What If We Trusted Teachers with School Success. . .For Real?

If teacher-led schools hold such promise why don’t we have more than a handful across the country?
Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I’ll never forget my first year teaching. The day I arrived on campus, I was called to the cafeteria for a new teacher meeting. Over the next hour, I was given the third grade standards, provided an overview of the assessment my students needed to pass by the end of the year, trained on school procedures, and handed the curriculum, which detailed what I was expected to teach each day.

As a new teacher I eagerly welcomed the guidance. But as the year went on, my initial enthusiasm was replaced with frustration. After a few weeks, I realized that only four of my twenty students were on grade level; yet, I wasn’t given any leniency to modify the curriculum. One day in mid-November, after watching my students struggle through a particularly challenging lesson, I went to my neighboring teacher for advice, and she told me quite simply to “close my door, do what I thought was best, and hope no one noticed.”


A class of middle-school students all looking through a window, with circular pieces of art strung from the ceiling above them.


Photo by  Dankarl via Wikimedia Commons

Over the next few months, I did exactly that. To avoid being “found out,” my students and I developed a signal to take out the textbook when someone entered the room. Ironically, this “secret” helped build my class culture (apparently, third graders love being in on something covert).  I couldn’t help but wonder, though, why I hadn’t been given autonomy to make these decisions in the first place.

As the authors of Trusting Teachers with School Success demonstrate, my experience was not unique. In countless other cases, efforts to improve teacher quality have resulted in scripting curriculum and limiting teachers’ control over decisions that affect their practice. Management by imposition has never been particularly effective in any field, so why should we expect different results in education?

The eleven schools profiled in Trusting Teachers adopted a radically different decision-making model. Teachers were given the authority over key areas influencing school success (e.g., selecting/evaluating colleagues, determining curriculum). When provided with autonomy, teachers in these schools reported adopting eight best practices of high-performing organizations. Among these, they developed a shared purpose, broadened the scope of what student outcomes mattered, and created a collaborative environment that also involved peers in evaluating performance.

So if teacher-led schools hold such promise… why don’t we have more than a handful across the country?

Historically, our schools adopted early 20th century principles of bureaucratic organizations, which assumed that the most efficient way to achieve results was by controlling the inputs of a system (in this case, teachers). And today, given the importance of education, it’s not surprising that policymakers are focused on holding teachers accountable for outcomes.

However, as the authors make clear, autonomy and accountability need not be mutually exclusive. Instead, they should operate as part of a powerful quid pro quo. Teachers must be held responsible as individuals for their performance. But in return, they should be given a greatly expanded role in schools. Each side will need to uphold their end of the bargain.

Though inspiring, this book only examines eleven schools, which raises the question… could (and should) this approach be scaled?

The authors themselves acknowledge teacher autonomy is not a panacea and it may not be for everyone. The critical decisions entrusted in autonomous teachers are not easy to make, and to be sure, some teachers (particularly those who are struggling with practice) wouldn’t have the requisite skills or the necessary time to make them. Others may not be interested in this type of influence.

To replicate, we’d need more information on how representative these autonomous teachers were of the broader teacher population.. We’d also need to develop the “infrastructure” the authors describe to support teachers in achieving the results modeled in these eleven schools. And while the teacher self-report data is promising, we’d need research to validate the impact that teacher-led schools have on student outcomes.

Hopefully, these are topics of future books on teacher autonomy. For now, Trusting Teachers provides a thought-provoking and compelling case for the promise of empowering teachers as professionals. It is a must read for any policymaker focused on improving the quality of teaching, and more importantly, for any teacher, who like me, needed to be inspired to take action to meet my students’ needs.


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