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March 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 6

Why “Professionalizing” Teaching Is Not Enough

Instructional Strategies
Instructional Strategies
Many efforts to professionalize teaching attempt to change the settings in which teachers work. Some give teachers more influence over curriculum and budget. Others create opportunities for collaboration through mentor programs and career ladders. Although such reforms can bring many benefits, they may not substantially change how teachers actually teach without additional efforts to enrich pedagogy.
Professionalizing teaching may set the stage for improvements in teaching, but it cannot bring them about alone. To explain why this is so, I draw on recently completed case studies of school districts that have been through this experience—in particular, one district that had the most success in implementing these types of reforms. (For more details about other cases, see Firestone and Bader 1992.)

Reforms in Academy District

Academy (a pseudonym) is a district of about 13,000 students and two high schools in a western state. The district has few minority students, but about a quarter of its population receives free or reduced-price lunches. While financial support for education in this state is generally very low, the district does have a Career Enhancement Plan (CEP).
  • curriculum specialists, who received $1,100/year usually to run small programs or develop curriculum in specific areas for their own schools;
  • teacher leaders, who received the same stipend plus 27 days of paid summer work to mentor beginning teachers, help other teachers, and take on more complex development tasks for their schools.
The career ladder program enhanced teacher influence, especially over curriculum. For example, specialists from different buildings coordinated offerings between middle and high schools. Within buildings, these teachers designed and ran special programs, helped select materials, and had a major impact on what was taught and how.
Second, the district's task force played a major role in designing and regularly revising the district's program. Proposed changes gave teachers more influence over out-of-class decisions affecting curriculum, budget, and personnel. When decisions are made by a committee with many teachers, the whole faculty can be empowered (see, for example, White 1992). Curriculum councils also empowered teachers to make district decisions. Some of these included complex infrastructures of committees that developed curriculum in specific subject areas with support, but not direction, from administration (Sickler 1988).
Another theme of national reforms that Academy District pursued was encouraging teacher collaboration. Career ladders and mentor programs allowed senior teachers to help junior colleagues or to collaborate in curriculum development and training activities. What is important about such efforts is not the differentiation in ranks but, rather, the time that such changes give teachers to work with others to improve the context for instruction. In fact, less highly publicized arrangements that hire teachers in summers or after school can have similar effects without some of the divisive consequences of hierarchical career ladders.
Collaboration was apparent in Academy, where teachers remarked that departments became more cohesive and opportunities increased for collegial interactions. In response to a survey—using a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree)—experienced teachers acknowledged that the CEP “provides a cooperative work environment” (3.60) and “gives me the chance to interact with other teachers” (3.77). Moreover, beginning teachers were more positive on these items than experienced ones (3.91 and 3.98 respectively), suggesting that special support to neophyte teachers was well provided.

Outcomes of Professionalizing

Efforts to professionalize teaching should both build teacher commitment and improve curriculum and instruction. Teachers should become more committed to the goals and values of an organization (or a way of teaching), voluntarily comply with orders and expectations, exert more than minimal effort for the good of the organization, and want to stay part of it (Mowday et al. 1982). Academy teachers' commitment was apparent in their comments and responses to survey items. For example, teachers agreed with statements that the overall program provided incentives for good teachers to stay in teaching (3.58) and improved morale (3.50).
At the same time, and contributing to this improved commitment, Academy's program enriched curriculum and instructional practice. Teachers listed such changes as a new art program, one high school's first AP Spanish course, a high school program focusing on at-risk youth, a cooperative learning program, and enriched offerings without formal programs in elementary music, science, social studies, writing across the curriculum, and critical thinking. About these developments, one teacher remarked, “I venture much further because I am able to go to inservice [on cooperative education].” In response to survey items, teachers agreed that the program “results in better curriculum materials and training” (3.77) and “effectively allows the district to carry out curriculum planning” (3.95).
Moreover, the program helped students. Achievement test scores rose 10 to 15 percentile points over an eight-year period, and the district's average ACT test increased —ally. Although teachers saw definite benefits for their students, district administrators were reluctant to credit the CEP program for these improvements because other things had changed during the same time.

Professionalism and Reformed Teaching

Compared to most efforts to professionalize teaching, Academy's reforms were a success. Teachers felt better about their work and were more active, curriculum and instruction were enriched, and students appeared to benefit. Yet, fundamental changes in the direction of student-centered instruction did not happen.
A student-centered approach makes special demands on teachers. Recent research indicates that the key is pedagogical content knowledge—the blend of content and pedagogy needed to communicate to students. Such knowledge is grounded in a deep understanding of one's subject matter and of what students already know, including their misconceptions. Student-centered teachers know the specific strengths and weaknesses of their own students, and they apply that knowledge and understanding through complex reasoning processes both in the classroom and during their lesson planning (Clark and Peterson 1986, Shulman 1987).
Student-centered classrooms also look different. In Palincsar and Brown's (1984) approach to teaching comprehension to remedial readers, the teacher first models strategies and then alternates with students in applying them. Elmore (1991) describes classrooms in which student teams construct tests on various topics with little supervision and occasional coaching from teachers. The teacher's responsibility is to design learning activities, monitor learning, and intervene subtly when things go awry.
It is hard to find evidence that such changes in teaching took place in Academy District. Some—like an increase in cooperative learning—were a step in the right direction, yet most were —al improvements of existing practice—such as the science olympics or the elementary music specialist's sharing of musical instruments with colleagues, who then taught more music. However, these efforts did not result in changes in the fundamental order of the classroom.
Big changes in instructional practice did not happen because professional reforms do not address them. Professional reforms make explicit changes in relationships among teachers and between teachers and administrators, but they are neutral about classroom practice. In fact, the underlying assumption is that teachers (collectively if not each individual) already have the knowledge necessary to teach well if bureaucratic constraints can be removed. This assumption is not always appropriate. Thus, Little (1990, p. 525) asks rhetorically, “Do we have in teachers' collaborative work the creative development of well-informed choices or the mutual reinforcement of poorly informed habit?”
Most teachers do not know how to teach in student-centered ways because they did not experience such teaching as students and were not exposed to it in their teacher training. Often teachers implementing programs that are supposed to use such approaches think they are doing so when in fact they are not. McCarthey and Peterson (1991) tell about a teacher who converted whole-language instruction to “whole book” instruction. This teacher “basalized” children's literature by using the short, recall-oriented questions she had been taught to use in Distar training. While extreme, this story is not unusual (Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 1990). Participatory and collegial reforms help teachers use and share what they know. But when the knowledge is not there, very little change will occur.
Even if teachers were better informed about new approaches to teaching, they might not be able to use that knowledge because of the traditional way that many schools are organized. Student-centered teaching is more boisterous than teacher-centered approaches, and maintaining order is a primary concern of teachers.

Beyond Professional Reforms

To fundamentally change teaching, then, two additional kinds of changes will be needed. A key challenge is to help teachers understand new approaches to teaching. Most teachers are not well placed to learn about these ideas or to share them with others. In many districts, teachers lack the control over their own time to get the necessary training; therefore, administrators with better access to such knowledge will have to play a major role.
If these ideas are to catch hold with more than a few teachers, large-scale staff development that models active learning will also be necessary. Examples of such approaches are the Gheens Academy in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Schenley High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where large numbers of teachers have access to new learning opportunities. Professional development schools will also play an important role if they combine inservice for current teachers with preservice preparation.
One alternative to administratively dominated inservice programs is teacher networks. Some current operations are organized around a subject area (the Ford Foundation's Urban Mathematics Collaboratives); others develop around national reforms (Coalition for Essential Schools), a state policy (California's Math A Network), or the ideas of a charismatic teacher (Foxfire). Although networks can expand individual teachers' out-of-school access to knowledge, they run the risk of isolating teachers from their in-school colleagues and increasing the —alization that already happens to some teachers who use more challenging approaches to instruction. Yet, when networks are tied to structures for teacher collaboration within schools, they have great promise (Lieberman and McLaughlin 1992).
In addition, any serious modification in teaching strategy will require changing how students are grouped for instruction, how time is allocated to subject areas, and how student work is assessed. There are three problems here. The biggest is that classrooms, courses, and bell-driven schedules have come to be defined as “real school” (Metz 1990). Any efforts to tamper with these traditions often produce parental or community backlash. Second, effective strategies that support student-centered teaching and more complex thinking have not been well documented (Elmore 1991). Finally, some alternatives—especially those that reduce class size—are very expensive.
The difficulties in giving teachers access to the knowledge needed to implement new pedagogical reforms and in changing the organizational structures of schools are substantial. Further, they appear more directly related to the widespread implementation of pedagogical reforms than are professionalizing reforms. Yet, these latter changes can make important contributions. First, as teachers come to understand the pedagogical reforms, working in a more professional context can help build commitment to those changes. Second, opportunities for collaboration can reinforce outside attempts to give teachers the knowledge to fulfill pedagogical reforms. In turn, teacher reinforcement will be more helpful than close monitoring by administrators could ever be. Finally, empowered teachers who understand the importance of pedagogical reforms can effectively lobby for them. For these reasons, a comprehensive package for reform should include both endeavors to professionalize teaching and the more difficult efforts to improve pedagogy.

Clark, C., and P. Peterson. (1986). “Teachers' Thought Processes.” In Handbook of Research on Teaching, 3rd ed., edited by M. Wittrock, pp. 256–274. New York: Macmillan.

Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. (1990). Special Issue on Policy and Teaching Practice 12, 3: 233–352.

Elmore, R. (1991). “Teaching, Learning, and Organization: School Restructuring and the Recurring Dilemmas of Reform.” Presentation at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.

Firestone, W.A., and B.D. Bader. (1992). Redesigning Teaching: Professionalism or Bureaucracy? Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press.

Lieberman, A., and M. McLaughlin. (1992) “Networks for Educational Change: Powerful and Problematic.” Phi Delta Kappan 73: 673–677.

Little, J.W. (1990). “The Persistence of Privacy: Autonomy and Initiative in Teachers' Professional Relations.” Teachers College Record 91, 4: 509–532.

McCarthey, S., and P. Peterson. (1991). “Reflections on Restructuring at Lakeview School.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.

Metz, M.H. (1990). “Real School: A Universal Drama Mid Disparate Experiences.” In Educational Politics for the New Century: The Twentieth Anniversary Yearbook of the Politics of Education Association, edited by D.G. Mitchell and M.E. Goertz, pp. 75–92. London: Falmer Press.

Mowday, R.T., L.W. Porter, and R.M Steers. (1982). Employee-Organization Linkages: The Psychology of Commitment, Absenteeism, and Turnover. New York: Academic Press.

Palincsar, A., and A. Brown. (1984). “Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Fostering and Comprehension-Monitoring Activities.” Cognition and Instruction 1, 2: 117–175.

Shulman, L. (1987). “Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform.” Harvard Education Review 57, 1: 8.

Sickler, J. (1988). “Teachers in Charge: Empowering the Professionals.” Phi Delta Kappan 69, 5: 375–376.

White, P. (1992). “Teacher Empowerment Under `Ideal' School-Site Autonomy.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 14, 1: 69–82.

William A. Firestone has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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