Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Teacher Autonomy, Accountability and Baseball


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.
Pasi Sahlberg, Visiting Professor of Practice in Education, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University

Pasi Sahlberg is the former director general of the Finnish Ministry of Education, heading a public education program that has long been held up as a model because of high scores on PISA international tests of literacy and mathematics. In my view, Sahlberg is onto something that American corporate education reformers are ignoring at the peril of all school children. Quality education is not a matter of common standards, school choice, hero teachers, principal autonomy or teacher evaluation based on test scores. Quality education is a combination of informed, enlightened and engaged leadership, teacher quality, teacher teamwork, teacher autonomy and teacher accountability based on the quality of instruction, the quality of interactions with other teachers and the ability to reflect and grow as a professional.

I am a huge baseball fan. For me the game of baseball is a metaphor for life. Sahlberg says that education needs to be seen as a team sport. The best baseball teams are made up of individuals of talent who work together for the common good. Sure, many teams have a superstar player or two, but interestingly, superstar players do not guarantee success of the team. Many of the greatest players of all time never played in the World Series – Ernie Banks, Nolan Ryan, Ken Griffey, Jr., Rod Carew. This year 10 teams made the playoffs. One of those teams is the Houston Astros. In baseball, the .300 batting average (3 hits in every 10 times at bat) is the mark of a good hitter. Here are the batting averages of the 9 everyday players on the field this year for the Astros: .211, .199, .313, .279, .224, .243, .236, .276, .246. Clearly, something other than great hitting got the Astros to the playoffs.

Great pitching can overcome poor offense in baseball. Do the Astros have great pitching? Not so much. An average number of runs given up per game (ERA) by starting pitchers in the American League where the Astros play is about 3.75. Here are the ERAs of the pitchers who started at least 10 games for the Astros this season: 2.48, 3.89, 3.22, 3.90, 4.36, 4.17. The overall starting pitching performance is average at best. How did the Astros make the playoffs, beat the Yankees in the Wild Card game and move to the divisional playoffs? As a team, the Astros are better than the sum of their individual parts. So can it be with a school.

In order for a school to work well, teachers and administrators need to be working together toward the common goal of the best possible learning environment for every child. For this to happen, Sahlberg suggests, teachers need autonomy. This is not the autonomy of closing the classroom door and teaching whatever you want in whatever way you want. This is an autonomy built on teamwork, professionalism and trust. Professionals are people who are empowered through their knowledge to make decisions, but true professionals do not make decisions in a vacuum, they seek help, they share good ideas, they look for solutions to new problems.

Recently, a friend suffered a re-occurrence of cancer and she went to her local doctor, a very well regarded oncologist. In order to design a plan of treatment, this very experienced doctor called a colleague in a nearby urban hospital to talk through the best possible treatment plan. So must it be with teachers. A school as a whole must be even stronger than its best teachers. It can be so if all teachers are working together and if they have the time and autonomy to make it happen. Teachers in Finland, and many other countries, teach fewer hours than US teachers and spend more time consulting with their colleagues. Rather than teaching to a prescribed set of standards toward scoring well on a standardized test, Finnish teachers are guided by a loose framework around which they find the best way to teach the children in front of them.

Of course, autonomy requires trust and trust in teachers is both deserved and earned. It is deserved because teachers are professionals who have dedicated themselves to the study of the child, the study of teaching methods and the study of content. And trust is earned when teachers hold themselves accountable. Not accountable to some fool’s gold of a standardized tests, but accountable for providing the best possible instruction to each and every child entrusted to their care.  This means keeping up on the research. It means constantly improving your own teaching ability through reflection on what is working and what isn’t. It means being a productive and contributing and collaborative member of an instructional team that is working together to meet children’s needs. It means being able to demonstrate every student’s progress through authentic artifacts like tests, quizzes, classroom projects and writing samples.

Autonomy is inextricably tied to accountability. If, as teachers, we desire autonomy we must embrace accountability, as long as it is an accountability that respects our professionalism. The school administrator must trust that teachers will work together to design the best possible instruction. Parents must trust that the teacher is providing the best possible instruction for the child. Policy makers must trust that teachers are professionals doing their jobs as well as they can. The Common Core, the proliferation of standardized tests, the teacher accountability movement built on those standardized tests are all indications of a lack of trust. As teachers we have every right to demand that trust, but we also have the heavy responsibility of being deserving of that trust.


The Houston Astros trust each other. They trust each other to do their best, not only on the field, but in preparing to go on the field. They trust their fellow players to make the correct plays, throw to the right base, break up the double play, run the bases intelligently. When each Astro walks into the batter’s box, he is an autonomous actor with a bat in his hand, but he is also a teammate working toward the greater good of winning the World Series. As teachers we play in the World Series every day. Our job is that important. We deserve professional respect, we need the professional collaboration of our colleagues and we must earn the trust of the children and adults we work with by being the best professional team players we can be.