum—hours that would have been far better spent practicing and mastering my craft. Sure, I had plenty of “autonomy,” but I lacked the time to exercise it. I would have reported a high degree of autonomy on the SASS measures. Since creating curriculum and lessons from scratch each week took prodigious amounts of valuable time, however, my “autonomy” yielded more frustration and dissatisfaction.

To be sure, even though the percentage of public school teachers who report that they have a high degree of autonomy is declining, teachers still say they have a moderate or great degree of control over their classrooms. If there’s a category of public sector worker—cops, firemen, or sidewalk sweepers—with more authority to call their own shots on the job, I can’t think of it. The question is where to strike the balance of accountability and autonomy so as to maximize teacher satisfaction and student outcomes even while fostering innovation. On this, the SASS is silent.

SOURCE: Dinah Sparks and Nat Malkus, “Public School Teacher Autonomy in the Classroom Across School Years 2003–04, 2007–08, and 2011–12,” U.S. Department of Education (December 2015).

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a senior advisor to Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools based in Harlem, New York. He writes and speaks extensively on education and education-reform issues, with an emphasis on literacy, curriculum, teaching, and urban education. After twenty years in…

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