Is Teacher Autonomy the Key to School Success?

February 7, 2013 • Kim Farris-Berg

This post was originally blogged on the Education Week Of, By, For blog.

In the introductory chapter of A Year at Mission Hill, the teachers unassumingly drop a bombshell. They attribute their school’s sustained success to a democratic governance structure in which teachers have “freedom and autonomy.” Not just classroom autonomy, but the authority to collectively make decisions that influence whole school success.

Their assertion runs counter to today’s most dominant ideas in education policy, which tend to characterize school success as a function of how well we’re doing at controlling teachers. Those in power are standardizing curricula, requiring adherence to pacing guides, tightening licensure requirements, offering merit pay, and tying school and teacher evaluations to singular measures of student performance. The idea seems to be that if we can just get tough with bad teachers, and do our best to eliminate possible variances in student experience, then all will be well with K-12 schools.

But the Mission Hill teachers indirectly reject this approach, and raise a vital question: What if trusting teachers, not controlling them, is the key to school success?

My colleagues and I recently studied Mission Hill and the more than 50 other schools where teachers call the shots. Some of these schools are in districts, and some are individual charters. Some teachers are union-affiliated, and others are not. Teacher autonomy is secured in varying ways, depending on a host of factors including the state and local political climate; teachers’ personal preferences; and the union, district, and charter authorizers’ openness to trying new things. (Our findings are published in a book called Trusting Teachers with School Success.)

Mission Hill is a K-8 Boston pilot school. Pilot schools came on the Massachusetts scene in 1993 in an effort by Boston Public Schools to retain teachers and students after the state legislature passed a chartering law in 1993. Under the pilot agreement, the Boston Public Schools superintendent grants pilot school governing boards the authority to try unconventional models of teaching and learning with at-risk, urban students.

In the case of Mission Hill and several other Boston pilot schools, the governing board in turn delegates its authority to the teachers at the school. The Mission Hill governing board and ultimately the superintendent hold Mission Hill teachers accountable for meeting goals, but no one is telling the teachers how to meet the goals in the areas they have autonomy.

Among the district affiliated models that my colleagues and I examined, Mission Hill teachers had the highest levels of formal autonomy. As a group they have the authority to select colleagues and the partial authority to evaluate them; and they can even recommend them for transfer. Teachers can also select their own leaders, determine the learning program, and set the school-level policy as well as staff pattern and schedule. Finally, they have partial authority to allocate the school budget (although salaries and benefits are set by Boston Public Schools).

All of this matters, the teachers explained. They use their autonomy to create a collaborative culture rooted in shared purpose. “The idea is that the members of the school are making some decisions and are talking about the things that are most important to them,” one said. A couple of teachers suggested that Mission Hill’s individualized curriculum flows from their democratic culture, but the curriculum matters less to their success than the culture itself. The curriculum might evolve or change entirely over time, but the teachers’ commitment to seeing themselves as learners who must work together toward continuous improvement will remain a driving force in Mission Hill’s success.

Mission Hill Founder Deborah Meier affirmed these ideas in Chapter One of the video series. “Powerful thinking should be going on by the adults who keep company with the kids,” she said. “I think we have lost the notion that a democratic society depends upon people who have that sense of freedom to have wonderful ideas; to come up with something different.”

As Meier is talking, we see students climbing on chairs to build tall towers. (Most Mission Hill classrooms intentionally don’t have desks, leaving lots of room for students to move and engage in hands-on learning.) We also see students playing instruments, but not in a tightly controlled environment. Instead they are passionately dancing in eight different directions. Pay a visit to Mission Hill, and you will see that there are also times when there is intentional focus on listening to others’ ideas, weighing alternatives, reflecting, and making decisions both individually and collaboratively.

By teachers’ design, Mission Hill students are building their capacity to be the people that our democratic society will depend on. They are surrounded by adults who not only encourage students to develop behaviors that contribute to a thriving democracy, but who are modeling these behaviors themselves. And, as it turns out, these behaviors are associated with high-performing cultures.

Is it possible that designing the working arrangements for teachers and the learning arrangements for students around our nation’s founding principles could be a path to great schools? I look forward to further exploring this question with you, as we watch and learn from A Year at Mission Hill.

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent education policy strategist and Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota.