The Limits of Teacher Autonomy

2789011953_eb1bdc27e9_nThis post from Matt Bruenig has just enough educational implications for me to indulge some of my philosophical tendencies. Discussing Justin Green’s complaint about anti-discrimination laws infringing on personal freedom, Matt writes:

Now ask yourself this question: can people in the U.S. refuse to engage in private commerce with anyone for any reason?

The answer is clearly yes. If you do not want to engage in commerce with, say, a black person, you are not forced to. Nobody requires you to operate a hotel, a restaurant, or any other business. If you don’t want to serve a black person at your restaurant, you can refuse to do so by not opening or operating a restaurant. There is no legal penalty for that whatsoever.

We know of course what Green means. He doesn’t mean that people should be able to refuse to engage in private commerce with anyone for any reason (something they already can do). He means that they should have the affirmative ability to engage in private commerce without following the rules we establish for such engagements, in this case non-discrimination rules.

Right. You sometimes see similar arguments from teachers about their own autonomy. Consider this tweet about the Common Core standards:

I don’t actually know how to make sense of the idea that teachers shouldn’t be required to teach standards. What, exactly, are we hiring teachers for if not to teach specific content?

To wax metaphysical, though, note that the Common Core standards – like all previous standards – are in fact completely voluntary for all teachers. After all, any teacher who would prefer not to teach the CCSS is entirely free not to accept a job that requires them to teach the CCSS.

When teachers insist that you should “just let us teach” or complain that we “shouldn’t be forced to do X”, what they sometimes mean is that we should grant them the affirmative right to get hired for a job with a different description. That’s a very different, substantially less-plausible meaning.

Of course, in some cases teacher autonomy is a good thing. Teachers are often best-positioned to make decisions about what their students need or are able to do, for example.

But these are utilitarian considerations; there is no a priori point of principle about whether teachers “should” be “free” to make decisions about what their job entails because everybody is free not to teach in the first place. It’s entirely conceivable, for instance, that our education system would be better on balance if the Common Core standards were repealed or replaced, but the standards are still voluntary for teachers to the extent that nobody is legally required to be a teacher.

This isn’t a major issue in education debates, but every once in a while teachers can’t resist the urge to adopt the appealing rhetoric of “freedom” even though “freedom” is a morally-loaded concept only tangentially related to most educational issues.

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  1. Joanne Robert
    Posted March 12, 2014 at 9:02 PM | Permalink

    I believe the autonomy that teachers speak of is in the DELIVERY of standards (we know those are necessary). I don’t appreciate PEARSON telling me how to conduct my classroom nor the one size fits all approach to teaching content.

    • Posted March 13, 2014 at 5:49 AM | Permalink

      In some cases yes, that’s what they mean, but not in all cases. And in either case, the point about the requirements being “voluntary” would still apply. If there’s a problem with Pearson-prescribed delivery, it’s got to be that it results in poor delivery, not that it’s involuntary.

  2. Posted March 13, 2014 at 4:50 PM | Permalink

    Should teachers be given the freedom to refuse to teach to common core standards?

    Consider a parallel historical example. In the mid-1800’s the miasma theory of disease was the dominant assumption about the causes of disease. Ignaz Semelweiss had discovered that standard hand washing protocols reduced the incidence of peuperal fever in maternity wards. But the standard protocols that were expected under miasma theory made Semmelweiss’s actions seem ridiculous. Should Semelweiss have been given the freedom to refuse the standard practices that he knew were going to kill some of his patients?

    This might seem far fetched, however, I would argue that it is a similar situation. First you have to know that all traditional schools studied over the last 30 years or so show declines in the intrinsic motivation of their students. That decline is a serious problem because it is an indirect indicator of the mental well-being of the students. In other words, traditional schools diminish the mental health of their students. My research, published in the journal Other Education, along with two other studies, one done in Israel and the other here in the USA, show that there are alternatives that do not have that problem. Those types of schools maintain the intrinsic motivation of their students. The differences between traditional schools and these alternatives are like the differences between medical practitioners in the 1800’s who believed in miasma theory versus those who did not, like Semmelweiss.

    The argument that teachers should accept the standards they are given is predicated on the assumption that education is a delivery process. That is the delivery theory of education. Many teachers, myself included, believe that the delivery theory is wrong. As with Semmelweiss’s time there is not yet a fully developed alternative theory (germ theory was not fully articulated until decades after Semmelweiss died) but the research data on the alternative schools is as clear and compelling as Semmelweiss’ data was. Also, there is a research that shows that teacher accountability for student outcomes tends to increase the teacher’s use of the kinds of techniques that cause the declines in mental well-being.

    So, to be clear the data I mentioned does not dictate against standards, it only dictates against holding one person accountable for another person’s behavior. People should be held accountable for their own behavior and it’s outcomes. What I would argue is that teachers should be held accountable for providing a learning environment that supports the mental health of their students independent of their teaching methods or the content. This proposition would be similar to saying that doctors and hospitals should be held accountable for implementing effective antiseptic protocols independent of their medical specialty.


    Don Berg

    Free E-book: The Attitude Problem in Education

    • Posted March 13, 2014 at 8:29 PM | Permalink

      “The argument that teacher should accept the standards they are given” is not “predicated on the assumption that education is a delivery process”. (At least I *think* it isn’t; I’m not actually entirely sure what that means.)

      Rather, the argument is predicated on the fact that teachers are hired to teach the standards and therefore have no a priori principled claim to autonomy. Whether the standards could be better or whether education would be better without standards is an important empirical question, but it is also separate from the question of whether teachers are entitled to content autonomy as a matter of principle.

  3. Posted March 14, 2014 at 6:47 PM | Permalink

    You’re not entirely sure what “the assumption that education is a delivery process” means. It means that education is aimed at delivering specific content, from the repositories of all wisdom (teachers) to the blank slates (students). Since you ask “What, exactly, are we hiring teachers for if not to teach specific content?”, it looks like you buy that assumption. Others would say that education is not about specific content, but about helping students learn to find answers to questions that arise in their lives, and to evaluate and apply the answers they find or develop.
    Still, your position is reasonable in the same way that “if you don’t like what the government is doing, go live in Russia” is reasonable. Thus, while teachers shouldn’t believe they have a claim to autonomy, they have good reason to raise as much hell as they can without getting fired, in the cause of attaining greater autonomy. I hope they do.

    • Posted March 14, 2014 at 10:09 PM | Permalink

      It sounds like you agree with me that we do and should hire teachers to teach specific content, with the only difference being that you would specify different content, relying more on vague notions that are scientifically less-well-understood like “learning how to learn”. (I understand that you are assuming that “content” means “specific facts”, but that is a semantic distinction that is immaterial for the purposes of this post, which is about whether teachers have an affirmative right to autonomy *with respect to the “content” of their courses* while being hired with taxpayer dollars.)

      Note also that I am not saying “go live in Russia” so much as I am saying “consider making some modest compromises to get something you want”. If “move to Russia” is an analogy you really want to lean on the position analogous to your own would be, “I don’t like the rules the government imposes but I should nevertheless be entitled to live here without having to follow any of them.” You are of course free to continue living/teaching here while arguing – possibly correctly – that the rules should be different, but disagreeing with rules doesn’t grant you an affirmative right to ignore them at your discretion. That is especially true when the rules are basically reasonable, even if they are not ideal.

      Of course, if you assume that the rules are sufficiently heinous, granting people a “right” to ignore them begins to seem sensible, but if that’s how we’re thinking of the CCSS something has probably gone terribly wrong in our thinking.

    • Posted March 15, 2014 at 9:02 AM | Permalink

      “What, exactly, are we hiring teachers for if not to teach specific content?”

      We are hiring teachers to facilitate the cognitive mapping of reality by their students usually within the framework of an academic discipline. Better mental maps enable better decisions to be made. Where the rubber meets the road in terms of the value of education is in decision making by those who are supposed to be educated. Specific content bears little relationship to the quality of decisions that are made. Disciplined thinking, on the other hand, can be very important to good decisions.

      • Posted March 15, 2014 at 9:09 AM | Permalink
        • Posted March 16, 2014 at 6:15 PM | Permalink

          I’m not clear what you are saying is not so based on the articles you linked to. Would you clarify?

          • Posted March 16, 2014 at 6:19 PM | Permalink

            Sure. You claimed that “Specific content bears little relationship to the quality of decisions that are made” and that “Disciplined thinking, on the other hand, can be very important to good decisions.”

            As the links illustrate, however, it turns out, that “thinking skills” are not really transferable across contexts – or if they are, we don’t have good evidence about how to make them transferable. At the same time, background knowledge – i.e., “specific content” – has a very clear relationship with peoples’ ability to think well in particular contexts.

        • Posted March 17, 2014 at 4:51 PM | Permalink

          I see. I did not express my thought properly. You are correct to point out that content knowledge is indeed, important to good decision making.

          Gary Kline’s work on decision making (e.g. the book Sources of Power) is clear however that we know very well how to develop disciplined thinking. His research was in the context of highly developed expertise which is characterized by the transfer of knowledge across domains. The challenge is enabling people to develop the level of expertise in an area that then enables transfer to happen. The studies you pointed out potentially support the notion that transfer is a consequence of expertise not a contributing factor to its development. So, in a way you are also correct that transfer is not teachable. Certainly not with direct instruction. But it is clear that transfer is achievable.

          By the way, in my study of patterns of motivation in two alternative schools I interviewed teachers with experience in both contexts about the differences and I found that teachers can simultaneously emphasize rigor and student-centered techniques. Your observation regarding a correlation between the student-centered techniques and a diminished emphasis on content is likely true, but it seems to me to be a consequence of the context of the teaching, not an inherent limitation of the teaching techniques. In the context of appropriate motivation to learn then expertise is probably more likely to develop regardless of the teaching techniques. And as a consequence deep thinking skills and transfer across domains would also then be more likely to occur.


          Don Berg

          Free E-book: The Attitude Problem in Education

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