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Comparative perspectives to teacher autonomy: empirical and conceptual contributions

Thu, April 18, 10:00 to 11:30am, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Street (Level 0), Regency A


Teacher autonomy has been a topic of heated debate in public discourses as well as an increasingly popular topic of investigation over the past decades. Empirical studies show strong correlation between teacher autonomy and teachers’ self-efficacy, work-satisfaction, empowerment, and positive work climate (Parker, 2015; Wilches, 2007). Furthermore, teacher autonomy seems to correlate negatively with staff turnover and risk of burn out (ibid.). Positive links have also been drawn between teacher autonomy and student outcomes (Hattie, 2011; Sahlberg, 2011). However, comparative perspectives to the phenomenon still remain scarce. This paper draws from an international comparative study exploring the autonomy of German, Swedish, Finnish and Irish teachers and offers both conceptual and empirical contributions. These cases are interesting to compare, because they theoretically display different school governance traditions, i.e. strategies of steering and controlling public education and teachers work. Ireland and Sweden represent output or product controlled types with high local variance due to decentralisation and marketization in different qualities but an extensive and public system of national curriculum testing. In the German and Finnish case, we rather see a process orientation of school steering with extensive teacher education and less marketization elements at local levels.

Drawing from existing conceptualisation of teacher autonomy as decision-making and control (eg. Ingersoll, 1996, 2003, Authors, 2018) as well as multidimensional and context dependent phenomenon (Gewirtz and Cribb 2007, 2009, Forstensson, 2015) we present our conceptualisation of teacher autonomy in a matrix. The matrix is applicable to comparative research focusing on teacher autonomy and more broadly teachers’ work (Authors, 2018).

Table 1. Definition of teacher autonomy collated to a matrix

The matrix distinguishes teacher’s decision-making and control on three horizontal levels: classroom, school, and profession.
(1) With the classroom level, we refer to the scope of action teachers’ have in their classrooms as individual professionals. This relates to Frostenson’s (2015) conception of teachers’ individual autonomy and author(s)’ idea of service autonomy.
(2) Second is the school level. As schools are complicated social systems in which multiple actors (teachers, parents, school management etc.), operate, here focus is on teacher as a member of the professional community within the school (Kelchtermans, 2006).
(3) Finally, there is a professional level of teacher autonomy referring to teachers as professionals in the society. Question concerning how the profession/professionals relate to other actors such as textbook publishers, unions, school inspectorate.
These horizontal dimensions are complemented with a vertical dimension, referring to different domains in which teachers operate. In relation to the work of Ingersoll (2003), Gewirtz and Cribb (2007, 2009) Wilches (2007), Friedman (1999), and Rosenholtz (1989) we propose 4 different domains.
(a) Firstly, with educational domain we refer to matters related to activities and responsibilities related to teaching and learning, including, but not limited to: planning, instruction/delivery and assessment/evaluation.
(b) From a sociological point of view, education and schools more specifically play a crucial role in the socialisation of students. We call this the social domain. Examples of such include, grouping students either randomly, or based on their gender, ability or developmental stage. Also the extent to which teachers contribute in the actual act of disciplining, as well as in developing school-level discipline policies.
(c) Developmental domain refers to decisions that relate to identifying and steering the school towards a ‘vision’ or a plan of action. To what extent teachers are involved in matters such as professional development or, for example, developing overall school subject specialisation or other strategic functions.
(d) Finally, by administrative domain, we refer to the administrative work of schools that facilitates learning. Decision-making concerning for example timetabling, use of resources or teachers’ pay or office space are examples.

The paper is a product of large-scale comparative European project concerning high school teachers’ perceived autonomy, drawing from interviews with over 100 teachers in Finland, Sweden, Germany and Ireland.

The matrix allowed nuanced and sophisticated analysis of data when comparing teachers work in different contexts.

Table 2. Finnish teachers’ perceptions of who makes decisions in which dimension

Table 3: German teachers’ perceptions of who makes decisions in which dimension

Table 4. Irish teachers’ perceptions of who makes decisions in which dimension

Table 5: Swedish teachers’ perceptions of who makes decisions in which dimension

Teachers in all countries consider themselves autonomous in their classroom practice but Finnish, Swedish and German teachers report of more collective and individual decision-making at classroom as well as school level, whereas their Irish colleagues experience more of headteacher involvement in key decisions, especially when it comes to decision at the social dimension in the classroom. Finnish and German teachers consider to have more to say regarding questions of professional development in comparison to their Irish and Swedish colleagues.

The matrix also assists in comparing control mechanism affecting teachers work (Tables 6 to 9).

Table 6. Finnish teachers’ perception of the intensity and agency of control

Table 7: German teachers’ perception of the intensity and agency of control

Table 8. Irish teachers’ perception of the intensity and agency of control

Table 9: Swedish teachers’ perceptions of the intensity and agency of control

Overall teachers see the educational work with students in classrooms as the core of the teaching profession, and this is where they also experienced most control. Swedish and Irish teachers perceive more intensive control than their Finnish and German colleagues. Only in Finland a lower control intensity was reported. Parents are associated with a significant control function in all countries in instances like grades and behavioural patterns by the teachers, but there are school-related differences, in particular in relation to the socio-demographic background of the students. Finally, interviews show that the relation of perceived control and real consequences is ambivalent, since there are practically no real consequences. In all four countries, for a teacher to forfeit their permit to teach or to lose their job requires extreme causes.

The findings are somewhat reflective of two differing governance traditions prevalent in western European education regimes; input governance and outcome governance (Wössmann, 2007: Benner, 2009, Hopmann 2003). In input governed regimes teachers are considered as civil servants holding high levels of shared decision-making capacity and are subject to little if any formal forms of external control imposed upon them from outside of teaching profession. Control is exercised within the profession, and the route to the profession may be difficult, as standards of teacher education are high, and entrance tightly controlled. This resonates with Finnish and German experiences.

In comparison, regimes which impose control upon teachers from the outside through, for example, district level administration, state agencies or exam boards have been identified as outcome governance regimes. High stakes national exams, and other forms of accountability paired with prescriptive curriculum are examples of such. Although certain features of the Irish and Swedish education system suggest that these follows the logic of an outcome governance regime, the reality is not as clear cut.

Overall, drawing on our interviews and autonomy as decision-making and control perspective in multiple dimensions of their work, we state that teachers in traditionally rather input controlled countries (such as Finland and Germany) experience themselves more participatory in decision-making and less controlled than in traditionally output controlled countries (such as Ireland and Sweden). However, the educational decisions made in the systems are in all case in the hand of teachers.