Teacher Autonomy – An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing


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When I think of the modern day public school teacher, I think of Gulliver’s Travels.


Not because I’ve ever taught the Jonathan Swift classic to my students, but because of its most indelible image.


Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island of the Lilliputans – tiny people who have tied the full sized sailor to the ground with thousands of itty bitty strings.


If that is not the picture of a public school teacher, I don’t know what is!


We are constantly restrained – even hogtied – from doing what we know is right.


And the people putting us in bondage – test obsessed lawmakers, number crunching administrators and small-minded government flunkies.


You see, teachers are in the classroom with students day in, day out. We are in the best position to make informed decisions about student learning. The more autonomy you give us, the better we’ll be able to help our students succeed.


But in an age of high stakes testing, Common Core and school privatization run amuck, teacher autonomy has been trampled into the dirt.


Instead, we have a militia of armchair policy hacks who know nothing about pedagogy, psychology or education but who want to tell us how to do our jobs.


It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that educator self-determination ever was a value people thought worth preserving in the first place.


Whereas in generations past it was considered anywhere from merely advisable to absolutely essential that instructors could make up their own minds about how best to practice their craft, today we’d rather they just follow the script written by our allegedly more competent corporate masters.



The way I see it, the reason for this is fivefold:



  1. Testing

    School used to be about curriculum and pedagogy. It was focused on student learning – not how we assess that learning. Now that standardized tests have been mandated in all 50 states as a means of judging whether our schools are doing a good job (and assorted punishments and rewards put in place), it’s changed the entire academic landscape. In short, when you make school all about standardized tests, you force educators to teach with that as their main concern.

  2. Common Core

    Deciding what students should learn used to be the job of educators, students and the community. Teachers used their extensive training and experience, students appeal to their own curiosity, and the community tailored its expectations based on its needs. However, we’ve given up on our own judgment and delegated the job to publishing companies, technology firms and corporations. We’ve let them decide what students should learn based on which pre-packed products they can most profitably sell us. The problem is when you force all academic programs to follow canned academic standards written by functionaries, not educators, you put teachers in a straight jacket constraining them from meeting their students’ individual needs.


3. Grade Promotion Formulas

It used to be that teachers decided which students passed or failed their classes. And when it came to which academic course students took next, educators at least had a voice in the process. However, we’ve standardized grade promotion and/or graduation policies around high stakes test scores and limited or excluded classroom grades. When you’re forced to rely on a formula which cannot take into account the infinite variables present while excluding the judgment of experienced experts in the classroom, you are essentially forbidding educators from one of the most vital parts of the academic process – having a say in what their own courses mean in the scheme of students educational journeys.


4. Scripted Curriculum

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this whole process has been the attempted erasure of the teacher – as a thinking human being – from the classroom, itself. Instead of letting us be people who observe and adapt to the realities in front of us, many of us have been forced to read from a script. It should go without saying that when you constrain educators to abide by scripted curriculum – what we used to call “teacher proof curriculum” – or pacing guides, you remove their ability to be teachers, at all.


5. Value Added Evaluations


We used to trust local principals and administrators to decide which of their employees where doing a good job. Now even that decision has been taken away and replaced by junk science formulas that claim to evaluate a teacher’s entire impact on a student’s life with no regard to validity, fairness or efficiency. However, local principals and administrators are there in the school building every day. They know what’s happening, what challenges staff face and even the personalities, skills and deficiencies of the students, themselves. As such, they are in a better position to evaluate teachers’ performance than these blanket policies applied to all teachers in a district or state – things like valued-added measures or other faith based formulas used to estimate or quantify an educator’s positive or negative impact.


It’s no wonder then that teachers are leaving the profession in droves.


You can’t freeze someone’s salary, stifle their rights to fair treatment while choking back their autonomy and still expect them to show up to work everyday eager and willing to do the job.


The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a representative sample of more than 37,000 American public school elementary and secondary teachers showing widespread dissatisfaction with the job in general and a lack of autonomy in particular.

In fact, they cited this lack of self-determination as a leading contributor to the nationwide teacher shortage. Having control over how you do your job is essential to being fully satisfied with your work.



If you’re just following orders, your accomplishments aren’t really yours. It’s the difference between composing a melody and simply recreating the sounds of an amateur musician with perfect fidelity.

Today’s teachers rarely get to pick the textbooks they use, which content or skills to focus on, which techniques will be most effective in their classrooms, how to discipline students, how much homework to give – and they have next to zero say about how they will be evaluated.

And to make matters worse, sometimes it isn’t that educators are forbidden from exercising autonomy, but that they are given such a huge laundry list of things they’re responsible for that they don’t have the time to actually be creative or original. Once teachers meet the demands of all the things they have to cram into a single day, there is little room for reflection, revision or renewal.

School policy is created at several removes from the classroom. We rarely even ask workaday teachers for input less than allowing them to participate in the decision making process.

We imagine that policy is above their pay grade. They are menial labor. It’s up to us, important people, to make the big decisions – even though most of us have little to no knowledge of how to teach!

Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg says that this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing if we really cared about improving both the teaching profession and the quality of education we provide students.

In the United States, autonomy usually stops at the district or administrative level and results in decision-making that ignores the voices of educators and the community, he says.

Sahlberg continues:

“School autonomy has often led to lessening teacher professionalism and autonomy for the benefit of greater profits for those who manage or own private schools, charter schools or other independent schools. This is perhaps the most powerful lesson the US can learn from better-performing education systems: teachers need greater collective professional autonomy and more support to work with one another. In other words, more freedom from bureaucracy, but less from one another.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to increased autonomy is political.

Lawmakers and pundits conflate teacher professionalism and increased decision making with union membership.

And they do have a point. Having a seat at the bargaining table is vital to educators’ self-determination.

In some states, local teachers unions negotiate annual contracts with their districts. However, most states have statewide teacher contracts that are negotiated only by state teachers unions.

These contracts can directly affect exactly how much independence teachers can exercise in the classroom since they can determine things like the specific number of hours that teachers can work each week or limit the roles that teachers can play in a school or district.

There are even some tantalizing schools that are entirely led and managed by teachers. The school does not have formal administrators – teachers assume administrative roles, usually on a revolving basis. But such experiments are rare.

In most places, teacher autonomy is like the last dinosaur.

It represents a bygone age when we envisioned education completely differently.

We could try to regain that vision and go in a different direction.

But if things remain as they are, the dinosaur will go extinct.

Autonomy is a hint at what we COULD be and what we COULD provide students…

…if we only had the courage to stop standardizing and privatizing our country to death.


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47 thoughts on “Teacher Autonomy – An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing

  1. No one outside of teachers cares about teacher autonomy. Test scores are what bureaucrats use to demonstrate their value to the ones who give promotions and pay raises. They want the jobs with the high salaries and low accountability. The ones that try to show their worth by requiring a lot more busywork from teachers they can show school boards.


    • I see where you’re coming from, Thomas. But don’t some non-teachers care? As a parent, I want my daughter’s teachers to have autonomy to do what’s best for her in the classroom. Or have I gotten my teacher hat mixed up with my parent hat?


      • And I, as a parent and educator, do NOT want my sons’ teachers to have autonomy. They currently do at his school and here’s what’s happening: using curricula that are misaligned to the state standards, implementing a hodgepodge of instructional materials that are not well integrated to create a frankensteinian hybrid reading/ELA experience, choices on literacy and vocab development that are both I’ll informed and age-inappropriate, mediocre classroom management that involves a lot of yelling (thankfully for us mostly at other people’s children), and principal observations that occur at best twice a year with no regular coaching and a lot of “one and done” PD. It is a nightmare. For three years I’ve watched our elapses this son drop from the 85%ile to the 70%ile. While the author of this piece objects to value add measures, I find them useful and, not surprisingly, my sons’ school has a negative effect size of reading ability. Sure these reforms were imprefect but the system into which I began my career in 2000 was equally terrible for adults and more terrible for kids. The school we have to send our kids to is a throw back to the days of autonomy and anti-common core and it’s awful. Please stop idealizing a past that was not good for most kids.


      • Murphy, are you sure your son’s teachers are doing all these things because they think they’re the best way to move forward or are these top down initiatives forced on them by others? If you want your child to get test prep and only test prep, may I suggest a no excuses charter school or perhaps a cyber charter. There he can be just a number and a precentile score.

        Look, autonomy isn’t perfect. When people have choice, they can choose wrong. But more often than not trusting the educators hired by your duly-elected school board to be professionals is a better way to go than forcing them to march to some corporate tune composed by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. I doubt you’d want to do that in your job.I doubt you’d want that for your doctor or lawyer.

        By the way, I’m not saying we should go back to the ways things were. I’m saying we should take the good things of the past and combine them with the good of the present. The problem is that much of the status quo is terrible. We know what works. Let’s do it.


      • I think that W. Murphy demonstrates an important point. As long as students have little autonomy, teachers will have little autonomy. The ONLY way that W. Morphy can impact his/her student’s learning in a classroom is by changing district policy FOR ALL classrooms.

        If you want a classroom to be significantly different from another, you have to allow parents to choose which classroom their students attend.


      • Thank you for demonstrating your autonomy, teaching economist, in your reply. However, the bad logic and faulty reasoning is worse than usual. Allowing teachers the freedom to practice their craft almost always increases the freedom students have to learn in multiple ways. School privatization is as necessary to teacher and student autonomy as a third hand is to applause.

        Moreover, the fact that choice is good does not mean that it is always good – especially when you equivocate about who exactly is getting the choice. I believe in universal healthcare, too, but that doesn’t mean I think the government should include known charlatans in the healthcare system. To return to education, you should not have the choice to allow public tax dollars to be spent in private with little to no transparency, little to no say by taxpayers, with little to no recourse when it is misused, and with the cost of fixing the educational mistakes being paid (again) by taxpayers and/or children. You aren’t arguing for freedom so much as the freedom to be bamboozled. Your faith in school privatization to fix every problem with our education system borders on the hysterical.


  2. You capture so much of why I didn’t want to go into teaching. There was one time I was tutoring a third grade student at a school in DC (it was related to a service trip) and this poor kid was waaaaaay behind grade level in math. When I talked with the teacher afterwards, his response was simply, “That’s what the common core tells us to teach.”


    • Brendan, that is so true about Common Core.I hear my co-workers say the same thing every day. But I also know their frustration and how much they try to subversively give students the resources they need while adapting lessons and assignments without telling the number crunchers and data minders. We have to know how to speak reformer and still do what good teachers do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve heard similar things about so many of my teachers and my brother’s teachers over the years. They try to do exactly as you describe, even though it’s difficult and “goes against the grain.”

        Liked by 1 person

    • YES! We started out with multiplication in third grade this year, even though most of our second graders had never even learned one fact. Now, we are moving backwards into addition, subtraction, place value and estimating, all of which would have been better for our students and more developmentally appropriate to start with. It’s hard to explain to parents that you don’t want to do this but you have no choice because the pacing guide says to start here and we are not “allowed” to deviate from it/

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I would add that there are an alarming number of progressive minded teachers-turned-instructional coaches who are a huge contributing factor to this problem. They are drinking the kool-aid and they are boots on the ground. I’m dealing with it right now. I teach in a struggling urban school district and almost everything you write about applies to my district and school. But! BUT! Thanks to you I have been inspired to stand up and challenge the system. I am challenging the over collection of data, the scripted curriculum and the constant learning walks, etc… I am speaking up to challenge personalized learning. I am a lone voice in my school but others are starting to listen. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beth, I am honored to have inspired you to speak out. That makes it all worth it. There are tens of thousands of us out there. It’s just that we sometimes need help seeing each other. Keep fighting for the kinds of schools our children deserve. You made my night.


  4. Agree and major reason I retired-at 69!
    IMO, the “Government-supported adoration of private business” is the reason for testing, lack of autonomy, and push for vouchers for private schools/for-profit charters. Corporate industry intensely desires eliminating pubic education in favor of grasping that huge pot of tax payer education $$$$.
    I expect that around 20 or so years ago, big business looked around & noticed that $$$ honey-pot and began setting the wheels in motion to reach out and take as much as public education $$$ as possible-through schools-should-be-run-as-businesses with children as products to be molded into good little workers for our profit while the elite groom their kids for corporate positions.
    Hence, IMO, the ‘sky-is-falling’ corporate/business/private school outcry of, “Public schools fail! Look at test results! Gov needs to fix! Run schools like a business! OH, business FAILS! TAKE OVER WITH VOUCHERS! We produce test prep & test materials! Force teachers to use them! Evaluate teachers on results of test we produce. Set ‘designed-to-fail’ process in motion’ for our profit.” Yippee…corporate wins.
    If public schools exist in 50 years, they will most likely be for demographically challenged populations who will be trained for menial occupations.
    No, I can not prove that, but I’ve lived the change, been raised by CEO’s of corporations and owners of private businesses. I’ve listened to profit-producing strategies and hatred of/union busting tactics at dining tables my entire life. My family’s attitude was, “I should have TWO votes for every person who is no where near as intelligent or rich or educated as I am.” Of course, that’s not what they said in public.
    That attitude & belief system is rampant in the highest, corporate board-rooms-all voiced politically correctly but understood in the good-ole-boy fashion. The public feels it, but has no or limited power to fight it.
    IMO: People will reject teaching as a profession. Gov prefers teachers leave prior to five years, no matter the cry of “teacher shortage and, ‘oh dear, what shall we do’, while undermining public education.
    Sooooo…look and see. Tenure eliminated. Pay abysmal. Teaching turned into “do as I say or be non-renewed. Multiple degrees required to teach & huge loans to get those degrees no longer have the off-setting pension security, so why choose teaching?” Career teachers leave. Corporate produces for-profit schools with all the methods of business. Corporations hire teachers they expect to either rise in corporate positions or leave teaching. Hire more malleable employees, not trained teachers compliant with corporate strategies, because people need work. Those employee/teachers then leave because teaching’s now an interim job, NOT a career. I believe that’s the corporate & government’s long-range design plan.
    IMO, corporate grabbing of the enormous, tax-payer funded $$$ is their desired outcome and is supported by government’s love of business.
    Personally, I believe that viewing children and public schools as products in America’s Capitalist competition model is fundamentally immoral and wrong.
    Of course, these musings are from an old, four-year retired, 48 year licensed person who loved teaching, rejected her family’s philosophy, taught in inner-city schools, and is heartbroken seeing what’s become of the profession. I may have to home-school my great-grand-kids.
    Change may happen. Sadly, I won’t live to see it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for writing this.

    Why should not-teachers care about teacher autonomy? Because children learn what democracy means by watching adults make important decisions, as noted by Deborah Meier and, a few decades earlier, John Dewey.

    One more observation: I sometimes ask students to walk through an engageNY Common Core Curriculum module. A student asked with horror why would teachers be evaluated by student test scores when they have almost no freedom how to teach.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Very well written, organized, and thoughtful piece. I think at least one of the respondents have a view of autonomy as license to do anything. There are ways to have teacher autonomy while having a positive educational experience.
    Teacher autonomy is a must if the U.S Education System is to move to higher levels of performance. Indeed the present system, as you point out, hobbles teachers, keeping creative activities to a minimum.
    As for scripting it is a savage imposition on teachers, a Taylorist exercise better suited for an assembly line.
    Teacher Autonomy is inevitable.


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