In the debate over school autonomy, what frequently gets lost is that school autonomy is different from teacher autonomy and that it is teacher autonomy that is the more important factor for classroom learning. Teacher autonomy means collective professional autonomy.
The distinction between school autonomy and teacher autonomy was recently emphasised by Pasi Sahlberg, visiting fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who was previously director-general of Finland’s Ministry of Education. In a recent article in the US edition of The Conversation he compares the experience of Finland and US teachers.
Sahlberg says that US teachers are much more restricted in what they can do compared to Finnish teachers. For example, they face very different working conditions.
First, teachers in the US work longer hours (45 hours/week) than their peers in Finland (32 hours/week). They also teach more weekly, 27 hours compared to 21 hours in Finland.
This means that American teachers, on average, have much less time to do anything beyond their teaching duties (whether alone or with colleagues) than teachers in most other OECD countries.
Second, over half of American middle school teachers report that they never teach jointly with other teachers in the same classroom, compared to about one-third of teachers in Finland. And 42% of US teachers report never engaging in joint projects across classes or age groups. In Finland, 23% of teachers lack that experience.
Sahlberg says that having freedom to teach alone by being the only teacher in the classroom doesn’t provide teachers with professional autonomy. He says that teachers in Finland see themselves as professionals akin to doctors, architects, etc and this means that they use their professional judgment, creativity and autonomy individually and together with other teachers to find the best ways to help their students to learn.
In Finland, teachers design their own school curricula guided by a flexible national framework. Finnish teachers can teach and assess their students in schools as they think is most appropriate. They are not restricted by the need to succeed on high-stakes standardized tests as in the US.
In the US, I have seen teachers drilling students for standardized tests to make the mark. Teachers tell me that they have no choice but to do that because the test results are part of their performance evaluations.
Sahlberg says that visitors to classrooms in Finland are struck by the degree of professional autonomy:
A common takeaway was that Finnish teachers seem to have much more professional autonomy than teachers in the United States to help students to learn and feel well.
He says that the keyword between teachers and authorities in Finland is trust:
Indeed, professional autonomy requires trust, and trust makes teacher autonomy alive.
Sahlberg says that teacher autonomy should not be confused with school autonomy. He observes that there is little evidence that school autonomy increases student results. In contrast, he notes, the OECD has concluded that greater autonomy in decisions related to curriculum and assessment – in other words, teacher professional autonomy – tends to be associated with better student performance.
Sahlberg cites the warning by well-known teacher educator, Professor Andy Hargreaves, about unintended consequences of greater school autonomy. School autonomy is about the freedom of the school management to operate without due regard for the community or for local democratic control. It is not necessarily about teacher autonomy. Indeed, he says, school autonomy often leads to lessening of teacher professionalism and autonomy.
I don’t think that the primary problem in American education is the lack of teacher quality, or that part of the solution would be to find the best and the brightest to become teachers. The quality of an education system can exceed the quality of its teachers if teaching is seen as a team sport, not as an individual race.
And this is perhaps the most powerful lesson the US can learn from better-performing education systems: teachers need greater collective professional autonomy and more support to work with one another.
In other words, more freedom from bureaucracy, but less from one another.
It is a lesson that Australia could learn as well.