Teacher Autonomy by State (and Salary)

As I mentioned before, the Center for American Progress just put out a report finding that teachers today still seem to feel very autonomous even in this era of accountability and reform.

Exactly how autonomous they feel varies depending on which aspect of the job you’re asking them about. So, for example, about 58% of teachers report having a “moderate” or “great deal” of control over “selecting content, topics, and skills to be taught”, but more than 93% report that much autonomy when it comes to “evaluating and grading students”.

That makes a certain amount of sense: teachers are usually hired to teach pre-existing content standards, so it’d be a little surprising if they felt as autonomous about content as they do about grading or disciplining students (about which 88% feel autonomous).

One of the most interesting aspects of autonomy, in my view, is over “selecting teaching techniques”, since that seems to get at the core of many conceptions of teacher professionalism.

So how much control do teachers report having over how to teach? Quite a lot: 91% of teachers report having a “moderate”  or “great deal”  of control over selecting teaching techniques.

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That doesn’t vary much by state. In the least autonomous state – Florida – 83% of teachers report a “moderate” amount or “great deal” of autonomy over teaching techniques.

To distinguish a little more between states, I ignored teachers reporting a “moderate” amount of control and focused only on those reporting “a great deal” of control over how they teach. Here there is some notable variation between states:


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So while overall levels are high, there do appear to be some differences in perceived autonomy between the states. Three-quarters or more of the teachers in Hawaii, Montana, and the Dakotas feel very free to teach the way they want, while only about half of teachers in Delaware, Florida, Rhode Island, and Maryland feel that way.

What could explain these differences? One hypothesis could be that teachers are granted more autonomy in exchange for accepting relatively lower salaries (e.g., “True, we’re not paying you very much, but we won’t bug you about how you teach.”) Conversely, we might expect that teacher autonomy is associated with relatively higher salaries (e.g., “We’re paying you generously because we respect your expertise; obviously we’re going to defer to your judgment about how to teach.”)

Or, at least, these were hypotheses that came to mind for me, probably because I recently looked at teacher salaries in different states.

But are either of these hypotheses supported (or ruled out) by the data?

If we just look at average teacher salaries, states with more highly-paid teachers tend to have teachers who feel (slightly) less autonomous:

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That pattern persists when we adjust teacher salaries for state-level median household income:

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So there is some tentative support for the hypothesis that better-paid teachers are more likely to be expected to teach in school- or district-approved ways.

Interestingly, however, the relationship between autonomy and salary flips when we look at salaries as a fraction of median income for other 4-year college graduates:

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So in states where teachers are paid more relative to household income, they feel less autonomous. In states where teachers are paid more relative to other BA-holders, however, they feel more autonomous.

It’s not at all clear what’s going on here. If you can get such different results by slicing and dicing the salary numbers in different ways, then it’s entirely possible that teacher feelings of professional autonomy are not causally related to salaries in any direct, meaningful way.

So if teacher autonomy is related to salaries…how? And if autonomy isn’t related to salary…why not?

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