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):

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

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Jesse Hagopian speaks on Black Students Matter at NPE 2015

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

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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:

 

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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.

 

Dinner Table Depositions (or Whatever Happened to Horace Mann?)

by Sarah Blaine

“A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” — Horace Mann (educator & attorney)

Living in a house with a former teacher turned attorney can’t always be easy. It probably doesn’t help that my husband is also an attorney. As we share stories about our days around the family dinner table each night, our dinner table conversation almost invariably includes some legal discussion.

Then the questions start. My favorite first came about three years ago:

“What’s a deposition?”

How do you explain a deposition to a six year old?

Well…

All of my lawyer friends…

How do you do it?

You don’t.

You act it out.

Ok. Well, first we need to assign roles. E, you are going to be the witness.

— Okay.

E, do you want Mommy or Daddy to be your attorney?

— Mommy.

Ok. Then Daddy is going to be the attorney for your adversary.

J is going to be the court reporter.

— What’s a court reporter?

J, your job is just to sit there and pretend to type what we’re saying.

We show the two year old what to do and she bangs on the table like a court reporter for a minute and then returns to smearing peas onto her face and into her hair.

So then we need a hypothetical dispute. E’s across-the-street sometimes future-husband, sometimes arch-nemesis will do for an adversary. In our hypothetical, they’re fighting about sometimes-nemesis stealing E’s stuffed shark.

J again bangs on the table. M examines the witness. And E answers the questions.

We swear the witness and “go on the record.”

This witness giggles much more than your run of the mill deposition witness as we go through the preliminaries.

Then…

“When did your shark go missing?”

— Last week.

“What is your basis for stating that my client took your shark?”

— I saw him.

etc.

etc.

A few substantive questions in, M asks a ridiculous question and I object to the form of the question.

Then we go off the record to have a discussion about my objection.

We go back on the record and the questioning continues.

I object to the form of the question again.

And so forth.

After our first deposition dinner, deposition dinners, believe it or not, became a common request for a couple of years:

“Mommy, can we play deposition again?”

Thankfully, more recently they’ve petered out, as I think that M and I have been getting tired of generating hypotheticals and, to be honest, the last thing I want to do at the family dinner table is to act out a hypothetical version of my day job.

This is one example of our daughters’ dinner table civics education. Oh, and even my oldest is still a few years away from 6th grade.

But what do deposition dinners have to do with education policy?

Well, with the roll out of Common Core this year, we’ve been hearing a lot about the Core’s central goal.  That goal, of course, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock, is to ensure that every child graduates with the skills that will make her “College & Career Ready.” But before we do a close reading of what, exactly, “College & Career Ready” means (that is a subject for another day), can we start with the premise?

Why do we dedicate so many of our tax dollars to ensuring that every child in this country has access to a public education?

Is it because it’s our duty as a country to make sure our kids are “College & Career Ready?”

Or, dare I suggest, is it because, as a nation, we decided that an educated citizenry is a necessary component of a functional democratic republic?

Horace Mann is largely credited with the growth of the modern public school movement. I’m not sure how many of us realize that education wasn’t compulsory throughout the United States until the early 20th century.  Mann was a mid-19th century reformer who is credited with developing the system of Common Schools that would become our modern public school system (for the record, he too was a lawyer by training).

As this PBS.org website explains:

Mann’s commitment to the Common School sprang from his belief that political stability and social harmony depended on education: a basic level of literacy and the inculcation of common public ideals. He declared, “Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School…may become the most effective and benignant of all forces of civilization.” Mann believed that public schooling was central to good citizenship, democratic participation and societal well-being. He observed, “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.”

I’m with Mann.

The number one reason I approve of my tax dollars supporting public education is that I desperately hope that we are an educated and informed citizenry that can look beyond the muckraking, grandstanding, empty rhetoric, and self-aggrandizing to vote for elected representatives who reflect our political philosophy and will advocate policies that we believe are best for our communities.  In short, I don’t want to live in a mad-house of a nation.

To avoid the mad-house, we need to educate students to learn lessons from history, to understand our government and how to advocate for themselves in our democratic republic, and provide our children with access to the education necessary to resist slick rhetoric in favor of reasoned discourse and critical analysis of what they read, hear, and view.  In the internet age, I believe these skills are more critical than ever.  I worry about standards for public education that tout college & career readiness rather than civic education as their central goal.

The public schools I attended did a great job teaching these skills. And I take my duty as a citizen seriously: I research candidates and issues before I vote, and I often find myself frustrated by the farcical nature of modern political discourse. But then again, I’m also a nerd and an amateur policy wonk.

So sue me. But don’t depose me at the dinner table.

I believe that educating an informed electorate is the central reason why we publicly fund public schools and why education is compulsory for all children.

College and career readiness? That’s just icing on the cake.

And what worries me when I review the introduction to the CCSS Grades 6-12 standards for History and Social Studies on the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, is that there is not a single mention of preparing students for their future roles as members of an informed electorate:

The standards below begin at grade 6; standards for K–5 reading in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects are integrated into the K–5 Reading standards. The CCR anchor standards and high school standards in literacy work in tandem to define college and career readiness expectations—the former providing broad standards, the latter providing additional specificity.

It seems to me that we have a philosophical and theoretical disconnect here.

Why do we fund public schools?

Why do we make public school compulsory?

Is it really all about “CCR” (College & Career Readiness)?

Does educating an informed electorate still matter in the wake of Citizens United?

Does justice require educated citizen jurors who are capable of sifting through facts to arrive at thoughtful and well-reasoned verdicts?

And if these things matter, shouldn’t preparation for citizenship be at least as much at the heart of our public education system as “College & Career Readiness”?

Or are we headed straight into the madhouse of Horace Mann’s nightmares?