Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

Understanding the Neoliberalization of Education Through Spaces of Labour Autonomy

Document type Thesis
Author Bocking, Paul
Degree Ph.D., Geography
Publisher York University; Toronto
Date 2017
Pages 436 pages


In recent years K-12 school systems from New York to Mexico City to Toronto, serving vastly divergent students and communities, have been subject to strikingly similar waves of neoliberal policies by governments. A key manifestation has been the de-professionalization or deskilling of teachers. Organized labours response has been highly uneven geographically. Professional autonomy means a capacity and freedom of teachers to exercise their judgement in interpreting broad curriculum guidelines, into their day to day classroom activities. It is the primary obstacle to the further neoliberalization of education. The expansion of standardized instructional and evaluative techniques and technologies are necessary for opening new markets within schools and for weakening the collective power of teachers and their unions. Their proponents are limited by the existence of the classroom as a space of labour autonomy, run by experienced and highly educated teachers. Recognizing the significant crossover of policy at the North American scale alongside significant economic and political linkages, this dissertation centres on case studies in three cities, New York, Mexico City and Toronto. This dissertation assesses challenges to teachers professional autonomy from 2001 to 2016 across five dimensions of comparison. First are changes in governance, namely the centralization of authority, often legitimized by mobilizing policies from elsewhere. Second are policies which have shifted workplace power relations between principals and teachers, as with School Based Management programs that download budgetary, discipline and dismissal practices to school administrators. Third are the effect of standardized testing of students and teachers on the latters capacity to exercise professional judgement in the classroom through designing unique lesson plans, pedagogy and evaluation. Fourth is the creation of school choice for schools competing for enrolment and thereby funding, which has tended to perpetuate class and racial segregation. Finally, the ability of teachers unions to construct a multi scalar strategy is considered, including alliances with parents, communities and other sectors of labour. This dissertation concludes with recommendations for how teachers unions could respond to the challenge to professional autonomy with a stronger engagement on teacher practice and professional self-regulation.