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Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 21, Number 6, April 2009 

Paths to Professional Autonomy

Professional autonomy and coercive collaboration

Middle-school prep time, teaming, and ETS assessment for learning 

By David Futter

The middle-school model contains many tensions for teachers and teacher autonomy. The principle of common planning time contains the idea of team collaboration. The issue is to maintain the balance between team collaboration and teacher professional autonomy. The current trend toward the use of assessment for learning methodology in decision-making has increased the pressure on teacher professional autonomy.

Middle-school teams meet to make decisions over curriculum, students’ learning, and other team business. The smooth running of teams often requires that teachers come to a consensus or agreement over the decisions made in team meetings. In many cases, this process is the best scenario; however, there is the potential for coercive conduct or parameters to be put in place to develop “consensual” team decisions.

The new impetus of assessment for learning, of learning, and as learning, brings a new philosophical approach to decision-making. The appeal of assessment for learning is for more meaningful assessment and feedback to students and to reflect the current focus on a cognitive approach to learning. Assessment for learning is an attempt to move away from the positivistic approach of simply measuring learned skills and knowledge. The use of this new approach to assessment when required as a means of co-ordinating practice within a team and between teams in a middle school has the effect of trying to standardize practice and force teachers to apply the same methodologies and assessment procedures in order to produce data—data that can be used to make team decisions.

As Lorna Earle has written, teachers understand that assessment has many purposes and goals. An individual teacher’s use of assessment for learning, of learning, and as learning has professional autonomy embedded within it. The shift to team use of this approach belies the professional judgment of the teacher. It implies that the teacher’s assessment contains too much subjectivity and we must have standard practices in which to make the judgments. It is usually at this point that the mantra of “best practices” is parlayed to coerce teachers into using the same evaluative procedures. The example of the school-wide write is a case in point. Teachers are to utilize the same topic and then mark together to ensure consistency. The performance standards are the benchmarks to guide assessment and the results should provide indicators of which the team will focus on in the coming school terms. It is a return to the old positivistic approach. So much for teacher autonomy in determining the instructional approach, direction, and assessment of students as guaranteed in the School Act.

The middle-school format of organizing students and teachers into teams can heighten the current management craze of directing teachers’ practices, and is an infringement on their professional autonomy. Hidden within this practice of co-ordinated assessment of learning, for learning, and about learning, is a philosophy of education that is at odds with the rhetoric of progressive education. It is not about what is best for students, but what is best for administrators’ control of teachers. The right wing ideology of accountability is the only collaborative goal here.

David Futter teaches at Rockheights Middle School, Victoria.


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