Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Is teacher autonomy just a perk?

Yesterday, I talked about the value of treating teachers as professionals, and giving them the autonomy to make their own decisions about what works in their classrooms. My belief in that value grows out of my own experiences as a teacher at the college and professional school level. At the University of Iowa, where I work, like at virtually any university in America, professors are given a great deal of freedom in how they teach their courses. No one tells you what books to use, what lecture to give, what projects to assign, or how to evaluate students' success: it is the professor who makes those decisions, and that is one of the pleasures of the job. At most, the professor is constrained by a few paragraphs prescribing the general subject matter to be covered in the course. Any attempt to take that autonomy away from the teachers, any attempt by a central authority to micromanage the classroom, would prompt an outcry and a rebellion.

This is in sharp contrast to the way we treat our school teachers. Teachers often have no say in what books they use, what material they cover and in what order, what assignments they assign, and how they assess students' progress. Those decisions are dictated by a central authority -- usually the school board -- and are largely driven by even-more-central authorities, such as state and federal governments. Since the federal government has made so much hinge on test scores, there is all the more incentive for central authorities to micromanage the classroom in attempts to raise those scores. (See this egregious example.)

Why do we give our college professors so much autonomy? Why do we not seek to hold them accountable with the same methods that we use to hold school teachers accountable? Is it just because they are spoiled, self-policing, tenured prima donnas who refuse to be told what to do? Or is it because we see them as professionals who know better than central administrators how to teach their particular subjects?

In other words, is teacher autonomy just a perk that comes at the expense of the students' education? If so, how can we justify giving it to our college professors?

Or is teacher autonomy an important element in providing a good education? If so, how can we justify denying it to our school teachers?

..How can I comment?