Does Collective Teacher Autonomy Make Any Difference for Student Achievement? (Kim Farris-Berg), Part 3

Farris-Berg is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots. She is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an independent education policy strategist. Her Twitter handle is @farrisberg.

High-performing organizations assess performance and act upon results to improve performance. The teachers who have collective autonomy to make decisions influencing school success do too.

Of course these teachers and their students participate in state standardized tests. Under No Child Left Behind they must. But, like many other teachers, they are concerned about the current policy context in which their school quality is judged by the percentage of students who score “proficient” on these tests—especially in comparison to other schools.

Many teachers who participated in our study pointed out that mean proficiency scores (high or low) cannot isolate the contribution of school and teacher quality from other contributors, such as family background and prior educational experience, no matter how good the test. My colleagues and I have argued that we also cannot learn much about the effects of practice (for example, teachers’ chosen learning approach) in each school so that we can really determine which practices work best. For that, we’ll need an altogether different research approach.

Autonomous groups of teachers want to score well enough on state standardized tests to maintain their autonomy (and consequently their approach to schooling), but otherwise they don’t worry much about a measurement of quality that, in their view, cannot withstand serious scientific scrutiny. Moreover, many teachers reported their resentment that so much school funding and time is spent on state- and district-required tests that are not useful for making decisions about how and what to teach individual students.

These teachers do, however, find a use for testing. They want to know individual student progress down to the specifics, and some choose to spend discretionary funding on assessment tools that they determine most valuable for providing this information. These teachers don’t just want to know if Johnny is doing well in math. They want to know what areas of math Johnny understands, and what areas he doesn’t so he can reach his own next level of achievement.

But individual academic improvement is not the only quality indicator autonomous teachers use to evaluate their practice. And, when you step back and think, this just makes sense. Think about how you evaluate restaurants, cars, and even your significant other. It’s almost never based on a single measure of quality. Why should it be any different for schools and teachers?

A number of teacher groups have opted to use The Hope Survey, for example, to determine students’ psychological adjustment in a school environment over time. Teachers can learn how well they are doing in addressing students’ sense of autonomy, belongingness, and goal orientation.

Teachers also develop their own rubrics and use portfolio assessments, public learning exhibitions, and rounding (just as medical doctors round with patients) to assess students’ nonacademic abilities in areas such as self-direction, time management, team work, information retention, self-advocacy, community interaction, active citizenship, persistence, risk management, flexible thinking, and critical thinking.

One group of teachers serving students in grades 6-12 created the Raised Responsibility Rubric, a tool used by both teachers and students to track students’ development of intrinsic motivation. The more a student develops, the more responsibility she is granted to manage her own time throughout the day.

So, does collective teacher autonomy make any difference for student achievement? The answer is yes. Autonomous teachers value a broader range of achievement than is currently valued in K-12—so much so that they are seeking, designing and financing new ways to assess this achievement. They use all the information they deem valuable to improve teaching and learning in their schools.

I imagine that some folks started reading this blog with the expectation that I would report a nice summary of the state standardized test scores of schools run by teachers in comparison to conventionally governed schools. Out of respect for the ideas and practices of teachers who call the shots, we opted not to report these scores in our work. It wasn’t because we couldn’t say anything good about the scores or because the teachers wanted to avoid measurement. We simply didn’t want to participate in anyone’s attempt to boil everything autonomous teachers do down to a single measure of quality—a measure that doesn’t begin to reflect all they do or their work’s relevance to the future of K-12 schools.

If we are open to trusting teachers, we ought to be open to their broader definition of student achievement and its implications for measuring school quality. These trailblazers could be kicking off a major period of innovation in K-12. Encouraging them will likely require less snap judgment and more confrontation of our nation’s tolerance for the hard work of change.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

16 responses to “Does Collective Teacher Autonomy Make Any Difference for Student Achievement? (Kim Farris-Berg), Part 3

  1. Bob Calder

    In 2001, I asked our district’s testing chief (district size over 250,000 students) if he was dismayed at all over using a single metric as opposed to the multiple samples of bygone years. To that point he had been cheery about the way the state was taking over the arduous tasks, but his face fell when he thought about losing all that good data. Of value particularly when one test demonstrates the weakness of another.

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  3. Bob, Thank you for sharing that story.

  4. Tim McClung

    what is holding teacher unions back from introducing this type of legislation in every state? I bring this up to my local chapter and they think I am crazy. Isn’t this what every teacher would want?

  5. Kim (and Larry), thanks so much for this series. I appreciate the qualities that collective teacher autonomy can introduce into a school. In the traditional schools here in Philadelphia there is very little opportunity for teacher autonomy either on a structural or curricular level. However, I am fortunate enough to work at one of the District’s alternative schools where I have a huge amount of pedagogical and curricular autonomy. While I love the ability to innovate in my classroom, I’ve found it to be a bit of a double-edged sword. I wrote about it back in October: . In many ways, your research echoed my experience. Autonomy may not be for everyone and it needs to be supported, but it can truly transform a school environment.
    Thanks again for sharing your research.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Chris, for describing your experience with autonomy in a Philadelphia alternative school. I found the post you wrote a useful read that underscores your point (and Kim’s as well) about the variability among teachers in their affection for curricular and pedagogical autonomy.

  6. Chris,

    Thank you!

    I saw your post when you wrote it and tried to comment, but ran into trouble and ended up giving up. The dynamic that is critically different from your experience where teachers were autonomous in their classrooms is that, in the schools we studied in Trusting Teachers, autonomy is collective. That dynamic sets off a different kind of pressure to succeed as a collective. So the reversion to worksheets in one classroom will be noticed by the other teachers and, if that’s not acceptable to the collective, is likely to be addressed. With classroom autonomy, dealing with “the dark side” is still the principal’s call (only).

    It’s more like your utopian wonder vision. Only it’s not necessarily utopia. Teachers say it’s intense, difficult work. BUT they don’t want to go back to the other way; this way (for them) is “better” (for a number of reasons).

    • I’m sorry, I should have said that dealing with the dark side is still the principal’s call and the principal is dealing with another set of dynamics that affect how the principal makes the call.

      There is an entirely different structure of accountability when the top-down leadership triangle is inverted. Teachers reinforce the decisions they make at the ground-level, since they are responsible and accountable for success. You can see this play out over and over again in Trusting Teachers with School Success.

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