Several weeks ago I had an angioplasty, a procedure by which a balloon-like gadget is inserted through a vein to unclog an artery in the heart. I never doubted that my doctors knew exactly what they were doing; they are well-trained professionals. My daughter, a nurse, tells me that this sophisticated procedure was devised in the 1960s and used more widely in the '70s. No one would be surprised that it is now standard practice; we have come to expect such technological progress in medicine.
Education is not like medicine, of course, but my experience made me think about the similarities and differences between the two occupations. In a recent newsletter from the Center on Teaching and Learning Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Judah Schwartz (1993) of the Harvard Educational Technology Center described a workshop in which algebra teachers tried out a new type of algebra curriculum, one that—thanks to computers—represents functions graphically as well as symbolically. In short, the teachers reported understanding quite a lot about algebra that they had never grasped before.
The story illustrates for me the enormous changes that must take place if we are to have the level of education we aspire to. Nearly all current reform efforts—defining outcomes and standards, strengthening curriculum, using more powerful teaching and learning practices, redesigning assessment, changing decision-making structures—depend to some degree on the knowledge and capabilities of teachers. Unless teachers are able to use high-quality materials and more effective strategies, unless they can hold students to higher performance standards, schools will continue as they are. We must have teachers who are fully professional.
But what does “professional” mean when applied to teachers? The word can mean somebody who does something for a living: a professional baker, a professional golfer. It can mean anyone who does an especially good job: “You're a real pro.” More formally, it means a member of an occupation with recognized professional status.
Educators have yearned to be recognized as professionals for generations, but the current drive for professionalization originated in the mid-1980s, when it became apparent to policymakers that mandates by themselves were not going to bring substantially higher achievement. Minimum competency tests and stiffer graduation requirements may have affected the quantity of students' education, but its quality depended on the quality of their instruction, and that depended on their teachers.
What could be done, the policymakers wondered, to increase the number of excellent teachers? One obvious answer was to make the job more attractive by raising pay and improving working conditions. So we had merit pay plans, career ladders, and mentor teacher programs, some of which continue. In many states there were hefty budget increases, most of which have by now been eclipsed by recession.
But if teachers were to be paid more, they had to be worth it. So there were initiatives to improve teacher education by prestigious universities belonging to the Holmes Group. There was the Carnegie Forum report, A Nation Prepared (1986), with its call for “lead teachers.” And, as recommended in that report, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was created so that the best teachers in the country could be recognized through national certification (see Barringer, p. 18).
Now, when state and local cupboards are bare, and when many teachers are getting furloughs rather than raises, it seems paradoxical that only a few years ago politicians were proclaiming their determination to make teaching more attractive by rewarding good teachers. Nevertheless they were right; circumstances may have changed, but professionalization remains a fundamental goal.
Professionalization means not only higher pay, of course, but several other things, all interrelated: high admission standards, excellent undergraduate and graduate preparation, continuing education on the job, and desirable working conditions—including adequate supplies and equipment, opportunities to interact with colleagues, and reasonable latitude in making decisions.
These changes will not be achieved overnight. But if and when they are achieved, the cumulative effect will be a cadre of teachers better qualified than most current educators—not necessarily more committed or humane, but better qualified professionally—to give students the kind of education that is the foundation for a world-class society.
Schwartz, J. L. (1993). “The Teachers and Algebra Project,” NCRMSE Research Review, 2, 1.
Task Force on Teaching as a Profession (1986). A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century. New York: Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy.