It has been contended that professional autonomy enhances efficiency because employees are given more decision-making power over their own activities (Luthans, 1992, as cited in Gawlik, 2007). Educational organizations have moved toward granting more teacher autonomy since the 1960s, giving instructors more control over their curriculum (Tamir, 1986, as cited in Gawlik, 2007). A more decentralized management of schools has meant that instructors have been more involved in a school's decision-making processes and management than in the past. However, while some instructors embrace teacher autonomy and want the freedom that comes along with it, other instructors may view their own autonomy as a way for principals and administrators to avoid doing what they are paid to do (Frase & Sorenson, 1992, as cited in Pearson & Moomaw, 2006).
Keywords Centralized Management; Classroom Autonomy; Curriculum; High-Stakes Testing; Job Satisfaction; Motivation; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001; Standardized Testing; Standards-Based Curriculum; School-Based Management; Teacher Autonomy
Autonomy is an abstract concept. By definition, it generally means individual freedoms or rights. For public school instructors, it can have a variety of meanings and there can be a range of degrees of teacher autonomy; the highest degree being complete freedom and the lowest degree being absolutely no freedom. Classroom autonomy can refer to instructors having control over specific aspects of their work life such as scheduling, the curriculum, textbooks used in class, and instructional planning.
Just as instructors can have autonomy, so can schools. An autonomous school is one that governs itself; defines its own goals, develops its own programs and plans to achieve its goals (Carlos & Amsler, 1993, as cited in Gawlik, 2007). An autonomous school has complete control over personnel, including who to hire, who to let go, and how much to pay (Briggs & Wohlstetter, 1999, as cited in Gawlik, 2007). These schools also have sole discretion over professional development opportunities, curriculum and instruction, how funds are allocated, and how instructors will teach (Gawlik, 2007). Autonomous schools also have complete control over the students they serve (Horn & Miron, 2000, as cited in Gawlik, 2007), which effectively rules out public school as being completely autonomous. Autonomous schools are generally private schools, as government funding demands government oversight and regulation.
Between 1983 and 1985 there were still many regulations established by states, and more than 700 statutes were enacted by state legislators. These laws effectively took away a lot of authority that traditionally belonged to instructors, principals, school districts, and parents by regulating instructors and schools, which affects classroom autonomy (Futrell, n.d., as cited in Hicks & DeWalt). The next movement of education reform brought about efforts for instructors, principals, superintendents, school boards, parents, and business and community leaders to work collaboratively to improve their schools and students' education (Hicks & DeWalt, 2006).
It has been contended that professional autonomy enhances efficiency because employees are given more decision-making power over their own activities (Luthans, 1992, as cited in Gawlik, 2007). Educational organizations have moved toward granting more teacher autonomy since the 1960s, giving instructors more control over their curriculum (Tamir, 1986, as cited in Gawlik, 2007). A more decentralized management of schools has meant that instructors have been more involved in a school's decision-making processes and management than in the past. Therefore, teachers are now participating in issues that were once solely a principal or administrator's responsibility, such as budgeting, resource allocation, and finance (Gawlik, 2007). However, while some instructors embrace teacher autonomy and want the freedom that comes along with it, other instructors may view their own autonomy as a way for principals and administrators to avoid doing what they are paid to do (Frase & Sorenson, 1992, as cited in Pearson & Moomaw, 2006).
Perceptions of Autonomy: Principals
Perception can also play a role in determining teacher autonomy in schools. Hicks and DeWalt (2006) present a recent survey of elementary school teachers and principals that looked at the differences in teacher and principal perceptions when it comes to teacher autonomy in the classroom. When it came to teacher involvement in determining the curriculum at their schools, 62 percent of teachers and almost 94 percent of principals felt that teacher were involved in curriculum decisions. Every principal that responded to the survey and 86 percent of the elementary teachers felt that instructors were sometimes to almost always involved in deciding on other instructional materials. A little over 61 percent of the teachers surveyed felt that they were seldom or almost never involved in setting student promotion and retention policies whereas almost 73 percent of principals felt that they were sometimes to almost always involved in setting the policies (Hicks & DeWalt, 2006).
Another area where the teachers and principals disagreed was in setting standards for student behavior. Every principal surveyed and only 58 percent of the teachers felt that they were involved in setting these standards. Principals and instructors also differed in their opinions on setting school and school district goals. Almost 91 percent of principals felt that teachers were sometimes to almost always involved in goal setting while only 45 percent of teachers felt that they were involved in the process (Hicks & DeWalt, 2006).
Perceptions of the degree of classroom autonomy attained are also related to factors within each instructor's work environment but not factors such as academic ability, quality of prior training, and years of experience (Pearson & Hall, 1993, as cited in Pearson & Moomaw, 2006). One area where high school instructors seem to have a great deal of autonomy in their classrooms nationwide is with respect to grades. According to a 1997 College Board survey of high schools, almost 85 percent of those schools surveyed reported that instructors could award any distribution of grades they chose to base on student performance. While 85 percent of the high schools surveyed allowed their instructors complete autonomy over grades and grading, only 6.6 percent required their instructors to follow general guidelines and 3.5 percent required their instructors to follow strict guidelines regarding grade distribution (Boston, 2003).
There have been many documented studies that indicate that what constitutes teacher autonomy has changed a lot over the years and continues to change, especially with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and increased use of standardized tests. An older concept of teacher autonomy was based on independence through isolation and alienation. A more recent concept views teacher autonomy as being based on collaborative decision making and the freedom to make professional choices concerning what services are given to students (Willner, 1990, as cited in Pearson & Moomaw, 2006). While government mandates seem to be firmly in place, instructors are becoming more involved in the general administration of the school itself. Many instructors feel that they are qualified to be involved in the instructional process because they have expertise in specialized fields, that they have the right to coordinate how learning occurs in their classrooms, and that they formulate their own personalized rules in their classrooms (Pearson & Moomaw, 2006).
Effects of No Child Left Behind
School districts determine how much classroom autonomy instructors have based on how specific they are about the curriculum. Instructors will have less autonomy the more specific the curriculum is. If there are no curriculum mandates, then instructors will have total autonomy and can teach whatever they want. If a...
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