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Commentary: Greater teacher autonomy can help fight the teacher shortage and their dissatisfaction

Spencer Burrows | December 4, 2017

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Teachers are at their best when teaching material they are passionate about. The current curriculums in our education system are too restrictive and hinder teachers from reaching their full potential. To bring out their passions and reach their occupational apex, teachers need the opportunity to innovate, which requires a level of curricular freedom. If we as a society want the most out of our teachers we need to grant them some flexibility and choice in selecting textbooks, content materials, and method of instruction when teaching their class.

Unfortunately, that level of curricular freedom is often absent, and that has become a major factor in LAUSD’s teacher retention problem. Given the teacher shortages across multiple districts, our teacher retention problem has become exponentially more pressing. In fact, the lack of collective teacher influence over school-wide decisions is one of the largest issues influencing teachers to move schools or leave the profession, costing the U.S. $2.2 billion annually.

Curricular freedom gives teachers the flexibility to tailor their instructional practice according to their abilities. Researchers in a 2005 study found that “as curriculum autonomy increased, on-the-job stress decreased.” The authors stated that research suggests “granting autonomy and empowering teachers is an appropriate place to begin in solving the problems of today’s schools,” and concluded that the need for autonomy is logically consistent if teachers are to stay committed to the profession.

Textbook expenditure is no small sum, and hence should be spent as wisely as possible. In the school year 2013-14, LAUSD spent $27.8 million on Core and Required textbooks. However, giving each district school a budget and letting faculties choose their own instructional materials would undoubtedly increase teacher satisfaction and retention. The district could still vet providers or have a small office that approves the decisions of which textbooks the teachers could choose from, but this small governance change could increase the motivation of thousands of the district’s teachers.

LAUSD schools acknowledge the need for autonomy. At the past LAUSD Curriculum, Instruction, and Educational Equity Committee meeting, model LAUSD schools discussed their successes, attended by affiliated charters, magnets, and pilot schools. The school leaders emphasized that they could not have achieved what they did without the special autonomies granted in their school models. Hopefully, other LAUSD schools take heed and learn from the successes of these model schools.

At a time when we are experiencing a teacher shortage and teachers justifiably believe a lot of their craft has been dumbed down to standardized testing, more curricular freedom is part of the solution. Teachers who are provided that freedom often produce outstanding results, and when teachers are tightly constricted in their materials, they often move schools or leave the profession. This freedom can be promoted at the local level by giving district school teachers greater choice in selecting instructional materials. Giving district school teachers greater choice in selecting their instructional materials, with some oversight of course, is an excellent way to begin the process of increasing teacher retention and promoting education. The battle to keep our teachers in schools and in the profession will not end there, but at least we will have troops on the ground. Take off the training wheels and let the teachers do their job!

Spencer Burrows is a middle school teacher at The City School in Los Angeles, serves as adjunct faculty in National University’s Sanford College of Education, and helped launch Crete Academy, a South Los Angeles charter elementary school for homeless and low-income students that opened this fall.

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