‘teaching is not yet a profession’

by Grace

Teaching in American K-12 public schools is different from many other professions.  Linda Darling Hammond argues that “teaching is not yet a profession”, with one reason being that teachers lack mastery “of a common knowledge base”.

At the heart of the issue are schools of education, according to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).

Arne Duncan, the Obama administration secretary of education:

 … “By almost any standard, many if not most of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges, and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom,” and “America’s university-based teacher preparation programs need revolutionary change, not evolutionary thinking.”

Much criticism targets specific problems that afflict schools of education.

… lack of selectivity, an imbalance between content and pedagogy, or the lack of value delivered.

Actually, ed schools do not “train” teachers; they “prepare” them to travel “on a lifelong path of learning, distinct from knowing, as actual knowledge is perceived as too fluid”.

Though those two terms—train and prepare—appear to be interchangeable, they are not….

It is because training a teacher is viewed (if the AERA volume is accurate in its summation) as “an oversimplification of teaching and learning, ignoring its dynamic, social and moral aspects.”…

Harking back perhaps to teacher education’s 19th-century ecclesiastical origins, its mission has shifted away from the medical model of training doctors to professional formation. The function of teacher education is to launch the candidate on a lifelong path of learning, distinct from knowing, as actual knowledge is perceived as too fluid to be achievable. In the course of a teacher’s preparation, prejudices and errant assumptions must be confronted and expunged, with particular emphasis on those related to race, class, language, and culture. This improbable feat . . . is accomplished as candidates reveal their feelings and attitudes through abundant in-class dialogue and by keeping a journal. From these activities is born each teacher’s unique philosophy of teaching and learning.

Not many other professions, medicine for example, follow this model.  (Thank goodness.)

Social justice activism is often considered more important than academic instruction.

There is also a strong social-justice component to teacher education, with teachers cast as “activists committed to diminishing the inequities of American society.” That vision of a teacher is seen by a considerable fraction of teacher educators (although not all) as more important than preparing a teacher to be an effective instructor. This view of a teacher’s role as transformational is not wrong, as teachers often serve as the means by which children overcome challenges inherent in their backgrounds. But it is one that is often taken to absurd extremes in practice. For example, a textbook used in a math course for elementary school teachers is entitled Social Justice through Mathematics, which explains why the view is so often disparaged.

Best practices?  There is minimal agreement on best methods for instruction, and education schools want future teachers to find ‘the “how to” on your own and  own your teaching style’.  According to AERA, an education methods course in college is not actually meant to teach the best methods.

… “A methods course is seldom defined as a class that transmits information about methods of instruction and ends with a final exam. [They] are seen as complex sites in which instructors work simultaneously with prospective teachers on beliefs, teaching practices and creation of identities—their students’ and their own.”

One of the most harmful examples of this do-your-own-thing approach is in reading instruction, where the NCTQ found the most common recommendation among ed schools is that the teaching “candidate should develop her own approach to teaching reading, based on exposure to various philosophies and approaches, none more valid than any other”.

One step in addressing the ed school problem:  The NCTQ plans to introduce an objective measure of quality and performance.

The NCTQ Teacher Prep Review, slated for initial release in June 2013,  is rating teacher-preparation programs across the country. By examining the fundamental requirements of each program—admissions standards, course requirements, coverage of essential content, preparation in the CCSS, how the student teaching program operates, instruction in classroom management and lesson planning, and how teacher candidates are judged ready for the classroom—the Review will capture the information that any consumer of these programs would want to see, including aspiring teachers and school districts looking to hire the best teachers….

Good teachers often have to fight the system   I’ve been fortunate to know many excellent teachers, but I suspect many have had to work against barriers imposed by poor training and mediocre curriculum.  Perhaps this NCTQ review of education schools will be one step on the way to Duncan’s “revolutionary change”, but I’m not holding my breath that change will happen quickly.



6 Comments to “‘teaching is not yet a profession’”

  1. I agree that the fact that K12 teaching is not seen as a profession is a huge problem. However, I do not agree on the causes. The hallmark of a professional is the freedom to make professional choices. Doctors scream loudly when they feel that managed care companies are impinging on their freedom to practice medicine as they see fit. Professors scream loudly about academic freedom in the classroom. Wall Street traders are given wide latitude to make trades according to their own strategies. Professional freedom is precisely what K12 teachers do NOT have right now. Curriculum decisions are made at higher levels, principals and superintendents (who often come and go every couple of years) make decisions on teaching practices, books, and even the professional development opportunities for teachers. One of the things that K12 teachers will often complain about is micromanagement from above. That doesn’t sound very professional to me.

    I think, though, that you are touching on a germ of truth. What is lacking for K12 teachers, besides the freedom to make professional decisions, is the sense of loyalty to a profession and standard of professional practice as held up by peers. Doctors are adamant that they must be free to practice medicine as they see best, yet most doctors do try to adhere to professional consensus on standards of care AS DEVELOPED BY OTHER PHYSICIANS, not “managed care bureaucrats”. Doctors are very sensitive to criticism by other doctors, especially those considered to be leaders in the field. The same thing is true of professors, for whom peer review is a mantra. Professors are generally far more loyal to their field and to other professors in that field than to their own institution. Most professors really care that their research and what they teach in the classroom holds up to the standards of their field, but they don’t really care what the administrators think (at least post-tenure). I suspect you will find the same sense of loyalty to their subfield among lawyers. Good engineers care a lot about how they are seen by other engineers. I don’t see this as much among teachers, probably because of the micromanagement from above, and also because they are given little time to work with each other professionally. In fact, in countries where teaching is held to higher standards, teachers often spend less time in front of a classroom and more time meeting with each other.

    I do not think we will make progress in K12 education in this country until we stop treating teachers like assembly line workers in a factory and start treating them more like lawyers and doctors.


  2. I don’t disagree that lacking the freedom to make professional choices is an issue for the teaching profession, but I might say that it’s intertwined, and even rooted, in the sorry state of ed schools.

    Teachers graduate from college lacking a common knowledge base backed by rigorous research, at least that’s a common opinion among outsiders. I suspect that’s partly why they are subject to such strict oversight. OTOH, teachers are often allowed to try things out on their students (action research or narrative research), which does not promote confidence in their professionalism. And all this is promulgated by the powers that be in ed schools.


  3. Conversely, I think the sad state of ed schools is due to the fact that it really doesn’t matter much what they teach. Ed schools were actually an attempt to enforce some kind of standards on teachers – remember that historically, teachers were drawn from the pool of girls who managed to graduate HS but had not yet married.


  4. “the sad state of ed schools is due to the fact that it really doesn’t matter much what they teach”

    Wait, what does this mean? I’d say it DOES matter.


  5. What is taught in ed school courses has little impact on the actual practices of teachers in the classroom. For working teachers, the decisions of principals, school boards, state education commissions, wealthy donors, parents, and politicians have far more bearing. The research done in education schools may have more impact, since it influences the decision-makers.
    Even in our leafy suburb, I don’t see that the teachers have much real decision-making power. They can make little decisions, which often are very annoying for parents, but they don’t have any say on the really important things. I see my daughter’s first grade teacher struggling with a math curriculum that she did not choose, on which she wasn’t trained and has no buy-in. I think it is a good curriculum, in fact, but needs some tweaking to make sure students understand some of the basics before moving on. The teacher has no leeway to do that, though. And another example – if a teacher hated a certain 5th grade project that consumes far too much time and energy (and you know what I mean), he or she would not be able to skip it. As a professor, I cannot fathom that. We meet to agree on learning objectives for the courses, but we have freedom to get the students to those objectives in whichever way seems best. I do Peer Instruction, for example, and my colleague does not. That wouldn’t happen in K12.


  6. “What is taught in ed school courses has little impact on the actual practices of teachers in the classroom.”

    Okay, I see what you mean.

    I don’t think teachers should have day-to-day decision-making powers over really important things, and I can see how it makes sense that they cannot change other things that some might consider to be not so important. I think it helps keep consistency within schools and within school districts. That’s not so different from many other professional jobs – certain reports have to be produced in a certain way, for example. In many schools, our local one included, teachers do collaborate on many curriculum items, like projects, for example.

    But I do think the whole “management structure” of public schools has its problems, with “managers” (principals) having very little power to run their schools as they’d like. OTOH, it could be argued that the general caliber of principals, and other administrators, is so low that it would be foolhardy to give them too much power.

    All this is a chicken and egg problem, which is one reason why I support fewer limits on the number of charter schools. Yes, they are not perfect but in so many (most?) cases they are not worse than the traditional schools.


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