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Teaching in the USA

Decentralization, Inequality, and Professional Autonomy

Gerald K. Letendre

The U.S. teaching force presents some unique paradoxes. American teachers are among the most highly educated in the world yet lack professional autonomy. American teachers feel that their profession has a poor reputation, but they generally love their schools. Although the U.S. has a highly decentralized educational system, teachers report less involvement in school decisions than in nations with centralized systems like Japan. And, although the U.S. produces a disproportionate share of education research, action research (defined as published studies where teachers have an active research role) remains marginalized. These paradoxes can be linked to specific organizational and cultural factors such as a strong culture of local school control, a politically divisive national culture, and the growing influence of international comparisons and bench-marking. This chapter focuses on the period from 1985 to 2015—a thirty-year period that includes such major events as the publication of A Nation at Risk, and the authorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act. I discuss four long-term phenomena that have special import for teaching: (1) the evolution of a professional administrative profession; (2) state-level standard-setting for teacher education and certification; (3) an educational research sphere largely disconnected from teachers; and (4) long-term, pervasive social and educational inequality.