March 2015
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Caleb Prichard, Okayama University, Okayama, Japan

There is a fine balance between top-down coordination and teacher autonomy (TA) in English to speakers of other languages (ESOL) programs. A colleague once mentioned to me that he always writes on the blackboard the lesson plan he is supposed to follow, because the director of his program often peeks through the window during class to check on teachers. In fact, the teacher feels obligated to ignore the school’s strict curriculum (and what he copies on the board), because he thinks that it does not meet students’ needs. On the other end of the extreme, teachers have shared stories of being in programs that were in complete disarray. For example, one lamented about teachers using the same text in multiple courses so some students were forced to repeat the same course content.

Of course, both program coordination and TA are essential in education. Program oversight and coordination can increase accountability and ensure that the courses complement each other to maximize learning. While teachers frequently resist top-down administrative controls, K–12 research suggests that teachers do appreciate leadership and guidance (Eyal & Roth, 2011). On the other hand, TA has been shown to correlate with job satisfaction, and autonomy has been shown to be a key factor influencing teachers to stay in the profession (Brunetti, 2001). More important, TA allows teachers to adapt to varying student needs and one’s own teaching style.

Because of the 2010 Accreditation of English Language Training Programs Act and other factors, many ESOL programs for adults are now more clearly stating curricular outcomes and policies, which can reduce the level of TA. In fact, the tension between TA and top-down control has been increasing in education as a whole (Ylimaki, 2012). However, schools clearly need to find ways to offer both. For example, policies and curricular guidelines can be considered as flexible guidelines rather than as firm rules that absolutely must be followed. For textbook selection, program leaders can preapprove a list of acceptable textbooks that instructors can choose from.

Moreover, research in administration across several fields suggests that management is not just a control-versus-autonomy dynamic; involving teachers in program-wide decision-making (participatory management) and managing with aspects of transformational leadership are two models in which program coordination may not necessarily mean a loss of TA.

While programs may be advised to find a happy medium between top-down coordination and TA (or pursue other models like participatory management), an administrator’s personal management philosophy and attitude greatly affect a school’s administrative style (Gonzalez & Firestone, 2013). Because mismanagement can affect both teacher affect and student learning, the issue clearly deserves a balanced examination. For these reasons, I began a series of studies concerning the degree of coordination and TA in ESOL programs. Below are the key findings of two completed studies (presented at the 2014 TESOL Annual Convention and submitted for publication).

Phase One: Degree of Coordination

The first phase of the research concerned the degree of coordination in ESOL programs in the United States. Administrators from 130 programs participated, including those based in 4-year universities, 2-year colleges, and language schools. The survey was divided into four constructs, each with five Likert-scale items: the level of curricular autonomy (teachers’ freedom to decide what is taught); general autonomy (concerning pedagogy and classroom management); administrative coordination efforts (e.g., faculty development activities, detailed program handbooks); and participatory management (e.g., seeking input from all teachers, involving teachers in materials selection).

Participants most agreed with items for the participatory management construct, suggesting that ESOL programs tend to involve teaching staff when forming curricula and program policies. The second most agreed upon construct concerned general autonomy, but curricular autonomy was the lowest of the four constructs. In other words, ESOL teachers in the 130 programs are generally free to teach how they like but not necessarily what they like. There were some variations in the findings based on program type. For example, language schools not based in institutions of higher education tend to be much more top-down and allow much less TA. Large programs have more top-down coordination and less participatory management, though they still tended to offer significant general autonomy.

Twenty program administrators volunteered to provide open-ended responses to explain in more detail why they offer as much TA and top-down coordination as they do in their programs. One unexpected finding mentioned by several participants is that many administrators feel that top-down coordination and curricular autonomy can actually enable general autonomy. That is, if there are curricular guidelines and effective administrative support, program administrators can trust teachers and allow them to teach as they please. This dynamic was more evident in programs with fewer part-time teachers.

As mentioned above, there was significant variation in the results of 130 programs, and K–12 research shows that programs often vary in their management style based on administrator variables. However, research (e.g., Mayer, Donaldson, LeChasseur, Welton, & Cobb, 2013) suggests that there may be several context-specific factors that leaders may consider when determining the level of TA and top-down coordination. For example, more experienced and more qualified teachers should likely be allowed more autonomy than less experienced staff. Programs in which students tend to have common and specific needs should be more able to come up with fixed curricular objectives and materials compared to programs with fluctuating student needs.

Phase Two: Program-Specific Variables

In the second stage of the study, the administrators completed an empirical questionnaire addressing the influence of program-specific variables on the level of TA, coordination, and participatory management. The following five variables were hypothesized to be influential: the complexity of the curriculum, the variability of students’ needs, external pressures, teacher qualifications, and feasibility to coordinate. Each construct had five Likert-scale items.

Program complexity was the most influential variable in the study. In other words, programs that have more courses, many sections of the same course, and multiple levels tended be more coordinated. Another significant variable was feasibility to coordinate a program. This construct statistically predicted the amount of top-down coordination and participatory management. Certain contexts and situations may deter program leaders from coordinating their programs. The results suggest that not having a faculty room for teachers and having teachers who do not follow program policies predict a lack of coordination within a program.

However, some of the program variables that theoretically should be influential were not found to be significant factors in affecting the level of coordination and TA in the programs. For example, while the variability of student needs should seemingly be a factor, this variable did not statistically predict any of the program management constructs.

Limitations and Future Research

One limitation of these studies was that teachers’ input was not included, and it is quite possible that instructors have a different view of their programs. When my colleague and I presented the results of the above studies at the 2014 TESOL Annual Convention in Portland, Oregon, many participants, who were all involved in administration, were very curious about hearing teachers’ perspectives. Some also suggested that involving teachers and program leaders in the research could help both sides develop mutual understanding and trust. Moreover, many recognize that it is valuable to understand what teachers think is the ideal management style.

Therefore, in the next stage of the research, programs are invited to have both program leaders and the rest of the teaching staff take a survey concerning the following:

  • l their perceptions of the current level of TA, top-down coordination, and participatory management in the programs
  • l their feelings on what they believe is the ideal level of these factor

While participants will complete the questionnaire anonymously and program names will be treated with full confidentiality, the results will be available to participating programs that can use the data to better understand how various sides feel about the program coordination. (Interested ESOL programs should contact the author for more details.) The goal of this upcoming study, as well as those completed so far, is to promote better management of language programs through reflection and data-based decision-making.


Brunetti, G. J. (2001). Why do they teach? A study of job satisfaction among long-term high school teachers. Teacher Education Quarterly, 28(3), 49–74.

Eyal, O., & Roth, G. (2011). Principals' leadership and teachers' motivation: Self-determination theory analysis. Journal of Educational Administration, 49(3), 256–275.

Gonzalez, R. A., & Firestone, W. A. (2013). Educational tug-of-war: Internal and external accountability of principals in varied contexts. Journal of Educational Administration, 51(3), 383–406.

Mayer, A. P., Donaldson, M. L., LeChasseur, K., Welton, A. D., & Cobb, C. D. (2013). Negotiating site-based management and expanded teacher decision making: A case study of six urban schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 49(5), 695–731.

Ylimaki, R. M. (2012). Curriculum leadership in a conservative era. Educational Administration Quarterly, 48(2), 304–346.

Caleb Prichard is an associate professor in the Language Education Center at Okayama University in Japan. In addition to teaching in Japan, Korea, and the US, he has been involved in administrating four ESOL programs in Japan.

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