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Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis
Spring 1994, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 21-39
Curriculum Control and Teachers' Perceptions
of Autonomy and Satisfaction
Douglas A. Archbald
University of Delaware
Andrew C. Porter
University of Wisconsin-Madison
High school mathematics and social studies teachers were studied to determine the influence of
curriculum control policies on their sense of autonomy and job satisfaction. Control policies were
found to have their largest effects on content decisions in mathematics. Nevertheless, teachers in
all conditions studied reported relatively high degrees of personal control over both content and
pedagogy. Further, there was little evidence that teachers felt less efficacious or satisfied about
their jobs because of curriculum policy constraints.
T h e state standard setting reforms of the
1980s represented an unprecedented assertion of state control over school and classroom curriculum decision making (Boyd,
1987; Pipho, 1991). The goal was to raise
standards of content and performance. The
means were high-stakes testing, increased
graduation requirements, prescriptive curriculum policy, textbook control, and
strengthened accountability and accreditation programs (Cuban, 1987; Goertz, 1988;
Kirst, 1987; Reilly & Gersh, 1988).
These reforms have sparked a fierce debate over autonomy and control in public
education. Critics argue local control—an
important tradition and functional management principle—is threatened (Brooks,
1991). Teacher empowerment proponents
contend central regulation undermines the
professional autonomy of teachers (Frymier,
1987; Rosenholtz, 1987) and damages morale
(Boyer, 1988). Empowerment proponents also
worry about negative effects of central curriculum control on pedagogical effectiveness:
By prescribing curriculum and instruments
of assessment, such reforms . . . separate
the craft of teaching from teaching style and
remove teachers' discretion from their judgments about students and what they need to
know. In this de-skilled model of teaching,
one teacher lamented, the teacher becomes
little more than an assembly-line worker,
performing mechanical tasks. (McNeil,
1988, p. 335)
According to the critics of the 1980s reforms, a curricular "zone of discretion" at the
school and classroom level is shrinking
(Schwille et al., 1986), and this is a problem
because local actors need discretion to make
effective curriculum decisions and feel professionally efficacious. An assumption is
that, in the absence of central curriculum
control policies, local actors would make different and better content and pedagogical
decisions leading to improved student
The "shrinking autonomy" view and its
assumptions about the reach of state policy
contrast with a body of research on organizational structure and the implementation of
change in education (Baldridge & Deal,
1975; Fullan, 1982; Lortie, 1975; Weick,
1976). This research depicts schools as resistant to change, especially the sort of top-down
Archbald and Porter
change characteristic of 1980s reforms. Schools
have been characterized as "loosely-coupled"
"organized anarchies," with classrooms relatively impervious to external control.
It is exactly this resistance to change and
loose-coupling that "policy centralizers"
view as a problem. Reforms using new curriculum control policies are predicated on the
assumption that there has been too much
discretion at the local and classroom level.
The 1980s crisis-in-education reports attributed declining performance to unclear goals,
lax standards, and insufficient accountability
in the schools (Kirst, 1987).
Both critics and supporters of central curriculum control policies assume these policies
have the clout and the reach to affect core
processes of content selection and pedagogy
in classrooms. This study investigates two
propositions related to this assumption: (a)
State and district curriculum control policies
reduce teachers' feelings of professional autonomy and local curriculum discretion, and
(b) teachers' perceptions of diminished control over curriculum decisions resulting from
control policies adversely affect their selfefficacy and job satisfaction. These propositions are examined using data from high
school mathematics and social studies teachers
under differing conditions of centralized control over curriculum.
Conceptual Framework
What is "centralized curriculum control"
and what are its effects on teachers? To answer these questions, it is necessary to begin
with a model of centralized curriculum control. The model used by most systems with
central curriculum control policies (including
the districts studied here) is based primarily
on textbook adoption policies, curriculum
guidelines, and testing. These curriculum
control policies are intended to guide
teachers in their decision making about
course content and hold teachers and schools
accountable for prescribed content and
achievement standards. At the district level,
curriculum control policies are viewed as contributing to a more coherent and efficient
curriculum program.
The Curriculum Control Policy Model
Curriculum Guides
The main function of guides is to state
learning goals and topics for a course. They
can do this to varying degrees of specificity
(Archbald, in press; Curry & Temple, 1992).
Some guides state only general goals and
topics. Toward the prescriptive end of the
continuum are guides that contain hierarchies of goals and objectives, describe sequences of units composing a course, and
state or imply a pacing schedule. Units can be
described in detail, with concepts and recommended learning strategies.
Textbook Adoption
Textbook adoption controls course content
by restricting the range of textbooks that can
be used for a course. Some policies limit the
approved textbooks for a course to a small
number (two or three) from which the course
instructor makes an individual selection;
others prescribe a particular book for each
One purpose of textbook adoption policies
is to reduce the potential variability in content across different sections of a course
(both within and between schools). Assuming
teachers using the same book use it similarly—
curriculum guides are intended to facilitate
this—central adoption policies increase the
likelihood that students in the same course
get the same content. Adoption policies also
have a quality control purpose. It is assumed
a committee of selected teachers informed of
district curriculum goals and representing
teachers' preferences will choose better textbooks than teachers making choices at an
individual or school level.
Testing Policies
The curriculum control policy model views
tests as both prescribing content and improving performance. First, test questions, like
curriculum guides, imply content goals by
adding authority to selected goals and topics.
Like guides, they identify certain topics and
skills as essential. Second, tests are part of an
inducement system encouraging teachers to
teach and students to learn tested content.
Most students and teachers want to perform
well, or at least avoid poor performance, although this desire varies depending on how
Teacher Control and Teacher Autonomy
results are used (Airasian, 1988; Madaus,
To the extent that curriculum control policies operate as intended, centralized districts
can be expected to have greater uniformity in
course content and more consistent achievement standards across schools. We should
emphasize that the curriculum control policies in the districts we studied were not aimed
at restructuring curriculum and instructional
practice. The alignment of those policies
around textbooks and standard scope and
sequence guidelines and the use of relatively
conventional testing formats were consistent
with traditional conceptions of curriculum.
In contrast, recent curriculum reports and
constructivist theories of curriculum and
learning are pressing for substantial changes
in these traditional conceptions and practices
(Farnham-Diggory, 1990; National Council
of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989; Sizer,
The extent to which the propositions and
assumptions of the curriculum control policy
model described above apply in practice remains unclear. The model has not been systematically examined. To examine these assumptions and shed light on debates over
autonomy and control, this study compared
teachers' beliefs and attitudes about professional autonomy and self-efficacy in districts
differing in curriculum policy centralization.
Study Design
We compared high school social studies
and mathematics teachers' ratings of control
and autonomy under conditions of high, medium, and low curriculum control. The subject matter comparison is illuminating because mathematics and social studies are
differentially regulated (Stodolsky, 1988).
Mathematics content and achievement standards are subject to greater controls because
mathematics is considered a basic skill while
social studies is not, because mathematics
objectives are easier than social studies objectives to specify in guides, and because students are tested more in mathematics than in
social studies.
Teachers' responses on questionnaire
items were used to assess claims supporting
and critical of the curriculum control model.
If teacher responses indicate curriculum control policies influence classroom content and
do not show detrimental effects on job-related attitudes, then perhaps some of the
virtues of top-down curriculum control assumed by "policy centralizers" may in fact be
real. If, on the other hand, teachers react
negatively to centralized curriculum control,
then this approach to reform—or at least the
elements teachers find objectionable—might
be redesigned to be more compatible with
teachers' interests and professional values.
Sample Design
California, Florida, and New York were
selected as the study states on the basis of
their policy characteristics. In different ways,
each of these states in the mid-1980s implemented curriculum reforms through frameworks, tests, and textbook policies. Thus,
each state presented a policy context that was
useful for the purposes of this study (Fuhrman, 1988; Marsh & Rowan, 1988; Shujaa &
Richards, 1989; Timar & Kirp, 1988). In each
state, two urban districts were studied. The
main comparison investigated was degree of
curriculum centralization.
The study focused on urban districts because urban districts have been a priority in
education reform and because urban districts
have often turned to centralized curriculum
policies to try to implement common content
and boost achievement. Also, focusing on
urban districts and excluding suburban or
rural districts were useful in reducing the
number of potentially confounding variables.
The districts were selected based on data
from telephone interviews with state and district curriculum and testing directors, from
conversations with researchers and policy officials knowledgeable about policy characteristics of particular districts, and from policy
studies by the Council of Great City Schools,
Policy Analysis for California Education, the
Center for Policy Research in Education, and
the departments of education in Florida, California, and New York. Through this process,
the sample of districts was progressively narrowed from the initial "universe," which consisted of all of the urban districts in California, Florida, and New York, to the sample of
six, which were determined to have the ap23
Archbald and Porter
propriate testing, textbook, and curriculum
policy characteristics. (These are described
in more detail below.)
Two high schools were selected in each
district for a total of 12 high schools in the
sample. High schools were selected to be
comparable across districts on percentage of
students on free lunch and ethnic composition. In each district, one high school was
selected at the 65th to 75th percentile of district high schools on the free/reduced lunch
statistic and one at the 25th to 35th percentile
to ensure a range on type of student background served. Based on interview information from district personnel, the high schools
selected were typical of the broad middle
range of urban comprehensive high schools
in their curriculum programs and student
composition. Selective or otherwise specialized high schools were not chosen, and
none of the high schools were undergoing
significant changes (e.g., restructuring or desegregation) at the time of the study. The
high schools ranged in size from about 1,000
to 2,000 students.
Each of the high schools had a standard
departmental structure, with a department
chair and a core of full-time teachers. The
courses taught by these teachers spanned the
full range of credit courses typical of comprehensive high schools. In mathematics, these
courses included algebra 1 and 2, geometry,
trigonometry, calculus, business mathematics, general mathematics, and computer
mathematics. In social studies, courses included U.S. history, world history (global
studies in New York), geography, civics, and
economics in addition to occasional courses
of a more specialized nature. (This information was derived from master schedules,
which were requested of each high school.)
All of the full-time teachers in the mathematics and social studies departments in the
12 high schools were surveyed in 1989-1990.
Out of 221 teachers, 195 returned surveys for
a response rate of 88%.
Varying Degrees of Curriculum
Control Among the Districts
For analytical purposes we placed the six
districts in three categories of control: high,
medium, and low, with two districts in each
category. Following is a description of the
policy characteristics of the districts in each
category. Since the two medium control districts have some of the policy characteristics
of both the high and low control districts, the
medium districts are described last.
Policy Characteristics of the
High Control Districts
Both high control districts have districtwide policies. Each district requires all high
schools to offer the same set of district-prescribed courses, with detailed district guidelines on particular course topics and sequences, and with a single textbook adopted
per course. Each district also uses coursebased testing on a districtwide level to monitor performance and specify districtwide
standards. Except where noted, the policies
are the same for mathematics and social
Detailed Curriculum Guides
Each of the high control districts has detailed course content guides. While the districts' course content guides differ in how
content is organized and the level of detail at
which it is prescribed, each guide in the centralized districts prescribes sequences of
units, topics, and lesson ideas. The course
guides in the two districts range from 15
pages to about 100 pages of material per
Figures 1 and 2 show excerpts of topics
from curriculum guides in one of the high
control districts. The mathematics excerpt
shows the objectives and sub-objectives for
"Operations on Rational Numbers," 1 out of
13 topics prescribed for the course. The guide
indicates whether particular objectives are
specified in the state's curriculum frameworks, tested in the state student assessment
program, tested by the nationally norm-referenced standardized achievement tests used
by the district, and tested by the district's own
course-based tests. The social studies excerpt
is from course content guidelines for a history
The curriculum guides used in the other high
control district are also detailed in their organization and specification of content. The district
Teacher Control and Teacher Autonomy
[email protected]#*
[email protected]#*
[email protected]#*
Operations on Rational Numbers
The Number Line
2.1.1 State coordinates
Graph numbers
Compare numbers
# 2.1.4
Add integers
Additive inverses
Absolute value
Add Signed Numbers
Subtract Signed Numbers
Express differences as sums
Multiply Signed Numbers
District Minimum Level Skills Test
State Student Assessment Program
Stanford Achievement Test
State Standards of Excellence
State Performance Standards
FIGURE 1. Excerpt showing selected mathematics topic from a high control district guide.
uses the New York state Regents syllabi for
Regents courses and uses its own district-developed course content guides for districtwide
non-Regents courses. The Regents course syllabi are detailed, approximately 60 to 80 pages
in length. They are divided into units with
goals, objectives, subunits, topics, concepts,
and lesson suggestions.
Single Textbook Adoption
Each high control district has a single textbook adoption per course. Textbook adoption decisions are made by district textbook
adoption committees composed mainly of
teachers; district curriculum specialists are
also on the committees.
Course-Based Testing
Both of the high control districts use districtwide course-based tests. These tests are
developed by teachers and district specialists
and reflect prescribed course content. Thus,
each course (e.g., algebra 1, American history, etc.) has an end-of-course test required
for all students. These tests enable teachers
and administrators to assess student performance in each course on a uniform standard.
In both districts, the tests have high stakes for
students—they can prevent students from
getting credit for courses they do not pass.
The two high control districts do not have
exactly the same type of district testing program. The high control district from New
York uses state-developed New York Regents exams for its Regents courses and uses
its own tests, patterned after the Regents
exams, for courses that are not Regents
courses. Both tests are graded by committees
of teachers. For the Regents exams, students
must pass a preset score to get Regents credit
for the course (irrespective of their grades in
the course). Students in non-Regents courses
must pass the district test for those courses in
order to receive course credit. While these
passing requirements are set in policy, high
school departments have discretion concerning how much weight they want to place on
these tests for their own student grading policies. Results on the tests are sent to the district office for research, evaluation, and reporting purposes. Regents exam results are
sent to the state, which uses the results to
award (or not award) Regents diplomas and
for school and district accountability purposes.
In the other district, all the tests are developed and graded at the district level.
Teachers can use the test scores for grading
purposes at their (or their department's) discretion, but students must achieve a preset
score to pass the course and receive course
credit. Reports of individual student scores
are sent back to teachers and principals and
used by the central office for research, evaluation, and reporting purposes.
Archbald and Porter
By distinguishing between underlying and immediate causes, students will demonstrate
knowledge of the reasons for United States' entrance into World War II.
Students will demonstrate knowledge of ways the government promoted support for the
war effort by selecting a slogan or poster used during World War II.
Students will investigate the problems posed in conducting a two-theater war by the following:
(1) identifying the major Axis and Allied powers and their leaders;
(2) contrasting the strategies and obstacles in the Pacific war with those in Europe;
(3) identifying elements of Allied strategy in either the European or Pacific theaters using
the legend on a map of that theater; and
(4) examining the American decision to use the atomic bomb.
Students will compare the "Frontier" in 1945 to that of 1919 politically, diplomatically,
economically, and socially.
World Leadership/Prosperity, 1946-1960
Student will study the development of American society in the postwar age by describing
the following:
(1) the effects of demobilization;
(2) the bi-polarization of the world politically and the onset of the Cold War;
(3) the commitment to world leadership and the policy of containment;
(4) the effects of increasing prosperity;
(5) the growth of the civil rights movement;
(6) the explosion of mass culture;
(7) the military and political dominance of America; and
(8) the domestic and international challenges to American society.
FIGURE 2. Excerpt showing selected social studies topic from a high control district guide.
In addition to course-based testing, each
district also administers norm-referenced
standardized tests at the high school level.
These tests cover mathematics, but not social
Policy Characteristics of the
Low Control Districts
The low control districts are distinguished
from the high control districts by the general
absence of districtwide course, textbook, and
testing policies, and have much more curriculum autonomy. Note that the term "low control" is preferable to "decentralized" because the latter may suggest site-based
management reforms such as have occurred
in Chicago, Rochester, and other districts,
but not in the low control districts in this
sample. Recently, however, the two low control districts either eliminated or considered
and rejected districtwide testing and more
restrictive textbook policies.
Nonprescriptive Curriculum Guides
The two low control districts have course
curriculum guides, but in sharp contrast to
the high control districts, they lack detail, are
voluntary, and are designed independently of
textbook adoption decisions and without
consideration of district tests (which do not
exist). One of the districts uses the state's
curriculum frameworks for content guidelines for its high school courses. These state
frameworks are not specific—about 10 onesentence "Intended Outcomes" per course.
The state frameworks do not specify sequences of topics and leave considerable
room for interpretation. The other district
has no district-level curriculum guides. Use
of the state's frameworks is discretionary.
Course content guidelines in this district are
primarily under the jurisdiction of high
school departments, are generally a page or
two in length, and are developed by the
teachers teaching the courses.
Multiple Textbook Adoptions
Neither of the low control districts has a
policy requiring a single textbook adoption per
course. Textbook decisions are made by individual teachers or departmental committees.
Teacher Control and Teacher Autonomy
No Course-Based Testing
Both of the districts conduct standardized
testing in reading and mathematics. This
testing is used for conventional student diagnostic and placement purposes, not for policy
purposes. The tests are not linked to courses
or aligned with curriculum guidelines.
Policy Characteristics of the
Medium Control Districts
The two medium control districts have policies that have some of the characteristics of
the two other categories. They lack the extent
of course-based testing in the high control
districts, but have significant, centrally prescribed course content guides.
One district is in New York. Like all districts in New York, it offers Regents courses,
which means students must pass Regents exams if they seek credits toward a Regents
diploma. However, this district does not have
districtwide course-based tests in non-Regents courses. Also, textbook adoptions and
decisions about the use of curriculum guides
are made at the department level.
The other district has highly detailed curriculum guides—they average about 320
pages per course—and textbook adoption
decisions are made centrally, but teachers
can select from several approved books. The
district's course guides are aligned with the
selected textbooks and contain unit tests and
final exams. Administration, scoring, and results of these tests are entirely under the
control of teachers in the schools. Also,
teachers may substitute their own tests with
administrative approval at the school level.
Thus, unlike the case with the two high control districts, administrators do not have direct access to students' scores.
The district conducts standardized testing
at every grade level. Test results are reported
annually for each school and are used for
identification of students for special programs and for research and program evaluation purposes. Testing covers mathematics
(but not specific courses), reading, and
Teachers' Perceptions of Policy
Influences and Curriculum Control
We examine teachers' perceptions of curriculum control policies in this section by
comparing mean ratings from teachers in the
different conditions of centralization. Also,
we discuss mean ratings across the entire
sample on scales that reveal differential influences of policies and individual discretion.
Policy and Teacher-Discretion Influences
Table 1 shows mean scores for each of the
three categories of curriculum control as well
as the total sample mean on four different
scales.1 The external control scales consist of
teachers' ratings of the influence of a number
of factors "in determining the content (information, concepts, skills) of your [mathematics or social studies] course." To give survey
items more specific referents, respondents
Means on Scales by Categories of Centralized
Control Over Curriculum
Centralization category
Section and scale High
External control
S&D Guides
S&D Tests*
Teacher control
Medium Low
2.41 a
2.62 b
4.21 b
Note: * indicates F ratios exceeding the p = .05 level of
statistical significance for differences among category
means on the scale. For the ANOVAs conducted for
Table 1, a Scheffe' test (a conservative multiple comparisons test) was used to determine which category means
differed from each other by statistically significant margins. Thea andb indicate means differing by statistically
significant margins from each other (e.g., for the S&D
Tests scale, High is significantly different from Low control). Tests of significance are used as a crude sort for
interpreting differences; thus no attempt has been made
to control the overall error rate of the multiple F tests.
External control: 1 = No Influence; 2 = Minor; 3 = Moderate; 4 = Major Influence. Teacher control: l = No
Control to 6 = Complete Control. Involvement:
1 = Strongly Disagree to 6 = Strongly Agree. Empowerment: l = Low to 6 = High for Efficacy and Standards;
1 = Low to 10 = High for Satisfaction.
Archbald and Porter
were instructed to answer questions about
content influences with reference to a particular section of a particular course. Master
schedules from each of the 12 schools in the
sample were used to ensure that a balanced
cross sample of courses were targeted by the
surveys. Only standard core courses were
sampled. The items have been combined into
the following scales (Figure 3 presents items
used to form the scales):
Guides: influence of state and district curriculum guides on your course content.
S&D Tests: influence of state and district
tests on your course content.
Textbook: influence of the main course
textbook on your course content.
Self: influence of your own individual decisions on your course content.
Department: influence of departmental
decisions and guidelines on your course
Theoretically, ratings of policy influences
(S&D Guides, S&D Tests) in the more centralized conditions should be higher and ratings of the influence of individual teacher
discretion (Self) should be lower. The influence of the textbook scale on content might
be expected to be higher with increasing centralization on the assumption that the textbook has been selected by the district because the book is aligned with districtrequired tests and curriculum objectives. On
the other hand, whether or not there are
externally imposed tests and guides, all
teachers may rely equally on textbooks because textbooks make teaching easier.
The model of centralization described earlier does not specify a clear role for departments, although it does not preclude departmental decisions and guidelines. Different
models are conceivable:
1. Higher departmental influence occurs
under centralized curriculum control. State
and district curriculum control policies create
needs for heightened intradepartmental coordination among teachers. This coordination serves purposes of sharing lessons and
techniques, discussing common problems,
and checking to see that prescribed material
is being covered appropriately. In noncen28
tralized districts, there is more of a laissez
faire attitude, with little need for teachers to
coordinate, and so departmental influences
are lower.
2. Lower department influence under centralized curriculum control because state/district curriculum control policies replace some
of the roles departmental decisions and
guidelines otherwise would serve. In noncentralized conditions, the department is a more
dominant agent of curriculum control because there is no other organizational source
of guidance.
Concerning total sample means for the
"influences on control scale," ratings on the
Self scale were highest, at 3.29 on the 4.0
point scale; Textbook is rated 3.18; S&D
Guides, 3.02; Department, 2.35; and S&D
Tests, 2.34. That Textbook is rated nearly as
high as Self attests to the heavy reliance on
textbooks in high school mathematics and
social studies classes. The Guides scale has a
surprisingly high influence rating and the
Tests scale a surprisingly low one if viewed
from the perspective that is common that
guides are often ignored while external tests
have a powerful influence on curriculum and
instruction (e.g., Haney, 1991; Neill & Medina, 1989).
Comparisons of means among the categories of centralization are consistent with the
expectations: The S&D Tests scale and the
S&D Guides scale show higher influence
with increasing centralization; and the Self
scale shows lower ratings with increasing centralization. However, the pairwise differences on S&D Guides and Self fail to achieve
statistical significance (p < .05).
On the S&D Tests scales, statistically significant differences separate the low from
both the medium and the high control districts, with a .85 point difference separating
the low from the high control difference on
the 4-point scale. This difference is equivalent to a standard deviation on the S&D Tests
There are no significant differences among
the categories of control on the Textbook
scale, although ratings of textbook influence
increase slightly with decreasing centraliza-
Teacher Control and Teacher Autonomy
External Control Scales: S&D Guides (items a, b); S&D Tests (items e, f); Textbook (item d); Department
(item c, g); Self (items h-k).
"Rate how big an influence each factor below has in determining the content (information, concepts, skills)
of your [subject] course." (Note: Respondents rated each influence (a-k) on a 1 to 4 [No Influence to Major
Influence] scale next to the item; scale not shown.)
a) State curriculum guides
b) District curriculum guides
c) Departmental decisions and guidelines
d) The main course textbook
e) District tests
f) State tests
g) Department-wide tests
h) My own beliefs about what topics are important
i) My own knowledge of particular topics
j) What my students are capable of understanding
k) What my students need for future study and work
Teacher Control Over Classroom Content/Pedagogy Scales: Content (items a, b); Pedagogy (items c, d, e).
"How much control do you feel you have in your classroom over each of the following areas in your planning
and teaching?" (Note: Respondents rated their control over each area (a-e) on a I to 6 scale ["None" to
"Complete Control"] next to the item; scale not shown.)
Selecting textbooks/instructional materials.
Selecting content, topics, and skills.
Selecting teaching techniques.
Determining amount of homework to be assigned.
Setting standards for achievement in my classes.
Staff involvement in course content decisions: "Staff are involved in making decisions about what will be
taught in their courses." (Note: Respondents rated their agreement with the statement on a 1 to 6 scale
["Strongly Disagree" to "Strongly Agree"] next to the item; scale not shown.)
Teacher Empowerment Scales: Self-Efficacy (a, b, c); Job Satisfaction (d, e); Standards (f, g).
"Please use the scale provided to rate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statements below."
(Note: Except for item (e), respondents rated their agreement with the statements on a I to 6 scale ["Strongly
Disagree" to "Strongly Agree"] next to each item; scale not shown. For items (a-c), the scale was reversed so
that high efficacy was associated with big numbers. For item (e), the response categories ranged from 4 "All of
the time" to 1 "Almost never"; scale not shown.)
(a) My success or failure in teaching students is due primarily to factors beyond my control rather than to
my own effort and ability.
(b) I sometimes feel it is a waste of time to try to do my best as a teacher.
(c) Teachers are not a very powerful influence on student achievement when all factors are considered.
(d) I usually look forward to each working day at this school.
(e) How much of the time do you feel satisfied with your job in this school?
(f) Staff members maintain high standards of performance for themselves.
(g) The teachers in this school push the students pretty hard in their academic subjects.
FIGURE 3. Scale definitions
Archbald and Porter
tion. Textbooks appear to be a major influence under any level of curriculum control in
this study.
Ratings on the Department scale are consistent with the departmental influence
model 2 above: Teachers in the more centralized districts report lower departmental influences on curriculum content by statistically significant margins. The Department
influence for high control is significantly less
than either of the other two categories of
The differences on the Self scale are in the
expected direction (from 3.13 to 3.38), but
none of the pairwise differences are statistically significant. Apparently, while
teachers in the high control districts perceive
stronger policy influences on content, these
influences do not seem to be viewed as having comparable size effects in reducing their
own decisions about content. One explanation of this finding is that teachers view the
external controls as authoritative and are
persuaded of their appropriateness (Porter,
1989; see also Floden, Porter, Schmidt, Freeman, & Schwille, 1981, for a study of teachers'
perceptions of policy influences on mathematics at the elementary level).
Teacher Control Over Classroom
Content and Pedagogy
Table 1 shows means on two "teacher control" scales: teachers' control over content
(books, content, topics, skills) in their own
classroom and teachers' control over pedagogical methods (teaching techniques,
homework, standards for achievement) in
their own classroom.
According to the centralized curriculum
control model, the greater the control over
curriculum, the lower should be the reported
control by teachers over both content and
pedagogy in the classroom. Curriculum control policies are intended primarily as influences on content (evident in explicit prescriptions concerning topics and skills to cover),
but they are not silent on pedagogy, evident
in recommended lesson ideas and teaching
strategies that can be found in the centralized
districts' guides. Further, when pushed, the
distinction between content and pedagogy
blurs; for example, teachers may employ active learning strategies to foster conceptual
On the content scale, results are fairly consistent with the centralized control model.
Teachers' ratings of control increase as centralization decreases. Teachers in low control
conditions rate their control over curriculum
content in their classrooms statistically significantly higher than both other categories;
teachers in high and medium control conditions are essentially equivalent in their ratings (2.92 and 2.94, respectively).
On the pedagogy scale, the results are a
little more mixed. Teachers in the low control
condition report the highest ratings of control
(5.36), statistically significantly higher than
those of the teachers in the medium control
districts (4.86), but not significantly higher
than the teachers in the high control districts
(5.12). Nor is the difference between the medium and high control conditions statistically
The overall sample mean is 3.20 for teacher
control over content and 5.11 for teacher control over pedagogy (on the 6-point scale).
This difference of almost 2 full points clearly
indicates that teachers believe they have near
total control over their pedagogy but generally lower and more varying control over content. Even in the high control districts,
teachers' control in the pedagogical domain
was above 5 on a 6-point scale.
Staff Involvement
The response categories for staff involvement ("in making decisions about what will
be taught in their courses") are on a 6-point
scale (1 = Strongly Disagree to 6 = Strongly
Agree). Since this item uses the phrase "what
will be taught," it is a measure of perceptions
about decisions regarding content, not teaching methods (e.g, teaching strategies and
achievement standards). Also, the term
"staff" (in contrast with the above scales)
shifts the object of the question away from
the individual respondent toward teachers in
the school as a whole.
According to the curriculum control
model, teachers in the more centralized cate-
Teacher Control and Teacher Autonomy
gories should express greater disagreement
with this statement, implying staff in their
school have lower involvement in course content decisions.
The ratings from each of the categories
conforms with the expected pattern (Table
1). In the high control category, teachers express slight disagreement with the statement
about staff involvement in what will be
taught, while in the low control condition
teachers express slight agreement. The differences are statistically significant between
medium and low control and between high
and low control.
Teacher Empowerment
Table 1 shows the means on three empowerment scales:
Self-Efficacy: teacher's sense of confidence/effectiveness with respect to success in
Job Satisfaction: morale/satisfaction on the
Standards: general schoolwide expectations for student/staff performance
Some analysts contend that large-scale
testing, prescriptive curriculum guides, and
textbook adoption regulations are antithetic
to teacher professionalism. While the curriculum control model suggests that organizational actors unproblematically follow hierarchical directives, empowerment models
posit a need among organizational actors to
control their work and predict lower outcomes on the empowerment variables in the
more centralized conditions.
The items in the Self-Efficacy scale measure "personal sense of efficacy," a personality construct important in psychology (Bandura, 1977; Lewin, 1938).2 Self-efficacy is
defined as an individual's expectancy of
achieving valued outcomes through personal
effort. Education researchers have studied
teachers' sense of efficacy and believe it is an
important variable influencing educational
outcomes (Brookover, Beady, Flood, Schweitzer, & Wisenbaker, 1979; Newmann, Rutter, & Smith, 1989; Rutter, Maughan, Mortimore, Ouston, & Smith, 1979). There is
concern that prescriptive curriculum regulations prevent teachers from feeling ownership over curriculum and diminish their sense
of responsibility for learning outcomes. The
question here is, what is the evidence that centralized curriculum policies affect teacher efficacy?
Table 1 shows results on two empowerment
scales assessing teachers' work-related attitudes. On the Self-Efficacy scale, the differences among the means do not achieve statistical significance. On the Job Satisfaction
scale, there is a statistically significant difference between the low and medium control
conditions (7.54 compared with 6.86). While
this is consistent with concerns about effects
of central policies on job satisfaction, the
high control mean of 7.13 is not significantly
different from low control mean. Overall, the
means on these scales were only slightly
above the scale midpoint, suggesting that efficacy and job satisfaction may be somewhat
of a problem in urban high schools.
These results are ambiguous concerning
the contention that higher levels of curriculum control are likely to come at the expense
of teachers' morale and feelings of efficacy on
the job. While these items clearly cannot capture the complexity of teachers' feelings
about their work and about the effects of
curriculum policies, significant observed
differences between the curriculum control
conditions would be important information
in a debate surprisingly short on empirical
On the Standards scale, the same pattern
occurs: There is a statistically significant difference between the low and medium control
means (4.12 and 3.58, respectively, on a
6-point scale), but the difference between
low and high control is not significant. If this
scale is a measure of general standards of
performance teachers hold for themselves
and their students, then, depending upon
one's perspective, these results either allay
concerns or raise concerns. If one views curriculum control policies as a way to raise expectations and set higher standards, then the
evidence raises concerns; if one views curriculum control policies as detrimental to high
expectations and standards, then the evi31
Archbald and Porter
dence allays concerns (since the differences
are not large). Either way, the results are
neither strong nor consistent; at least for
these teachers, standards and external control are not strongly linked. All means on the
Standards scale are only slightly above the
midpoint of the scale, indicating that standards for teachers and standards for students
are perceived by teachers to be a problem.
Summary Comments
The ratings given by teachers to the influence of external policies (Tests and Guides)
increase under conditions of increasing curriculum centralization. However, teachers in
all three categories of centralization rate
their own beliefs and decisions as the dominant influence on course content. The differences between the centralization categories
are most pronounced when questions elicit
ratings of control over curriculum characterized as content, although teachers report
at least moderate levels of control over content even in the more centralized conditions.
When questions turn to methods of teaching,
teachers report they are in control and differences between the centralization categories
cannot be interpreted as either supporting or
being inconsistent with the central control
If there is bias in our findings related to
differences among the districts in student
background variables, it is in a direction that
would likely lower values on all three empowerment scales for the high control condition. All of the districts in the sample are
urban, and all of the high schools were selected to match on subsidized lunch and ethnic composition figures. However, based on
the demographics of the cities in which the
districts are located and on site visits to the
schools, the low control districts seem overall
not to serve as low a socioeconomic population as the schools in the other districts. If
teachers in the medium and high control conditions experience a higher degree of frustration from working with larger numbers of
more difficult students, this frustration could
express itself in lower ratings of efficacy and
job satisfaction (Heyns, 1988). If so, our data
may be even less supportive of claims of the
negative effects of curriculum control on
teacher empowerment than they appear.
Mathematics Versus Social
Studies Teachers
Policy debates over potential consequences
of increasing state and district curriculum
control rarely distinguish among teachers of
different school subjects. This section compares ratings between the mathematics (n =
85) and the social studies (n = 103) teachers
in the six-district sample. This comparison is
another way to investigate outcomes of curriculum control policies. Mathematics is subject to more curriculum policy controls: It is
tested more frequently by externally mandated tests, and mathematics books and
guides prescribe topics, sequences, and objectives in greater detail. In social studies
there is little external testing; the discipline is
marked by less consensus; and externally
prescribed content may be less authoritative.
Further, the enormous influence of and
agreement with the National Council of
Teachers of Mathematics' Curriculum and
Evaluation Standards contrasts markedly
with disputes among authorities and commissions in the social studies area over curriculum emphases, sequencing of topics, and instructional methods (Gehrke, Knapp, &
Sirotnik, 1992; Mehlinger, 1992; Viadero,
1990). Thus, we expect to see higher curriculum control ratings in mathematics than social studies.
External Control
On the assumption that mathematics is
more highly regulated, mathematics teachers
should report stronger policy influences of
S&D Guides and S&D Tests and weaker influences of Self. Because individual interests,
values, and teaching styles can be expected to
have greater influence on content in social
studies, we expect the role of the Department
to be weaker in social studies. Teachers in
general in the humanities probably view their
subject matter and instruction as more of an
individualistic enterprise (Gehrke et al.,
The results (Table 2) are as expected:
Mathematics teachers report statistically significantly higher influence ratings for the pol-
Teacher Control and Teacher Autonomy
Means on Scales by Subject Matter
Subject matter
Section and scale
External control
S&D Guides*
S&D Tests*
Teacher control
Social studies
Note: * indicates F ratios exceeding the p = .05 level of
statistical significance for differences among category
means on the scale. External control: 1 = No Influence;
2 = Minor; 3 = Moderate; 4 = Major Influence. Teacher
control: l = No Control to 6 = Complete Control. Involvement: 1 = Strongly Disagree to 6 = Strongly Agree.
Empowerment: l = Low to 6 = High for Efficacy and
Standards; l = Low to 10 = High for Satisfaction.
icy scales (S&D Guides, S&D Tests) and the
Department influence scale; and social
studies teachers report higher ratings on the
Self scale. Differences on Textbook are not
statistically significant.
Teacher Control
As explained above, if external tests and
curriculum guidelines are more influential in
mathematics, it follows that teachers of mathematics should report less control over both
content (selecting textbooks and other instructional materials, content, topics, skills)
and pedagogy (teaching techniques, homework, and student achievement standards)
than teachers of social studies.
The results on the content scale and on the
pedagogy scale do not differ significantly between the two groups (Table 2). On the pedagogy scale, the mathematics teachers report
a higher degree of control by a p value close
to statistical significance, p = .063.
That the mathematics teachers rate policy
influences at a higher level than do the social
studies teachers, while reporting equivalent
levels of teacher control, may be explained by
the different nature of the scales. The classroom control (content and pedagogy) questions do not make reference to or ask for
ratings of comparative influences of different
factors; rather, more abstractly they ask the
teacher to rate his or her curriculum control
in the classroom on a 6-point scale from
"None" to "Complete Control." It appears
that when the question is asked this way,
mathematics and social studies teachers
think more alike, focus less on particular policy influences, and report they "feel" (as the
question asks) that they have approximately
equivalent levels of control.
Staff Involvement
The item specifies "staff involvement in
curriculum" and thus could imply the entire
school staff. This interpretation would suggest mathematics and social studies teachers
would not differ greatly, since the referent for
both groups is the same "staff."
The means for the two groups are close to
each other and close to the middle of the
scale. Whatever differences there are between the two subjects in determinants of
curriculum control, mathematics and social
studies teachers at these schools seem to have
similar ratings of overall staff involvement in
course content decisions.
Teacher Empowerment
Expectations for Efficacy,
Satisfaction, and Standards
If feelings of control over content and pedagogy in the classroom are related to the
affective dimensions of empowerment measured here, we should not expect to find differences between the mathematics and the
social studies teachers on the empowerment
Table 2 shows no differences between the
two groups on the two scales, Efficacy and
Satisfaction. Mathematics teachers com33
Archbald and Porter
pared with social studies teachers in the sample appear to feel no more or less confident
about or responsible for producing student
learning and no more or less satisfied with
their job. However, on the Standards scale,
mathematics teachers report higher standards. It is difficult to assess what this means,
but mathematics has a reputation of demanding standards for students and teachers. People tend not to think of social studies as either
inherently difficult like mathematics or a subject that some people "are just not good at."
These beliefs may produce a perception that
standards in mathematics are higher.
Are There Interactions Between the
Centralization and Subject Variables?
The possibility that differences between
the subjects on the external control scales are
not the same at different levels of centralization bears investigation. Hence, we assessed
the significance of interactions between the
categories of centralization and the subjects.
No statistically significant interactions were
found, so findings for control and subject
main effects need not be qualified by interaction effects.
It is noteworthy that the pattern of results
from the analysis of interactions lends further
verification to the discriminatory power of
the external control scales. To illustrate, Table 3 shows the means for the categories of
centralization broken down by subject on the
S&D Tests scale. Although the pattern of
higher influence ratings of tests in mathematics persists across levels of centralization, the
gap between mathematics and social studies
is substantially larger in the low control condition compared with the medium and high
control conditions (.60 vs. .20, .21, respectively), and the influence rating for the lowcontrol/social studies cell is the smallest of all
Means on S&D Tests Scale by Categories of
Centralization and Subject
District category
Social studies
six cells, by a large margin. This is consistent
with the complete absence of state or district
testing in social studies in the low control
districts, but the with presence of some testing related to social studies in the other districts, with the high control districts doing the
most. However, even the low control districts
do some "low-stakes" standardized testing in
It is also noteworthy that the results on the
teacher empowerment scales and the classroom curriculum control scales are no different between mathematics and social studies
in the low control districts. Although negative effects of standardized testing tend to be
widely assumed, this finding suggests the assumption warrants additional scrutiny.
State and district initiatives to raise standards and improve curriculum through test,
textbook, and course content policies raise
complex issues about education reform.
These policies are intended to improve curriculum quality and standards but may have
the unintended consequence of undercutting
school-based curriculum control and the professional autonomy of teachers; they may
have little effect on curriculum at all, positive
or negative. Our research probed these issues.
Shrinking Zones of Teacher Control?
Critics of centralized curriculum control
argue that teachers are experiencing a loss of
control over curriculum. One concern is that
central control policies prevent teachers from
making content or instructional decisions
that would be better for their students than
the curriculum prescribed by policy. This
concern assumes that curriculum control policies exercise a level of influence that can
prevent teachers from following their own
beliefs about content and instructional
methods, and that their beliefs would differ
from what is prescribed.
This probably happens. Surely there are
instances where, but for the curriculum policy, a teacher's content choices or instructional approach would be different. However, our results raise doubt as to whether
this was the general pattern for policies and
practices in our study.
Teacher Control and Teacher Autonomy
First, our results and other studies show
teachers report almost complete control over
pedagogy in the classroom (teaching techniques, achievement standards, and assignments) (Elam, 1989; Rowan, 1990).3 In the
high control districts studied here, despite
prescribed textbooks, specific course content
guidelines, and required district tests for
each course, teachers reported high levels of
control over instruction, levels that did not
differ significantly from those reported in the
low curriculum control districts.
With respect to content, teachers' ratings
of control were highest in the districts without central curriculum control policies, although differences between medium and
high control districts were not found. This
result and the higher ratings of policy influences from teachers in the centralized districts indicates teachers believe policies of the
types examined here can influence teachers'
decisions about content.
This finding, however, does not necessarily
support contentions about loss of curriculum
control. The main reason is that a policy's
influence on a decision to teach a topic is not
necessarily equivalent to not having control
over content. A teacher may look to a policy
for guidance on sequencing of topics, pacing
of coverage, or inclusion or exclusion of
topics, but from the teacher's perspective,
these forms of influence are not likely to be
viewed as deprivation of control. One reason
is the large amount of discretion the teacher
has in deciding when and how to follow policy.4 The policies we examined were not prescriptive enough to shape day-to-day content
decisions and the policies rarely prescribed
how to teach. A second reason is that the
great majority of teachers are already predisposed to teach the topics prescribed in the
policies we studied. Although curriculum organizations are calling for reform, mathematics and social studies courses had a fairly
standard scope and sequence fixed by institutional arrangements (e.g., university-based
mathematics disciplines) and traditional beliefs about what is appropriate content for
these courses. Textbooks are designed with
teachers' preferences in mind and teachers
rely heavily on them. Thus, when policies
prescribe textbooks and guidelines and tests
that are aligned with those textbooks, the
average teacher is unlikely to feel "controlled" by policies. Those claiming that policies deprive teachers of curriculum control
should recognize that probably teachers
rarely feel compelled to teach something
against their will. However, this could change
if curriculum control policies shift to more
powerful strategies aimed more at changing
than standardizing curriculum practice (Porter, Archbald, & Tyree, 1991).
Impediments to Teacher Empowerment?
Some contend that centralized curriculum
control threatens to demoralize and de-professionalize teachers. Our survey results yield
little evidence that teachers feel less efficacious or less satisfied in their work because
of curriculum policy constraints. If it is true
that curriculum control policies exert a fairly
modest influence on teachers' curriculum decisions and practices, then it is not surprising
that teachers working in the more centralized
districts report ratings on the empowerment
scales that do not differ significantly from
those in the less centralized districts.
This is not to say that teachers in the most
centralized conditions do not have some
questions about some curriculum control policies. Teachers' attitudes about district endof-course tests or single textbook adoption
policies are likely to vary and some teachers
may find fault with these policies. At the
same time, it cannot be assumed that
teachers unequivocally oppose these policies. The rationales for these policies reflect
principles of equity, accountability, and program quality that many teachers find persuasive. Whatever individual variation in
teachers' attitudes and beliefs about these
particular policies, it appears that on balance, these policies are neither intrusive nor
unpopular enough to engender adverse ratings of job satisfaction or personal efficacy.
Curriculum Content Impacts?
Our findings on the effects of central curriculum control are consistent with the loose
coupling thesis (Weick, 1976). They suggest
skepticism that the rather substantial differences in curriculum control policies distinguishing the centralized from the non35
Archbald and Porter
centralized districts produce similarly substantial differences at the level of the classroom. While we lack observational data,
clearly teachers did not feel that their professional discretion was sharply curtailed. A
policy observer may be tempted to assume
that a massive districtwide curriculum control program has a strong determining influence in shaping curriculum and instruction.
But in teachers' classroom-centric perspectives and value systems, central policies tend
to be remote, often not well-understood, and
easy to ignore with impunity (especially if the
teacher is beyond probationary status). A
state or district test, an adoption cycle, a
curriculum frameworks revision process—
these policies pale in significance compared
with the day-to-day curriculum planning, instructional activities, and social demands
making up teachers' working lives.
Does this suggest these curriculum control
policies made no difference in curriculum at
the classroom level? The centralized districts'
policies of alignment of guides, textbooks,
and tests and their uses of tests for monitoring and accountability probably produce a
measurable, if not substantial, influence on
curriculum. (Our data indicate this alignment is more true in mathematics than social
studies.) The use by teachers of the same
textbook for the same course increases the
probability of more similar content coverage,
especially if a guide prescribes coverage of
particular topics and a test evaluates students
on particular topics. That test score gains
have been documented in districts with curriculum control policies also suggests influences of these policies on content coverage
(Archbald & Porter, 1991).5 However, that
teachers use textbooks with much discretion
to pick and choose their coverage (Freeman
& Porter, 1989) and that teachers exercise
considerable discretion in their classrooms
tend to temper the size of the effect of control
policies on standardizing practice.
A Caveat About Curriculum Control
and Education Reform
Interpretations of policy influence have a
Janus-faced quality. Textbooks or curriculum
guidelines adopted at the district level preclude alternative decisions with respect to
these matters at the school level. And while
teachers have a great deal of autonomy in
their classroom and much freedom to interpret guides to suit their individual interests
and talents, duty requires some adherence to
policy. On these grounds, one could argue a
zone of discretion is shrinking. However, in
relation to the overall scope of discretion
teachers have, and to their ultimate "veto
power" in the classroom concerning what
gets taught, the policies studied here are relatively weak instruments of curriculum control.
In interpreting statistical results, one is
cautioned from extrapolating beyond the
range of one's data. This study examined curriculum control policies within a range of centralization that well represents existing conditions. However, one should refrain from
concluding that policies aimed at more fundamental changes in curriculum—whether
through highly decentralized or centralized
action—would not have greater impacts on
the kinds of variables measured in this study.
School-based management has been initiated in some places, but curriculum content
impacts have not been systematically measured. Reports of impacts on staff morale and
job satisfaction have been mixed (Chira,
1991; Malen, Ogawa, & Kranz, 1989; Olson,
1991). Also, while we selected the most centralized examples of districtwide curriculum
control we could find, we can imagine more
centralized conditions. Might more prescriptive and comprehensive policies have a large
effect in driving curriculum in desired directions? Can this be accomplished while enhancing or at least not compromising
teachers' professional role? These questions
lie before us.
The research reported in this manuscript was
supported by the Center for Policy Research in
Education through a grant from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (Grant No.
OERI-R117G10007) and by the Wisconsin Center
for Education Research, School of Education,
University of Wisconsin-Madison. The opinions
expressed in this article are those of the authors
and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U. S.
Department of Education, Office of Educational
Research and Improvement, the institutional
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DOUGLAS A. ARCHBALD, Assistant Professor, University of Delaware, 103 Willard Hall,
Newark, DE 19716. Specializations: curriculum
and assessment policy; magnet schools and school
choice policy.
ANDREW C. PORTER, Director, Wisconsin
Center for Education Research and Professor of
Educational Psychology, University of WisconsinMadison, 1025 West Johnson St., Madison, WI
53706. Specializations, educational policy analysis; student and teacher assessments and psychometrics.