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MSPnet Blog: “Teacher ‘professionalism’ and the nature of education”

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posted August 1, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

When you hear the phrase “teacher professionalization,”  what do you think about? It’s an idea that’s rising up again, for good reasons — but what is actually the nature of the challenge?  Is this a live issue for you?

MSPnet’s “What’s New?” in its issue for 7/27/17 included this introduction to some new items in the MSpnet Library:

With the support of the Center on International Benchmarking at the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), and the Ford Foundation, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) drew together a global team of education researchers in the three-year study, producing unparalleled insights for U.S. educators, researchers, and policymakers. The result is the International Teacher Policy Study (ITPS).  The study produced five policy briefs to summarize each of the identified strategy components used in high-performing countries to ensure all students have high-quality professional teachers.

Not a recent idea!  The discussion about the need for teaching to become, or to be seen, or to function as, a profession, goes back a century in this country.  According to Laurence Cremin’s The transformation of the school (1961), discussions about the subject can be traced at least back to the 1890s.  He gives some attention to the formulations of the idea by James Earl Russell, “the organizing genius who would transform the struggling professional school [Teachers College, Columbia] into a world-renowned center of pedagogy” (pg.  172) after his advent in 1897.    Discussions and manifestos have been published in every decade since (see for example Hunt’s 1937 article in Teachers College Record “Teaching becomes a profession” paywall!!), alongside calls for a deepening understanding of the nature of education itself  (a flagship publication in this regard is Dewey’s Sources of a science of education (1929), but the roots of the learning sciences and of “theorized pedagogy” can be found much further back, of course).

What does it mean?  As Cremin tells it, Russell argued that the College would pursue 4 goals which were foundational to a modern professional preparation:  [1] general culture, [2] special scholarship [~subject matter knowledge], [3] professional knowledge [= educational psychology, child study, history and philosophy of education, administration, school and society];  [4] technical training [methods].

This approach to teacher professionalization is based on the identification and promulgation of a distinctive, core set of knowledge (academic and craft knowledge), comparable in its extent and depth to the knowledge defining the other, historically established professions (theology, law, medicine, for example, though “professionalization” was a long process for them, too).

Suggestions for teaching as a profession most often start by (often sympathetic) comparisons with “real” or fully-established professions.  For example, in “What professionals see when they look at teaching,” a mathematician comments

teachers in the U.S. have very little autonomy.  Teacher training in the U.S. has become increasingly unstandardized, with little agreement on what constitutes core professional knowledge.  Similarly, there is scarce agreement on what constitutes professional ethics in teaching.

Sadly, unlike mathematicians, teachers in the U.S. are not professionals.  They are labor.  And, as labor, they are being managed.  Managers, in the guise of principals and superintendents and education policy chiefs and politicians, specify outcomes – often naively, like the requirement in 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act that fully 100 percent of American schoolchildren be proficient in reading and math within 12 years – and then hold teachers responsible for achieving these outcomes.  Moreover, precise recipes are given to teachers in the form of curricula and regular assessments, and teachers are told to follow these guides instead of their instincts.  Accompanying these recipes are calls for teachers to collect more data… In turn, managers use data teachers collect less to help them improve teachers’ practice and instead as evidence in evaluating teachers’ performance.

Further attention to the conditions under which teachers work, and which constrain the professionalism of teaching,  can be found in other accounts — a typical prescription is in Jal Mehta’s 2013 piece in the New York Times (paywall):

Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.  By these criteria, American education is a failed profession… in the absence of a system devoted to developing consistent expertise, we have teachers essentially winging it as they go along, with predictably uneven results.

It need not be this way. In the nations that lead the international rankings… teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates…Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America. There are also many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards….Teachers in leading nations’ schools also teach much less than ours do… the balance of teachers’ time is spent collaboratively on developing and refining lesson plans.

These countries also have much stronger welfare states; by providing more support for students’ social, psychological and physical needs, they make it easier for teachers to focus on their academic needs.

Our sympathetic professional mathematician helpfully points out that

One of the hallmarks of a profession is that professionals feel a responsibility not just to themselves but to the values of the profession itself, and as such they feel compelled to act in defense of these values when they are threatened.

This is great, and no one can pay any attention to the educational press, the mainstream press (especially on the local level) or the edublogosphere, and not see stories about teachers doing just this.  The problem is that the public to which they are speaking, and the authorities to which they make their representations, apparently have little respect or interest in the nature and craft of teaching.

The pedagogy of policy speaks very clearly, and has for a long time, and education as seen in policy is not the same as education as an art, craft, profession, or even a human transaction.  Instead, politics and economics Now the measure of all things) see education in terms of workforce development, creation of “human capital” or the manufacture of consent — if the latter phrase sounds too harsh, just consider the continuing controversies (and legislating) about uncomfortable science or other curricular matters (for a penetrating round-up of just a few recent examples, see Julie Carr’s article in Bioscience)

As has often been noted, everybody’s an expert about education except the educators, and this in itself is an atmospheric pollutant that takes a heavy cost from people wanting to make constructive changes — and leads educators, including teacher educators, to focus on the “pull yourselves up by the bootstraps” approach which comes through in the many articles on teacher professionalism.

I confess that after my tour of prescriptions and pronunciamentos about teacher professionalism of the past 120 years, I could not but welcome the professional’s satire in Peter Greene’s recent blog post on, lamenting yet another market-based nostrum:

Entrepreneurship has been trampling up and down the fields of education, like some beautiful windswept unicorn.  Read the work of reformsters…and you will begin to imagine that… loathsome teachers and miserable unions and the loathed “status quo” keep trying to harpoon the beautiful unicorn and wrap it up in a net of regulations tied down with straps of resistance…This narrative would lead one to believe that entrepreneurs are somehow imbued with a special quality, a quality that people who merely devoted their entire professional lives to education sorely lack.


I’d like to recur, therefore, to the ever-mild, ever radical Dewey, from his “Sources” piece (emphasis added) :

The sources of educational science are any  portions of ascertained knowledge that enter into  the heart, head and hands of educators, and  which, by entering in, render the performance of  the educational function more enlightened, more  humane, more truly educational than it was before.

But there is no way to discover what is “more truly educational” except by the continuation of the educational act itself. The discovery is never made ; it is always making.

It  may conduce to immediate ease or momentary  efficiency to seek an answer for questions outside of education, in some material which already has scientific prestige. But such a seeking  is an abdication, a surrender. In the end, it only  lessens the chances that education in actual  operation will provide the materials for an improved science. It arrests growth ; it prevents  the thinking that is the final source of all progress.

Education is by its nature an endless  circle or spiral. It is an activity which includes  science within itself. In its very process it sets  more problems to be further studied, which  then react into the educative process to change  it still further, and thus demand more thought,  more science, and so on, in everlasting sequence.

NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.