Peter Greene recently published a pair of pieces, here and here, on the quality of teacher education programs. Reading his pieces — and the Ed Week blog post that inspired them — inspired me to share a few quick thoughts.
A dozen years ago, as I sat in my Professional Ethics course one day, my ears perked up. My professor was discussing what it means to be a professional, and was listing the traditional professions: law and medicine. I spoke up: “What about teachers? Aren’t teachers professionals?” His response: “Absolutely not.”
As a former teacher, I was floored. I think I had to reach down and physically pick my jaw up off the floor. But in hindsight, as infuriating as I found my professor’s pronouncement at the time, his reasoning actually makes sense. As my professor explained it, one belongs to a profession if current members of that profession take responsibility for controlling entry to that profession. That is, lawyers — in law schools — educate future lawyers, and lawyers — through state bar examinations created and scored by lawyers — determine whether law school graduates are fit to enter the legal profession. As I understand it, the same holds true for doctors, who are educated in medical schools, internship programs, and residency programs by doctors, and who must pass their medical boards — i.e., exams for future doctors created and scored by doctors — in order to practice medicine unsupervised.
Superficially, traditional routes for entry into the teaching profession sound similar. Those of us who have been licensed teachers completed a degree — either undergraduate or graduate — in a program taught by some combination of former and current teachers, and then most likely passed some iteration of the Pearson-produced Praxis test or other licensing tests required by our state departments of education. The difference, however, is in those final words of the prior sentence: “required by our state departments of education.” Teachers do not regulate entry into the teaching profession: rather, government bureaucrats and for-profit testing companies do. That distinction makes a world of difference.
These days, we are constantly subjected to assaults on the teachers: by the media, by parents, by politicians, by members of the public, and sometimes by other teachers, who complain about the quality of their coworkers (I heard this from a couple of public school teachers just in the past few weeks). We hear that teachers are lazy, that they’re lacking in content knowledge, and we parents are known to judge some of them pretty harshly ourselves. I know that I have a habit of seeing red when teachers send assignments home from school that are riddled with spelling, grammar, and/or syntax errors.
But take a moment, and imagine an alternate universe in which teachers are responsible for regulating their own profession. Imagine communities where practicing teachers make the final determination of whether candidates for the teaching profession are ready to be granted professional licenses — with the knowledge that they themselves are responsible for the perceived quality of their profession. Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who appeared to lack a grasp of the conventions of written English? Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who did not have deep content-area knowledge? Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who had not proven himself capable of effective classroom management? Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who hadn’t proved himself knowledgable of the latest theories of child development and principles taught in educational psychology courses?
Imagine teachers observing, mentoring, and evaluating candidates based on metrics they themselves developed for determining who merited a license to teach in a classroom filled with children. Imagine the entrance exams that teachers — not Pearson — would create to ensure that those who are to follow in their footsteps are adequately prepared for the awesome task — and it truly is awesome — of ensuring that our country’s children are educated to be thoughtful, compassionate, and productive members of a society that embodies democratic values. I truly believe that we humans tend to rise to a task when we are granted the autonomy necessary to take pride in our work, our colleagues, and our professions. Imagine, if you will, a public policy in which master teachers — like Peter Greene — truly have a say on not only what happens in the classroom, but on who is qualified to be counted among their colleagues. Imagine teaching as a profession.
Personally, I’d rather see these guys (included in these pictures from NPE are Jesse Hagopian, Jose Vilson, Anthony Cody, Stan Karp, and Peter Greene along with dozens of other teachers I didn’t get a chance to speak with):
determining entry into the teaching profession rather than people like these guys:
After all, our kids deserve teachers selected by professionals who know what they’re doing. I, for one, place my faith in the teachers, not the bureaucrats and politicians.
P.S., Obviously, we lawyers could also do a far better job at self-regulation than we do. I certainly count myself among those attorneys who have had the experience of wondering how, exactly, my adversary managed to graduate from law school and pass the bar exam. But at least we only have ourselves to blame.