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.”

  • Gary

    This must be teachers on planet Mars…..the dissatisfaction is high among teachers I know,however, many of them are so beaten down by administrators,school boards,and politicians that they are afraid to speak up how they truly feel. The idea of “sucking up to the boss” runs high. Many administrators make it very rough on teachers who are outspoken,and speak their minds. They are referred to as “negative.” It shows up in evaluations,etc.

    And I would venture to guess that many of the people involved in this so called study have an agenda all their own.

  • Not in the USA! I’d love to know who they spoke to. No one I know who is currently involved in education is not happy. They are railing against charter schools, common core, testing, data walls, scripted lessons, so-called reformers, merit pay, VAM, etc. They just didn’t ask the right people.

  • Lmsfinally

    As a former educator with more than twenty years experience before shrugging, I’m hysterical with laughter reading that ANY teacher is even mildly saturated. Most are dragging themselves to work and losing more of their soul and love of learning every day.

    There is no room left in public ed for curiosity, creativity, and autonomy. Stand back and let it implode from standardized testing so we can rebuild a better version.

  • Mike

    Anne, you wrote “No one I know who is currently involved in education is not happy.” Paraphrased, you wrote no one is not happy, in other words, everyone is happy. Is that what you meant? To end a sentence with a preposition, “I’d love to know who they spoke to,” really, you’re a teacher? Your writing is profoundly disappointing.

    Lmsfinally, you wrote “As a former educator with more than twenty years experience before shrugging, I’m hysterical with laughter reading that ANY teacher is even mildly saturated.” Saturated??? Satisfied, maybe?

    You two really are teachers and aren’t internet trolls? If you really are teachers, in my humble opinion, this website (and the public) would have been better served if your comments never saw the light of day as they cast doubt on what you provide students regarding the ability to communicate via writing–seriously.

  • Amelia


    Well if you noticed I have indented my paragraph…unlike your example of writing:-( Are you KIDDING ME!!!…if we nitpick eachother like a bunch of nit-picking nancy’s (or nit-picking nates in your case)we will ALL LOOSE. Are you in the teaching business to take ego trips (hopefully not on your students-which I am sure they LOVE your arrogrance. lol)?
    Can you step aside from your microscope to see the big picture? Do you have school aged children yourself? Your pompus “educated” attitude will be the only thing left in the business at the rate things are going. You are most likely the result of public education sadly. You were taught what to think and the emphasis was on “the right answer”. This world does not need any more bubbles to fill in or know-it alls.
    To teach students THE CAPACITY TO LEARN should be the #1 goal in ALL SCHOOLS across our great nation. If a teacher/adult can’t step back and THINK before speaking…the future looks dark for all. Mike did you take time to process what good, if any, would come from your response? Were you CONSIDERATE? Nobody will care to listen if you can’t listen to care. This is a basic thing. To be considerate. Maybe your Kindergarten teacher was so invested in teaching you to read X number of books by the end of the school year she didn’t have time to teach you COMMON DESCENCY! Children attending school 8 hours a day 5 days per week places teachers into the role of parenting/modeling good behavior and expectations.
    You, my lost teaching friend, are shooting from the hip.
    Veteran teachers ( with 20 years of experience!!!) are our SAGES and MUST MUST MUST be called up by our administrators, policymakers, and community to give input for the FUTURE. The “leaders” are hogging the spotlight and acting like a bunch of know-it-alls vs. collaborating with the real wisdom keepers….Our veteran teachers!!! They are our only hope!!!
    Now did you get the big pucture dispite my typos and mistakes or do you need to stay after class and write “I will be nice” 100 X ?!

  • Craig Koch

    I have been teaching in a small, rural high school that has varied from 170-240 students and back over the 30 years I have been there. I am one of 2 science teachers and the only physics/chemistry/ physical science teacher. I have changed what I taught and how I taught my subjects frequently during that time. I attended my first science modeling workshop in the mid 1990’s and have used modeling instruction for almost 20 years. I have made proposals to the school board, administration and just made changes on my own. We have had 4 different superintendents, 7 principals and numerous board members in 30 years. My proposals for course changes have only been opposed once by the most incompetent principle I’ve ever experienced and fortunately there for only 2 years. So, in essence, I have enjoyed a great deal of autonomy.

  • jackie

    gotta love pay for performance. my principal told me he loved my teaching but everyone had to have something bad on their evaluation since “D” rated schools cant possibly have well rated teachers. I was bounced out to another D rated school. Same thing. The third time, no one wanted me, amorously referred to as the dance of the lemons. That is how we are rewarded for working in areas of 99% free and reduced lunches where homework isnt enforced at home. as for this article, it wont even let people like or dislike the responses. No one in the school system I was in was happy. More time is spent listening to supervisors in 1k suits, half my age spew nonsense thats not best practices. I try daily to talk people out of teaching as it is a thankless job, and pay for performance is a joke that was a lobbyist that took his idea too far at the cost of education. NO, people in AK cant be expected to know tbhe same thing as students in NY. Pleanty of midwestern students dont have a clue where the Atlantic Ocean is. Wake up America.

  • Yochanan Lavie

    A question for the CAP: What color is the sky on your planet?

  • Tara

    Gary: I totally agree that these people have their own agendas (CAP and Dept. of Ed). I would like to see the questions that were asked on the Department of Ed survey. Possibly the questions are written in a way to illicit the desired answers. After all, the Department of Ed (under CEO Arne Duncan) benefits from these “positive” findings. Their policies of increasing the use of standardized testing, value-added data, pay for performance, etc. AND tying compliance with these policies to $$$ have truly dismantled public education and what it is supposed to do for our children.

    Peter York: As a retired teacher, I assume you understand that teachers are parents and taxpayers as well. I hope we are not the “mindless sheep” you refer to in your post; read Gary’s post if you are confused as to why teachers may feel like they have no choice but to do what is told. I have been there and I chose to keep my job so I could put food on the table. No, I am not exaggerating.

    Finally, the year that this survey was administered was 2011-2012. Common Core did not become implemented widely until 2012-2013. The RTTT demands (new teacher evaluations, pay for performance, etc). also would not have had a huge impact in the 2011-2012 school year. Even with (possibly) skewed questions, send out that same survey today and I bet you would see a whole different picture.

  • Sara

    At my school, our schedules are to be followed down to the minute. They are so strict, in fact, as to tell us when we can and cannot take our students to the bathroom. We live in fear of the clock and it is ridiculous.

  • Bonnie

    It is amazing that we have been trained as professional but are not treated as such! I believe we are the only profession that is told how to teach, what to teach and when to teach. You wouldn’t think about telling a heart surgeon how to operate on their patient or run their operating room. This profession is such a money maker for everyone else but the educators. I believe if you butted out(government, book companies, etc…) of the educational process of our students and let teachers do what they have been trained for our scores would sky rocket!

    We need innovative leaders within our schools to collaborate with the educators and school boards(which I believe if you do not hold a teaching certificate and have taught you should not be on a board of education-most of you don’t have a clue what goes on in a school). It should be a team effort and no one should be made to feel inadequate or unappreciated! Children should love to come to school not dread it!! Same goes for the teachers!!

    Find another way to pay educators other than taxing the taxpayers! The burden is to much for them/us….this is what our government should be discussing! Treat us like the professionals we are! I have a B.S. in Elementary Ed. with a minor in Early Childhood along with three Master Degrees. The salary I make is ridiculous, however I am thankful I have a job. I love what I do but dislike all the B.S. that comes with it and it has dragged moral to an all time low!

    Funding should be increasing not decreasing! Government officials go spend more than 10 minutes in a classroom and speak to educators and students and find out what it is really like. You would get a rude awakening!

  • Teresa

    Gary and Tara well said! I believe you two truly speak for teachers.

  • Teresa

    Bonnie, I agree with so much you said. I dread going to work everyday until my sweet kids walk in. Then I dread when they leave and I still have hours of work. I feel like we are expected to do so much and exactly how our principals tell us to. I don’t know about you, but my principal excepts everything to run perfectly all the time, and if it doesn’t, I must have done something wrong. I am not happy with all the bs either and if it wasn’t for the kids I wouldn’t put up with being treated like a child.

  • James Whitman

    I’m embarrassed that the NEA would even publish such blatant propaganda, but I’m not surprised. Here in Ohio, neither the OEA or NEA have mounted reasonable efforts to stop the onslaught of destruction facing public education….in fact, they’ve scarcely trembled despite the equivalence of nuclear bombs going off within the system, many directly attributed to the supermajority of Republicans at the helm. Changes to the State Board of Education allowing gubernatorial appointees, multiple Supreme Court rulings declaring the way we fund our schools as unconstitutional, changes to the business tangible property tax code that raped schools of funding and shifted the tax burden squarely on the property owners which led to failed levies and bankrupt districts across the state, then factor in all the moving targets of state curriculum guidelines and standardized testing…..it’s a tragedy as the art of teaching dies before our eyes. So when we get hit with another state or federal mandate like No Child Left Behind or Common Core, it’s just another big step at stripping away autonomy from local schools. I’ve got twenty years in the classroom, and I know of no one who would agree with most of the findings in this bogus report. Unfortunately, ignorant politicians will perceive this report as accurate, and NEA won’t do a damn thing about any of it.
    If this keeps up, we may as well start teaching our students a new way to spell “FREE-DUMB!”

  • CAP is run by the liberal agenda operatives currently in office. Lying is not beyond their scope of activities. Skewing, leading questions, minimizing, patronizing and castigating their enemies are everyday SOP for them. Unfortunately, we are quite the opposite of their characterization of teachers these days. I have taught for more than thirty years, and this is THE MOST insidious and harmful erosion of academic freedom and autonomy I have ever experienced. May there be a day of reckoning for them in the next elections. Please vote knowledgeably, everyone.

  • P

    Actually Bonnie they do tell heart surgeons how to operate and run an operating room. There are standards in all lines of work.

  • Justin Wecks

    As most of the other commentators here, I am baffled by the assertion that teachers are highly satisfied in their jobs and that morale is high. As the president of my local association, I can state with absolute authority that the exact opposite is true in my district. I am in constant contact with teachers in every building in the district, at every level, and I can not think of a single conversation I have had with any of my members that resembles anything like what this “study” is claiming. I believe that we are on the verge of a teaching crisis in the state of New Mexico. Teachers began fleeing the profession in unprecedented numbers at the December semester break, and I know of many, many more who are planning on retiring earlier than they would like, or who are leaving the profession entirely. And with the mainstream of both parties pursuing “reform” that is code for “privatization,” the atmosphere is likely to worsen. I am tired of giving everything I have, emotionally and physically, only to be told that I am a failure. Teachers are used to working ridiculously hard for little extrinsic reward, but even we can put up with only so much. I think many teachers are reaching their breaking points.