Archive for April, 2014

Local-Control State

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In education, the term local-control state refers to states in which the governing and management of public schools is largely conducted by elected or appointed representatives serving on governing bodies, such as school boards or school committees, that are located in the communities served by the schools. For a related discussion, see autonomy.

The concept of local control is grounded in a philosophy of government premised on the belief that the individuals and institutions closest to the students and most knowledgeable about a school—and most invested in the welfare and success of its educators, students, and communities—are best suited to making important decisions related to its operation, leadership, staffing, academics, teaching, and improvement. This general philosophy of governance is often contrasted with state or federal policies intended to influence the structure, operation, or academic programs in public schools, given that level of control granted to local governing bodies is directly related to the level of prescription articulated in education laws, regulations, and related compliance rules and requirements.

While the United States Constitution does not explicitly mention education, the Tenth Amendment states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” which has been widely interpreted to give states primary authority and control over the governance and operation of public schools (that said, many federal laws and regulations heavily influence the operation of public schools both directly and indirectly). The role that state governments and agencies play in school governance and management varies from state to state, with some states exerting more direct control over public schools and other states allowing local governing bodies to adopt policies and perform governance functions for the schools located in their district or community. States that assign more responsibility over the governance and management of public schools to local governing bodies are commonly called “local-control states.” Historically, these states have generally deferred to local school boards and committees on governance issues, even issues related to compliance with state statutes and regulations.

For a more detailed discussion, see local control.

Teacher Autonomy

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The concept of teacher autonomy refers to the professional independence of teachers in schools, especially the degree to which they can make autonomous decisions about what they teach to students and how they teach it.

In recent years, teacher autonomy has become a major point of discussion and debate in American public education, largely as a result of educational policies that, some argue, limit the professionalism, authority, responsiveness, creativity, or effectiveness of teachers.

While teacher autonomy is most frequently discussed in terms of what teachers teach to students and how they teach it, the issue may also manifest in other ways. For example, some schools are entirely led and managed by teachers—i.e., the schools do not have formal administrators; teachers assume administrative roles, usually on a revolving basis. In addition, the composition and negotiation of teacher contracts may also vary significantly from place to place. For example, local teachers unions will negotiate annual contracts with school districts in some states, while most states have statewide teacher contracts that are negotiated by state teachers unions. Depending on its provisions, teaching contracts can directly affect professional autonomy, given that contracts may, for example, determine the specific number of hours that teachers can work each week or limit the roles that teachers can play in a school or district.

For a related discussion, see autonomy.

Debate

While debates related to teacher autonomy vary from place to place, the professionalism of teachers is typically a central issue in the debates. Many educators, and groups such as teachers unions or membership-based professional organizations for teachers, may argue that infringing on teacher autonomy in the classroom undermines the professional status and expertise of teachers. In this view, attempts to micromanage teaching strategies or teacher performance through more prescriptive policies, greater administrative oversight, or strict curriculum requirements will undermine job satisfaction or the perception that teachers are skilled professionals who have earned a degree of public trust in their abilities.

Advocates of greater teacher autonomy may also argue that because teachers are in the best position to make informed decisions about a student’s education, they should be given as much autonomy as possible when it comes to choosing instructional strategies, designing lessons, and providing academic support. In this view, more stringent regulations, tougher job requirements, greater administrative oversight, or more burdensome teacher-evaluation procedures, for example, will inevitability stifle the instructional creativity and responsiveness of teachers, which could produce a variety of negative results, including lower student performance or higher job dissatisfaction and attrition rates among teachers. Given that no policy that is applied to all teachers can take into account the myriad abilities and needs of students, the reasoning goes, important decisions about educating students should be left to teachers. Similarly, local school leaders and administrators are better positioned to determine the performance of teachers, rather than blanket policies that are applied to all teachers in a district or state, such as valued-added measures—i.e., formulas used to estimate or quantify how much of a positive (or negative) effect individual teachers have on student learning during the course of a given school year.

Critics of teacher autonomy tend to cite evidence that teaching quality is uneven, and that problems such as achievement gaps or low graduation rates indicate that measures need to be taken to improve the effectiveness of teachers and public-school instruction. While the proposed solutions to ineffective teaching are numerous, proposals may include greater administrative oversight, increased educational and professional requirements for new teachers, prepackaged or “scripted” curriculum materials, more demanding evaluation systems for job performance, or penalties for poor-performing teachers, for example.

The following examples will help to illustrate a few of the primary issues giving rise to debates about teacher autonomy:

  • Testing policies: High-stakes tests—exams used to make important decisions about schools, educators, or students—are widely considered to cause a phenomenon known as “teaching to the test”—i.e., educators focusing their instruction on the topics that are most likely to be tested, or spending classroom time prepping students for tests rather than teaching them knowledge and skills that may be more important. If penalties are imposed on schools, educators, students, or teachers due to test results, critics argue, teachers will inevitably have less autonomy over the instructional process because they will be forced to “teach to the test.” As the use of standardized tests has grown in the United States in recent decades, educators have increasingly expressed concern about the consequences of such policies, including the consideration of student test scores in the job-performance evaluations of teachers—a highly controversial subject among educators and teachers unions.
  • Standards policies: All fifty states in the United States have developed and adopted learning standards—concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education—that establish learning goals for students in kindergarten through high school. Consequently, when schools “align” their academic programs and curriculum with the learning goals described in standards, some argue that teachers will have less “autonomy” in determining the knowledge, skills, and content they teach to students. The extent to which learning standards limit the autonomy of teachers remains a subject of ongoing discussion and debate, but many educators argue that standards do not impose significant limitations on the professional autonomy of teachers. For example, some argue that standards only describe broad learning expectations, and that they do not tell teachers how to teach or even, to a great extent, what to teach. For example, a standard that requires students to demonstrate understanding how “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” work in American government does not require teachers to teach those ideas in any specific way—they can use any number of instructional approaches, learning materials, or historical examples to teach students the concepts described in the standards.
  • Curriculum policies: Some states, districts, and schools have policies related to curriculum that may affect teacher autonomy to a greater or lesser extent. For example, some districts and schools require teachers to use “scripted curriculum”—i.e., a prescriptive, standardized, prepackaged form of curriculum that may require teachers to follow a particular sequence of prepackaged lessons and, in some cases, read aloud from a teaching script in class. Though the term is now considered pejorative and rarely used, forms of scripted curriculum were called “teacher-proof curriculum” in past decades. Clearly, the professional autonomy of individual teachers will be significantly limited when such a curriculum system is mandated. In other districts or schools, teachers may be required to use certain texts or instructional approaches, or follow “pacing guides” that outline a specific sequence of lessons and content. For example, teachers may be required to have students reading a designated chapter in a particular textbook on a certain day of the school year. Depending on the level of prescription, and whether they are voluntary guidelines or mandates, curriculum policies can directly affect the instructional autonomy of teachers.
  • Promotion policies: Some states, districts, and schools have policies related to grade promotion or graduation that may limit the ability of teachers to play a role in the process of deciding how and when students will be promoted. For example, a district policy may require that students be automatically held back if they fail a course, which could, in some circumstances, supersede a teacher’s recommendation that the student be promoted due to certain extenuating factors. Some states may also require students to pass a standardized test before they are promoted to the next grade level or eligible to receive a high school diploma (for a related discussion, see high-stakes test). Other policies may require a particular course of corrective action when students fail a course, which could also have implications for teacher autonomy. For example, students who fail a course may be required to complete a credit-recovery program—such as an online course or summer-school program—that may not mirror the content taught in the course the student failed. In this case, the teacher may not have a say in how their students “recover” the credit they failed to earn in the teacher’s class.
  • Evaluation policies: Discussions and debates about “teacher evaluation” and “teacher accountability” have grown more prominent—and contentious—in recent years. Depending on the systems, methods, and criteria used in the job-performance evaluations of teachers, evaluation policies may affect teacher autonomy. If evaluation processes, expectations, and requirements are more stringent or burdensome, it could influence the way that teachers instruct students. For example, if standardized test scores are used in the evaluation process, and if compensation decisions (salaries, bonuses, or “merit-based” pay) are connected to test scores, teachers will be more likely to modify how and what they teach to improve student test results.

Local Control

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In education, local control refers to (1) the governing and management of public schools by elected or appointed representatives serving on governing bodies, such as school boards or school committees, that are located in the communities served by the schools, and (2) the degree to which local leaders, institutions, and governing bodies can make independent or autonomous decisions about the governance and operation of public schools. For a related discussion, see autonomy.

The concept of local control is grounded in a philosophy of government premised on the belief that the individuals and institutions closest to the students and most knowledgeable about a school—and most invested in the welfare and success of its educators, students, and communities—are best suited to making important decisions about its operation, leadership, staffing, academics, teaching, and improvement. This general philosophy of governance is often contrasted with state or federal policies intended to influence the structure, operation, or academic programs in public schools, given that level of control granted to local governing bodies is directly related to the level of prescription articulated in education laws, regulations, and related compliance rules and requirements.

While the United States Constitution does not explicitly mention education, the Tenth Amendment states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” which has been widely interpreted as delegating primary authority and control over the regulation, governance, and operation of public schools to states (that said, many federal laws and regulations heavily influence the operation of public schools both directly and indirectly—see discussion below). The role that state governments and agencies play in school governance and management varies from state to state, with some states exerting more direct control over public schools and other states allowing local governing bodies to adopt policies and perform governance functions for the schools in their district or municipality. States that assign more responsibility over the governance and management of public schools to local governing bodies are often called “local-control states.” Historically, these states have generally deferred to local school boards and committees on governance issues, including many issues related to compliance with state statutes and regulations.

While local control takes a variety of forms from place to place—far too many to extensively catalog here—the following illustrative examples will serve to describe a few common forms of local control in the United States:

  • Regional school boards: Regional school boards and committees typically oversee the governance and operation of a school district that serves a variety of communities in a defined area. Membership is composed of locally elected representatives who sit on the board for a defined term of office, and membership is often apportioned in accordance with the population of the participating communities. Responsibilities can vary significantly from place to place, but common functions include the hiring and firing of superintendents, the development of school budgets, and the adoption of district policies. Some districts, it should be noted, may have multiple schools boards. For example, a district may have separate boards overseeing its elementary schools and its secondary schools, or a regional career and technical education center that serves students from one or more districts may have its own governing board.
  • Municipal school boards: Similar in structure and function to regional school boards, municipal school boards and committees oversee the governance and operations of public schools located in single town or city (given that larger cities have sizeable student populations, they are often defined as standalone school districts). In municipal school districts, governance responsibilities may be shared with other municipal bodies. For example, a school board may need to secure approval of its annual district budget from the city council, town council, or board of selectpersons.
  • Regional school unions: A regional school union is a confederation of multiple school boards representing specific towns and municipalities. Unlike a regional school board that is composed of elected representatives from the municipalities in a given district, school unions retain a distinct school board for each community. While responsibilities for governance and operations vary from place to place, school unions typically make collective decisions related to certain governance functions and independent decisions related to others. For example, schools unions may collectively hire the superintendent and district staff, approve an annual district budget, or set policy for a regional high school that serves students from all the participating communities, while also retaining individual autonomy and governance authority for the elementary and middle schools located in each participating town.
  • School-based governance: Local control also manifests in the form of school-based governance, which can take a wide variety of forms from school to school. For example, charter schools—privately operated schools funded partially or entirely by public money, often in the form of student tuition paid by states and communities—typically have their own distinct governance structure and board of directors. While charter schools are subject to state regulation, they may not need to comply with the policies governing public schools in the districts they are located in.

Reform

Local control can become the object of reform in a wide variety of ways. The following representative examples will serve to illustrate a few of the primary ways that local control may become targeted for reform:

  • Federal and state policies: Legislative bodies and governmental agencies at the federal and state levels may adopt new laws, regulations, and related compliance rules and requirements that influence the degree of control local bodies have over the governance and operation of public schools. While these policies are too numerous and complex to address here, federal and state policies can affect local control both directly and indirectly. For example, state governments may directly influence local control by taking steps to reduce the number of districts and school boards in a state, or they may adopt statewide graduation requirements for public-school students that directly affect the degree of control that school boards have to determine local graduation requirements for students. Other policies, such as high-stakes tests, have a more indirect influence on local control. In this case, schools may specifically prepare students to take a standardized test by teaching them the knowledge, skills, and test-taking strategies likely to increase their performance on a test (a phenomenon informally known as “teaching to the test”). While the schools are not required to teach the material that will be tested, the prospect of low scores and related consequences may nevertheless influence both how and what schools decide to teach.
  • Regionalization and consolidation: The consolidation of school districts and school boards is another common form of local-control reform. In many cases, elected officials, legislators, and policy makers attempt to consolidate or regionalize the governance of public schools in an effort to cut educational costs by reducing administrative staffing, closing offices or schools, and consolidating district operations such as accounting, transportation, maintenance, and purchasing. While lowering costs through the elimination of operational redundancies is the perhaps the most common rationale for consolidation, many other factors may influence the decision to regionalize school governance and operations, including the opportunity to improve, expand, or diversify school programming for students. In rural areas, for example, smaller schools, particularly high schools, with smaller budgets and student populations are financially unable to provide many of the programs, services, and learning opportunities available to students in larger schools, including a diversity of arts, world-language, athletics, and co-curricular programs. Consolidating with other towns and sending their students to a larger regional high school is one way that communities can offer their students a greater variety of educational programs and opportunities.
  • Assertion or reinstatement of local control: Local control may also be asserted by local governing bodies or reinstated after an unsuccessful attempt to consolidate districts, school boards, and public schools. In some states, efforts to consolidate school governance have been attempted, but have subsequently failed for any number of complex reasons, leading to the reinstatement of former district or school-board governance structures. In recent years, local actors have also attempted to assert greater control over public schools. One particularly high-profile example are so-called “parent trigger laws” that allow parents to intervene when the school their children attend is deemed “low performing” by the state. Although laws differ from state to state, they usually allow parent groups to create petitions that, with enough signatures, can “trigger” a variety of actions, such as converting a public school into a charter school, firing and replacing the school’s administration and faculty, or closing the school and sending its students to alternate schools. In addition, the proliferation and growing popularity of charter schools represents another way that local control is asserted, given that charter schools, though they are regulated by states, are often locally governed and managed (exceptions include virtual charter schools operated by out-of-state organizations and large corporations, and charter-school franchises that may be centrally managed from outside of the community in which a particular school is located).

Debate

Numerous historical, cultural, political, and legal factors can influence the structure and execution of local school governance, and the issue of local control can be extremely complicated, emotionally charged, and contentious in some communities, states, and regions. New England, for example, has a long history of local control over public schools that dates back to the colonial era, and local control is often a source of debate and conflict in the northeast, while state-directed control of public schools is less controversial or contentious in many southern states that do not have the same history of local control.

Local control also intersects with the legal concept of “state’s rights,” and feelings of skepticism or hostility directed at the federal government and federally administered programs. In recent years, local control of public schools has become a source of tensions and conflicts that are part of broader political and ideological schisms and debates in American society, such as disagreements related to role that state and federal governments should play in the lives of citizens.

While debates related to local control are both numerous and nuanced, the following examples are representative of a few major arguments for and against local control.

Reducing local control can:

  • Lower educational costs and improve efficiency of districts and schools. By eliminating administrative positions, closing offices, and consolidating district operations, and by centralizing many administrative and operational functions such as accounting, transportation, maintenance, and purchasing, the overall cost of public schooling will go down, taxpayers in states and communities will save money, and public schools can be run more efficiently and effectively.
  • Reduce bureaucracy. By eliminating and streamlining bureaucracy, school leaders will have more authority to make executive decisions related to academics, staffing, teaching, and school improvement.
  • Improve, expand, or diversify school programming. In rural areas with smaller schools, student populations, and district operating budgets, public schools do not have the resources to provide many of the programs, services, and learning opportunities that are available to students in larger schools.
  • Improve academic quality, educational consistency, and teaching effectiveness. Because new policies and requirements can enforce higher academic standards for students, and higher professional standards for administrators, teachers, and staff, reducing local control can improve school quality across a state or region.

Increasing local control can:

  • Improve academic quality and teaching effectiveness in a school. Because the school is being governed and managed by the individuals and institutions that are the most knowledgeable about and invested in the school and its educators, students, and communities, and because no one is more invested in the welfare and success of children than parents, teachers, and community members, locally controlled schools are more likely to act in the best interest of students.
  • Increase local pride, civic participation, and public and financial support for public schools. Because active participation in the governance process increase feelings of connectedness and ownership, locally controlled schools will benefit from greater community involvement and investment.
  • Improve teaching and student performance. Because school leaders and teachers in smaller schools with smaller classes know the backgrounds, learning needs, and aspirations of their students better than educators in larger schools with larger numbers of students, consolidating districts and schools could potentially lead to lower-quality teaching and lower student performance.

Autonomy

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In education, the concept of autonomy is perhaps most commonly discussed in reference to professional independence in schools, particularly the degree to which teachers can make autonomous decisions about what they teach to students and how they teach it. For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see teacher autonomy.

That said, the concept of autonomy in public education may take several different forms:

  • Local-governance autonomy: In education, the degree to which local governing bodies—such as school districts and school boards—can make independent decisions about how to structure and operate public schools is a common topic of study, discussion, and debate in the United States. Those who advocate for greater autonomy in the governance of schools tend to argue that the individuals and institutions closest to, most knowledgeable about, and most invested in a school—and in the welfare and success of its educators, students, and communities—are best suited to making important decisions related to operations, academics, leadership, teaching, and improvement. This general philosophy of governance is often contrasted with state or federal educational policies that are intended to influence the structure, operation, or academic programs in districts and public schools, given that autonomy in local governance is directly related to the level of prescription articulated in state and federal education laws, regulations, and related compliance rules and requirements. Autonomy in local governance also intersects with two related educational terms and concepts: “local control” and “site-based management,” both of which refer to the ability of local institutions and governing bodies to make autonomous decisions about the management of public schools. In some states and regions, local control is a complicated and often contentious issue. In New England, for example, there is a long history of local control over public schools, typically in the form of school boards or school unions, while state-directed control of public schools is less controversial or contentious in the southern states, which do not have the same history of local control over public schools. For a more detailed discussion, see local control.
  • School autonomy: The concept of autonomy also intersects with the governance and design of specific schools. For example, charter schools—privately operated schools funded partially or entirely by public money, often in the form of student tuition paid by states and communities—are generally considered to have more autonomy when it comes to making decisions about how the school will operate and teach students. Charter-school regulations, however, can differ significantly from state to state: some states have more prescriptive or involved regulations governing the operation of charter schools, while others have more permissive policies, lighter governmental oversight, and less demanding compliance requirements. As with issues related to local governance, the autonomy of individual public schools is directly related to the level of prescription articulated in state and federal education policies, regulations, and related compliance rules and requirements.
  • Teacher autonomy: The concept of “teacher autonomy” is a common topic of discussion and debate in education. Advocates of greater teacher autonomy may argue that because teachers are in the best position to make informed decisions about a student’s education, teachers should be given as much autonomy as possible when it comes to determining instructional strategies, curriculum, and academic support. In this view, for example, more regulations, tougher job requirements, greater administrative oversight, or more burdensome teacher-evaluation procedures will inevitability stifle the instructional creativity and responsiveness of teachers, which could produce a variety of negative results, including lower student performance or higher job dissatisfaction and attrition rates among teachers. Critics of teacher autonomy tend to cite evidence that teaching quality and effectiveness is uneven, and that problems such as achievement gaps or low graduation rates indicate that measures need to be taken to improve the effectiveness of teachers and public-school instruction, including more administrative oversight, increased educational and professional requirements for new teachers, stronger evaluation systems for job performance, or penalties for poor-performing teachers.
  • Parent autonomy: In recent years, the idea of parents playing a role in the operation and management of a school has become increasingly popular and contentious. While some debates are centered on the degree of control that parents should have over what gets taught to their children—particularly when it comes to subjects that are broadly contentious in American society, such as sex education or the teaching of evolution—others are focused on issues related to leadership and management. For example, so-called “parent trigger laws” allow parents to intervene when the school their children attend is deemed “low performing.” Although laws differ from state to state, they usually allow parent groups to create petitions that, with enough signatures, can “trigger” a variety of actions, such as converting a public school into a charter school, firing and replacing the school’s administration and faculty, or closing the school and sending its students to alternate schools. In some states, laws allow committees or councils of parents to play a role in the management of schools, which can even extend to participating in decisions related to the hiring and firing of school administrators. In many cases, however, parent committees play only an advisory role in a school or district, and their recommendations may or may not be acted upon.
  • Student autonomy: In recent years, educators have increasingly discussed and debated the degree to which students should be given more autonomy in the educational process. For example, the concept of  “student voice” is often used in reference to instructional approaches and techniques that take into consideration student choices, interests, passions, and ambitions. Some educators argue that students should play a more active role in designing or selecting learning experiences in schools, and that such approaches can encourage students to be more interested in school, more motivated to learn, and more likely to take greater responsibility over their education. In addition, the terms student autonomy or learner autonomy may refer to various theories of education that suggest learning improves when students take more control or responsibility over their own learning process. For related discussions, see differentiation, personalized learning, scaffoldingstudent-centered learning, and student engagement.