In this weeks blog I am going to attempt to walk a bit of a tightrope in regard to teacher autonomy. In their book District Leadership that Works, Marzano and Waters outline the concept of “defined autonomy”…their website describes it this way:

Bridge the great divide between distanced administrative duties and daily classroom impact. This book introduces high-level leaders to a top-down power mechanism called “defined autonomy,” a concept that focuses on district-defined, nonnegotiable, common goals and a system of accountability supported by assessment tools. Defined autonomy creates an effective balance of centralized direction and individualized empowerment that allows building leaders and classroom teachers to maintain stylistic freedom to respond quickly and effectively to student failure.

On the surface, defined autonomy seems to provide teachers with (as mentioned above) the ability to “maintain stylistic freedom”. I would argue that the term “defined autonomy” is disingenuous and that “defined responsibility” would have been a more accurate term to describe their intentions. Teachers have the defined responsibility to teach the core standards and monitor student mastery of those core standards. If their intentions were to allow teachers the autonomy to maintain stylistic freedom, why would Marzano become engaged in the iObservation program that is focused on evaluating a teacher’s practice in the classroom? I have heard many experts over the years proclaim that “we know what works” (video of Marzano) in education and it appears to me that when someone makes this proclamation, defined autonomy quickly becomes low on the autonomy.

At MasteryConnect we had as a founding principle the idea that teacher must have the autonomy to teach and monitor student performance. I believe teachers have the “defined responsibility” to teach the core standards and monitor student mastery of those core standards, however the methods used to meet these responsibilities rest squarely on the shoulders of the teacher. I have worked in schools long enough that I am willing to concede that I don’t have all the answers on what works for every child, teacher, classroom and school. What I do know is that teaching is a human event and it is complicated.

I was once the principal of a school where I had two exceptional, but very different first grade teachers. It would be easy to label Kris a very traditional teacher and Scott a very non-traditional teacher. Both were passionate and dedicated educators. When I observed Kris’s classroom, students sat in neat rows, her management was impeccable and the quality of instruction was first rate. She was a master of providing remediation for students and challenging those who were ready to go on to more challenging work. Scott was an artist and his room looked like an art studio. He was a master of integration and inspired children to think creatively and well outside the box. His methods were non-traditional and highly effective. I don’t believe Kris could ever be effective trying to teach like Scott and the reverse is true. To impose defined autonomy on either would be offensive and would certainly minimize their effectiveness.

At MasteryConnect we believe teachers already have a defined responsibility to teach the core standards and monitor student performance relative to those standards. We believe teachers are best suited to defining their own autonomy when determining how they are going to meet their defined responsibilities. Teachers sharing common formative assessments, monitoring student mastery of the core standards and collaborating in this pursuit is fundamental to being true to the responsibilities of teaching. How teachers teach is fundamental to maintaining true autonomy in the profession.

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