Wait, What? Educators Highly Satisfied With Classroom Autonomy, Morale

Ask most teachers what workplace conditions or policies determine their level of job satisfaction, support from administration, general respect, collaborative time with colleagues, and classroom autonomy are likely to top the list. You’ll also probably hear that teacher morale has taken a serious hit over the past decade or so due to the chipping away – or outright absence – of these factors.

Then again, maybe not. A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive think-tank in Washington D.C., found that the majority of educators 1) are happy in their jobs and 2) report high levels of autonomy over almost “every aspect of teaching, including what to teach and how to teach.”

“The data suggest much different than the conventional wisdom. In fact, teachers are far more autonomous – and far more satisfied – than most people believe,” the authors write.

These findings generated considerable buzz because they obviously throw cold water on the notion that a decade of top down education “reforms” – a narrower curriculum, high stakes accountability, testing frenzy – has left the nation with a dispirited teaching force who find their work drained of creativity and autonomy. The 2012 MetLife survey of the American Teacher found that teacher satisfaction had declined 23 percentage points since 2008, from 62% to 39% very satisfied – the lowest level in 25 years.

The CAP report, to be fair, doesn’t argue that educators shouldn’t be concerned about working conditions or  the damage inflicted by misguided reforms. But its topline finding that the vast majority of teachers do not feel degraded or believe their expertise to be diminished certainly downplays issues “that can be confirmed by frank conversation with nearly any teacher you know,” says Barnett Berry of the Center for Teaching Quality.

The report  bases most of its conclusions about teacher satisfaction with autonomy on data from the 2011-12 School And Staffing Survey (SASS), administered by the Department of Education. The problem isn’t that the authors inaccurately reported the results or that the conclusion is necessarily wrong, it’s that the analysis is “unimaginative and superficial,” says Kim Farris-Berg, an independent education policy professional and co-author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots.

According to Farris-Berg, CAP’s analysis is structured around teachers’ acceptance of the job as it is, rather than delving into whether teachers would be interested in different concepts of autonomy that would empower them to determine how to work with their students, shape school cultures, and improve their profession. As new education policies and initiatives are being planned, it is critical to fully understand and appreciate teacher autonomy’s potential in creating greater student success.

Farris-Berg points out comprehensive national data concerning teacher autonomy is pretty scarce, and what does exist – the School and Staffing Survey included – doesn’t capture the nuances that are key to understanding the issue, particularly how teachers assess their own situations. In the SASS survey, educators likely understood autonomy as it’s defined by districts and administrators. It only follows that most teachers will say they are satisfied with their overall jobs, while at the same time not realizing how much more autonomy they could have to impact their students.

“The federal survey doesn’t ask whether teachers think it is possible or necessary to have real decision-making power at the school level, or if they think classroom autonomy is enough to influence their students’ success, or if they believe teachers should set the policies being implemented in the schools, or if they believe teachers as a profession should set any content standards,” Farris-Berg explains.

Farris-Berg is a passionate advocate of teacher-led reform. Trusting Teachers with School Success investigates what can happen when educators have the autonomy to make many of the important decisions that to a large degree determine school success.

NEA has recently launched a series of initiatives that collectively aim to empower teachers to lead, shape education policy, and prepare the next generation of teacher leaders. Among them is the Teacher Leadership Institute, which NEA developed with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the Center for Teaching Quality.

It’s long overdue, says Farris Berg, for policymakers and education leaders to provide teachers with the opportunities to  take charge of their profession and tap into their expertise to become true innovators in the classroom.  But getting there requires all stakeholders to discard limited concepts of autonomy and examine what’s really possible.

“Many teachers endure what they sense is public disrespect, and accept what they’ve been told the job of teaching is, for the satisfaction they find in reaching students,” Farris-Berg explains. “But when they are exposed to the idea that something different is possible in terms of their autonomy, when they learn that they don’t have to accept “prescribed” decisions, and especially when they see or experience it for themselves, they realize that there is real potential to be more satisfied.”