Are Teachers Professionals?

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):

EduShyster Jennifer Berkshire Interviews Jose Vilson and Peter Greene at NPE 2015

Jesse Hagopian speaks on Black Students Matter at NPE 2015

The room, packed with teachers, at Jesse Hagopian’s Black Students Matter presentation at NPE 2015

Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Defending the Early Years Present at NPE 2015 

 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.


18 thoughts on “Are Teachers Professionals?

  1. Public school teachers DO mentor each other, cowrite curriculum, serve on interview committees to hire new teachers, serve as experts in their fields for committees on special needs students and, most importantly run & teach courses in teacher centers all over the country. The difference in certification requirements come as a result of teachers being paid by tax dollars so a government of overseers and regulators make sure we’re all up to snuff. It’s an unfortunate circumstance because we currently have a bunch of yahoos like Christie (who thinks we work part-time because we are off in July and PART OF – not all of – August) and Walker (a non educated bafoon). We have people who have never set foot in a public school classroom except to make speeches (i.e. Christie) yet get to make all the rules. And they make those rules based on their twisted perception because we make such a difficult task look easy. How can teachers do that? Because we love our jobs. So your professor was wrong. Teachers are professionals. Don’t think anything less of yourself.


    1. I’d be curious to read your reactions to Professor Katz’s comments below. I haven’t been a teacher for many years now (I’ve been practicing law for the past decade), but I very much agree with you on a point that Dan also touched on (re: the mystique/lack thereof) of the teaching profession, and how that leads to non-teachers setting K-12 classroom policy from a place where they feel qualified to do so. Compare one of my first essays for this blog, which touches on precisely that point:


  2. One important difference between K-12 teachers and post secondary faculty is that the post secondary faculty are responsible for evaluating their colleagues for promotion and salary increases. When I have suggested that peer evaluation would be a good way to evaluate K-12 teachers, I have been told that this would be “unprofessional”. It seems to me that it is the unwillingness to do this sort of peer evaluation is unprofessional.


    1. I agree that peer evaluation should absolutely be part of the public school landscape, although I do think that changing the culture of public schools to make such evaluation effective is likely to be easier said than done. I think that especially at the K-12 level, finding a way to balance the collaboration we want to foster among teaching staff with the peer review process would be a recipe for success. But there’s a lot at play there where policies and cultures aren’t carefully cultivated, and it can also become a silly exercise. Where it’s not well done, it just becomes some more meaningless paperwork (I’ve certainly seen this in some of the 360 degree review programs I’ve seen since I entered the legal profession).


      1. Sarah,

        I do not think the opposition to serious peer evaluation in K-12 teaching has anything to do with recent changes in the public school landscape. I have engaged in discussions about this in another blog, and I was one of very few who thought it was a good idea. One poster argued that it was unethical for one teacher to criticize another unless there was a danger of immediate physical harm to students. I think we also see this in the traditional step/lane pay structure of public schools.


      2. Hi TeachingEconomist: I’m responding to your comment below, but WordPress won’t let me reply to your reply to my reply to your comment, so it’s showing up above instead, I think.

        I don’t think I suggested that the “recent changes in the public school landscape” has anything to do with opposition to serious peer evaluation at the K-12 level; rather, I noted that trying to change the culture of public schools (which, for a whole host of reasons, including, among others, unionization, collaborative models for supporting student success, and the hierarchical nature of public school reporting structures) to accept a strong consequential peer review component might be easier said than done. Without such cultural change (and careful thought about the consequences of making such changes, such as the potential for diminishing the availability of mentors and collaborative teaching), I think it’s unlikely that peer review with consequences for pay, etc. would be effective at the K-12 level.

        Rather, I tend to think that effective within school mentoring and cultural change comes about less formally: for instance, my experience in a high school with school-wide portfolios for students was that the portfolio process acted as a cross-check for teachers as well, because we knew that our colleagues would see the students’ work product (and our grading of such work product) when the work product reappeared in student portfolios.

        That’s part of why I like the idea of involving classroom teachers in the licensing aspect of entry into the profession, because I think at that level, teachers have a lot more at stake in who comes into their profession, but you’re less likely to upset the balance for effective collaboration within the school environment. What I don’t think is effective, however, is simply attempting to plop down a model that arguably works well in one context (e.g., higher education peer review) in another without careful thought about how the model would function within the culture and goals of the new context. For instance, at the higher education level, there is and should be (appropriately, I think), more of a sink-or-swim approach to student achievement, where at the K-12 level, there is (again appropriately), much more focus on teachers collaborating to ensure that all students are able to succeed to the best of the students’ abilities. I think the opposition you encountered to a peer review model might have been teachers’ concerns that peer review might undermine the collaborative cultures they’ve built within their schools. That said, as I noted above, I think that effective peer review could be a useful tool, so long as it is adopted thoughtfully and with conscious attention to the impact it might have on schools.


  3. Sarah,

    This is an incredibly important set of considerations with great promises and also some great pitfalls.

    Your old law school professor is correct, but also misses a very big picture. Yes, high status professions exert very tight control onto entry, but they also have features to the very structure of the profession that teachers necessarily lack.

    First off, there is the sheer scale of the teacher workforce. Doctors and lawyers do not need to exist in a 1 to 20 ratio for every person between the ages of 5 and 18, teachers do. In our kind of economy, that kind of scale naturally means teaching is lower status than other professions. It also means that basically every adult in the country has had 15,000 hours of contact time with the profession and sees little in the way of mystery about it. Think of the mystique that lawyers and doctors and psychologists have about the inner workings of their professions, and then we have to accept that teachers cannot, indeed should not, have that kind of mystery. Nobody spends as much time with other professions as they spend with teachers, and even though that extensive contact time is so huge, it actually does not teach others about how to prepare for and to do the public enactment which we know so well.

    Second, while professional organizations of doctors and lawyers control entry into those professions, your professor missed how those organizations got into the game early and were well established by the time government’s regulatory power was gearing up — there is no reason why the government CANNOT credential and license doctors and lawyers and it is really only the tacit agreement with the ABA and AMA that they are minding the store that keeps the government from doing so. Those organizations also have very clear incentives to keep tight control — scarcity, especially scarcity in specializations, keeps their compensations high. Even if teachers licensed other teachers, we generally need 200,000 of them each and every year. Teacher licensure cannot work on a scarcity model if we are going to keep teachers in the classroom.

    Third, law and medicine have generally “hard knowledge” to impart in their preparation and they use that hard knowledge to weed out weaker candidates. You cannot get past your human anatomy professor. You cannot get past your torts class. In practice, you are expected to use established knowledge and processes and innovation is a matter of carefully building on what is considered very hard knowledge. Teaching has a knowledge base, but it is one that has to be much softer. Simply put, there is no laproscopic appendix removal equivalent for teaching children to read — especially when you have ratios of 20-30 to 1 in instructional settings. Also, while there are volumes that we know about best practices, they have to be enacted by individuals in particular situations which means that “best practices” are actually practice frameworks that are adapted to meet the individual quirks of classroom teacher and the myriad of combinations of needs and skills in any given classroom. Teachers are policy enacters who have to constantly shift and experiment to see what will work in a particular situation on a particular day and adjust as needed.

    Fourth, we need to be very, very careful with embracing “professionalism” as a framework — or at least reconfigure professionalism to mean something more conducive to teaching and learning. I firmly believe that the rush in the wake of A Nation at Risk to embrace the teaching as profession model contributed to where we are today. The Carnegie Report, The Holmes Group Reports, NCTAF, National Board, INTASC, Danielson — all of these, in varying degrees, took pains to emphasize teaching as a rationale process that can be measured like high status professions’ outcomes. While there was some refreshing work to not let teaching simply seem as an idiosyncratic act, the embrace of technical rationality has made it hard to argue against reformers taking that to an extreme conclusion in the form of VAMs, SGPs and other measurement based evaluations of teaching. Researchers and national organizations opened a door that Bill Gates and the Waltons have driven a truck right through.

    So if we are to consider what teaching as a profession looks like in a way that teachers can control, we also have to temper the professional urge to codify practice into hard knowledge and emphasize the sense of vocation that drives teaching. We cannot, economically, be a high status field, but we can emphasize the status of the mission in teaching and in teachers. Any meaningful control of teaching as a profession has to acknowledge the powers of measurement and also its clear limitations. And it needs to embrace and defend our work as a vocation.


    1. Hi Dan,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I agree that the issue of professionalism is much broader than the quick piece I wrote here, which was simply intended to get people thinking about how we think about teaching (and to think about what we mean about the “teaching profession”). I very much hear you on the scale issue, and it’s one of the things I thought of when I was writing, but didn’t manage to work into this piece. I think you are spot-on in your analysis of the scarcity issue, and how that relates to the status of the teaching profession. I also think that a huge piece of this is the gender analysis as well: teaching, as a most recently “female” gendered profession (I recognize that pre-Horace Mann, teaching tended to be a profession of young men) brings with it far lower status than the traditionally “male” gendered professions, like law and medicine. Another piece of the equation that didn’t make it into this piece (I will get there eventually) is a discussion of how the unionization of teaching plays into the analysis of teaching’s status and self-regulation, especially when compared with the intentional scarcity created by the legal and medical professions.

      However, on the contact time/mystique question, I very much agree with you, and in fact, my piece on that issue is precisely what brought this blog into the larger conversation (it’s the second piece I wrote, and the piece that led Valerie to seek me out so that she could run it on her blog). See — in that piece, I addressed precisely your point about the mystique, and I think the lack of mystique is critical in analyzing how teaching is understood among the general public. I think this lack of mystique is part of what it is that leads so many non-teaching outsiders to think that they can enact effective policies to “fix” our public schools (e.g., the so-called reformers). How many of us sat in classrooms during our lives and thought about how much more effectively we could have taught the class?

      I agree with you that there is a core of “hard” knowledge for law (and absolutely for medicine), but as far as law goes, I also think that the hard knowledge of law is much less than most people think — although we lawyers have done a good job of maintaining that mystique (of course, I say this as someone who has been educated in the law, so it’s hard for me to have an outsider’s perspective anymore). At the secondary level (where I taught), I think there’s a great deal of hard knowledge also required to be an effective teacher, and I wonder whether perhaps you are selling teaching a little short by not focusing on the hard subject-area knowledge necessary to teach effectively (in addition to the knowledge of education psychology, child development, developmental disabilities, etc.)? As someone who is observing from a parent’s perspective how different the process of teaching reading can be with even two readers (I can’t believe how different my daughters’ trajectories have been on that front), perhaps even teaching reading requires a lot more “hard” knowledge than one might think?

      Your point about the policy enacters is well taken, too. I like that a lot, although I’d note that we lawyers do a lot of that as well, when we take policy to its natural conclusion by applying those policies to the facts of our cases.

      I absolutely agree with you on the mission/vocation approach to teaching. I usually think of teaching as a trade or a craft: skilled application of learned principles to the specific situations faced by particular teachers. But just as we’ve devalued the skilled trades in our discourse more generally in this country, it seems that we’ve devalued teaching as well.

      Thank you so much for your thoughts, and for engaging with my piece. I’d very much like to continue the discussion, and I do think there’s a lot of thinking to be done about simultaneously defending and improving the preparation of future teachers, especially in the wake of programs like Teach For America, which seem to be explicitly devoted to “de-professionalizing” our nation’s teaching corps. I don’t think that having teachers certify teachers is necessarily the answer, but I did want to spark discussion about how we can think differently about regulating teaching as a career. Practically speaking, I do think that creating more agency (and less hierarchy) for teachers in the regulation of their craft is a good place to begin that conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sarah,

        Excellent points and I pretty much agree on all accounts.

        I did not mean to sell teachers’ “hard knowledge” short, more to say that there is less of it than we would find in medicine and that the application of it is extremely varied and what we really need are teachers who are skilled at deploying their knowledge in a constantly iterative fashion. Organizations like the Gates Foundation look at that and do not know what they are seeing because they are deeply vested in some forms of practice being quantifiably better than others even though everyone with real teaching experience knows that plans have to adjusted even before they are enacted because different classes of students do not act and respond the same way.

        I also think we need to place a proper emphasis and respect for teachers’ personalities because even identified best practices depend upon an individual who is able to enact it with authenticity. Reformers wedded to technical/rational models of teaching despise that, but it is a truth I believe we both accept.

        You are unimaginably correct about the “pink collar” nature of teaching in our society. There are reams of studies that show the status of a profession has been historically tied to how many of its practitioners are women. For teachers, this is even a bigger matter because for so long, it was expected that a young woman would teach for a few years, resign when she married and had children, and perhaps come back as many as ten years later. I don’t know how that has changed in recent decades as the single income middle class family has faded but it is a powerful theme in teaching’s status.


    2. Dan,

      I think that one reason the government is in the credentialing business is because governments (typically local school boards) traditionally assign students to schools. When families can not choose a school, the government has a greater responsibility in guaranteeing the quality of the school they assigned students to attend.

      Once the schools of education discovered that they were the gatekeeper for entrance into public schools and salary increases once in public schools, they have a huge financial interest in maintaining that status.


      1. Quick thought before I have to rush off to other projects. You are correct to some extent about the government role in credentialing although I would emphasize that there is nothing stopping the government from credentialing in law and medicine other than the trust that the current organizations are capable of doing so and do so without significant corruption.

        As for choice — I suspect we have a vast disagreement here. Market forces and consumer choice have great power, but within structures where they actually work. Competition for customers when we are talking about education would only have a chance to work if we correspondingly abandon universal and compulsory education. Consumer choice requires ability to access choices and a density of options that does not currently exist in any jurisdiction in America. Further, consumer markets usually operate by providing not just different service models but also different levels of QUALITY (both actual and perceived) depending on what the consumer is willing to or able to pay. That’s why even when we provide core services like water and power via corporations, they are so heavily regulated as to be almost public — because there isn’t supposed to be rich and poor person’s water the way there is rich and poor person’s trousers.


      2. Daniel,

        My point is that when the government requires a citizen to receive goods or services from a specific provider, the government has a greater obligation to regulate that provider than if the government did not specify which provider a citizen can use. That is, I think, why it makes good sense that private schools are not as heavily regulated as public schools, even though either can satisfy the requirement for universal and compulsory education.

        I do not think that water and power transmission are so heavily regulated because of any equity concerns, but rather because they are what economists call natural monopolies, that is, services with a declining average cost over the extent of the market. These firms must be more heavily regulated precisely because it makes no sense to allow individuals to choose different providers because doing so will drive the cost of production up for everyone. The lack of choice requires regulation to substitute for the part that being able to choose would play in controlling other industries.

        Finally, I am surprised that you think that “Consumer choice requires ability to access choices and a density of options that does not currently exist in any jurisdiction in America”. There are more public school students in the NYC Public School District than there are citizens in the states of Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, or Washington, D.C.. If there is not enough ability to access choices and a density of options for choice to function in NYC Public, does that mean that consumer choice does not exist in those states with under 1.1 million in population?


      3. Exactly right — we’ve had effective city wide school choice since Bloomberg got mayoral control and almost all of the alleged improvements in quality is was supposed to have provided are basically accounting fluff. Aaron Pallas was pretty thorough taking Joel Klein to task on that. School choice doesn’t work here. It can’t work anywhere. We’re talking about a core democratic institution in society; not trousers.

        Consumer choice: works great for pants.


      4. Daniel,

        So it is not an issue of density anymore?

        I think you might want to take a closer look at how school choice works. The relatively wealthy in NYC have always had plenty of choices. They can choose from a network of private schools, they can choose to move into certain catchment areas in the city (at a high cost though, I have seen it reported that being in PS321’s catchment area adds $100,000 to the value of a home), or move to one of the elite suburban school districts that surround the city. We are really only talking about not allowing the relatively poor to choose schools, right?

        In any case, we do have a several hundred year history of private schools, and the private school system seems to function reasonably well. Some cities in the United States have 20% of their students attending private school. The Netherlands has over 60% of their students going to private school, yet democracy thrives there.

        I would be interested in seeing your argument that using street addresses to determine school admission policy is essential to the functioning of a democratic society. I do not see the necessary connection.


      5. How is density not an issue? There are an enormous number of schools here and a huge “consumer” base, but even with that it the kind of choice structure that has been built into NYC public schools deliberately is not sufficient for market forces to create the desired changes. And for a good reason — markets do not provide all people within the market with high quality choices. Never have and are not designed to do so.

        Private schools are boutiques within the context of all k-12 students. Very competitive for certain income strata. Less so for others. But also entirely incapable of handling the school aged population of the country which leads me back to seeing the only way to make school choice actually work would be dropping compulsory schooling.

        As for core Democratic principles — there is the concept of the commons at work here. There are essential aspects of a society that demonstrate its commitment to equality and opportunity — and which are also centers of building community life. Our system of local, compulsory, public schools have been a cornerstone of the commons along with public water works, parks, and libraries. Tossing that aside for market disciplines which are not designed to and frankly cannot distribute opportunities to people equally is an unwarranted experiment while we still refuse to apply what we know works very well in some public schools across all of our public schools.


      6. Daniel,

        I take it that you believe the traditional local public schools have provided all people with high quality education? If not, it seems unfair to require that standard of a system that allows families to decide on schools independently of deciding their street address.

        I think you have to give an argument for the position that allowing households to choose a school would destroy compulsory education. As I stated earlier, there are countries where most students go to private schools, yet compulsory education survives. I see no necessary connection.

        Once again, I don’t think the sort of scale economies of public water provision are not really relevant to our discussion of democracy and education. Perhaps an example is the best way to make my point. Sixty years ago you might well have added telephonic communication to your list. After all, the ability for citizens to communicate with each other would seem to be essential to democracy and we had a single, heavily regulated, company providing all the telecommunications services. Technology changed though, reducing the scale economies and costs in telecommunication. We no longer have a single phone company and no longer have to stay up until 11:30 p.m. to make a long distance call at a reasonable price. Still have democracy though.


    3. Very thoughtful and thanks. FSLA counts teachers as professionals and therefore not required to be paid overtime. I would prefer the overtime pay and curriculum and classroom costs to be totally state funded rather than largely borne by teachers. That would be worth relinquishing all rights to being deemed professional.


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