Skip to main content

Radical Eyes for Equity: The Anti-Teacher (and Sexist) Roots of Rejecting Teacher Autonomy

One challenge of doing public work and advocacy addressing education, education reform, and teachers/teaching is framing clear and accessible messages that avoid being simplistic and misleading.

Since I am in my fifth year of challenging the overly simplistic and misleading “science of reading” (SOR) movement, I have attempted to carefully craft some direct and brief messages, including “not simple, not settled,” “teach readers, not reading,” and my core commitments to teacher autonomy and the individual needs of all students.

One would think that those core commitments attract support even among those who disagree on other aspects of teaching and education policy. However, I face a persistent resistance to supporting teacher autonomy.

At a fundamental level, teacher autonomy is essential for teaching to be a profession, but autonomy is also essential because education is a high-accountability field.

The problematic tension in education is that teachers are routinely held accountable for mandates (not their professional decisions and practices) and how well they comply with the mandates. Since many education mandates are flawed (such as current reading legislation) and for decades have failed, teachers are then blamed for that failure even though they didn’t make the mandates and were simply the mechanisms for practices.

Most education crisis rhetoric and education reform have been grounded for decades in anti-teacher sentiments. Currently, the reading crisis movement blames reading teachers for being ill-equipped to teach reading (failing children) and teacher educators for not preparing those teachers, for example.

One of the strongest elements of rejecting teacher autonomy, in fact, is among SOR advocates who promote structured literacy, often scripted curriculum [1] that reduces teachers to technicians and perpetuates holding teachers accountable for fidelity to programs instead of supporting teacher expertise to address individual student needs.

Let me be clear that all professions with practitioner autonomy have a range of quality in that profession (yes, there are some weak and flawed teachers just as there are weak and flawed medical doctors). To reject teacher autonomy because a few teachers may not deserve it is a standard not applied in other fields.

But there may be a gender-based reason for such resistance.

K-12 teaching (especially elementary teaching) is disproportionately a woman’s career:

And while teacher pay is low compared to other professions, the pay inequity is more pronounced in areas where the proportion of women is even higher:

As a frame of reference, a more respected and better rewarded teaching profession is in higher education where professor have professional autonomy, except the gender imbalance exposes a similar sexist pattern:

While the gender balance is better in higher education than K-12, the pay and security of being a professor increases where men are a higher proportion of the field.

Autonomy, pay, and respect track positively for men and negatively for women in teaching, and the resistance to autonomy for K-12 teachers strongly correlates with the field being primarily women.

A key but ignored element of education reform must include better pay for all K-12 teachers and supporting teacher autonomy so that individual student needs can be met.

The historical and current resistance to teacher autonomy exposes the lingering sexism in how we view, treat, and reward educators.

[1] Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195.

This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...