04/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Teacher Accountability and Autonomy

When a contractor is hired to build a room addition you expect him to follow your agreed upon contract. He is considered an expert and held accountable for the results. If he doesn't live up to building codes or does a poor job, he can be penalized or sued. You can negotiate changes as he is building it, but you cannot tell him how to do it! You respect him as an expert so he has complete autonomy in determining how to do it.

Not so for teachers. They are certainly held accountable, but their autonomy is limited. They have little input about curriculum, objectives, goals, techniques, or materials to be used.

They are selectively seated on various committees and their opinions are voiced, but they have about the same actual power that student governments have in running a school. People with real political power decide all the important legal, educational decisions.

Unfortunately, these people are the furthest from the actual classrooms and they have little understanding of what is necessary for the teacher to deal with the individual uniqueness and needs of each student and class.

A part of the problem is that these people remember what school was like for them, but the world has changed radically. The civil rights movements made groups and individuals extremely sensitive about any real or believed violation of their rights.

Mainstreaming means teachers have to deal effectively with students no matter what their problem or disability is. Technology and the media have opened up new (and often fun) ways of sending and receiving information that has made the teacher as the only source or center of learning -- obsolete. Yet, from preschool to universities most teachers are trained (often forced) to stand in front of the room and talk and talk and talk.

Curriculum with mandated texts, data, scope and time sequences with "teacher-proof materials" frustrate teachers who could be using their sensitivity, knowledge, training, and experience, but they know any deviation will bring harassment or termination!

Despite these obstacles and because of more effective classroom management techniques, it is easier for many to control their students. Control, not education occurs. Control is effective for the kind of learning that was useful in the past, but limits the kind of creativity and deeper thinking needed to meet the increasingly complex problems of modern society.

Still, I see the most talented, gifted young teachers that I've seen in my fifty years in teaching. I watch as they desperately try to go beyond the confines imposed upon them. I show them ways to live within the system and to flourish, but too many across the nation quit because they feel disrespected -- and alone.

Education needs a new paradigm that emphasizes freedom of choice in thought and action for teachers, students, and parents, not control and conformity. Professors complain that students entering universities have few thinking skills. How can teachers train their students to think when they themselves are penalized for thinking? I see teachers who have great ideas mandated to do only what they are told. How can they encourage the students to be creative, thinking beings in this type of closed system?

Part of America's greatness has been its entrepreneurial dynamics with people risking their own time and money to reap well-earned rewards

That same enterprise that drives small business is what is needed for teachers -- and students. Each teacher should be like a contractor. He should be encouraged to teach in his own style, use the techniques, materials, and technology that work best for his students and for him -- after he has thoroughly assessed them. Then, with real power over his life, he would be able to be a model and to help his students develop their own abilities.

A national curriculum of specific goals, objectives could remain as a guide for the skills and information considered important to for that grade or class. A teacher would be expected to cover these, but the breadth and depth would depend on his assessment of the class and individuals. The techniques, materials, timing, and depth of his delivery would be determined by the teacher.

In return for this autonomy (which not all teachers would want) he would be held accountable for student progress. However, instead of just the arbitrary -- and defective -- national test being the only criterion, he would do the following. Each student would be tested using several different types of tests that would give him a more accurate baseline of each of the necessary skills. This data would be kept on a computer-based portfolio available to anyone at any time.

Reasonable progress would be expected on each student based on his natural abilities (Raven's Matrices is a culture-fair test of this) and his actual achievement on teacher-made, publisher-made, and district wide tests.

The teacher would then be realistically accountable for what he actually tried to teach the class and how much he helped each student improve. Improvement is the key concept. A caveat. He also should be held accountable only for the time he has each student. Therefore, those who he had all year would be counted as ten tenths. If a student entered and was in class for two months, he would be counted as two tenths. As it stands now the teacher is unfairly accountable.

In one school I taught I began the year with twenty-seven students. Only eight of them remained for the entire ten months. I was judged on the scores as if all had been in attendance all year. Fortunately for me, they still scored at grade level or higher.

This unfairness though is one reason teachers resist placement in schools with high rates of transiency and why good new teachers quit in utter frustration.

Accountability, like with the contractor, is only fair and possible when teachers have the freedom, the autonomy to use all the tools at their disposal in the manner the best fits them and their students. Plus, they should be evaluated for the actual teaching time they have with their students.