Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Professionalization of Teachers, Part V

The issue of the professionalization of teaching has come across my radar again, thanks to Marc Dean Millot, who writes at Edbizbuzz, a blog associated with Education week. Two weeks ago, Millot posted this item on the professionalization of teachers, meaning the movement away from a labor union model to a legal, medical or accounting model where teachers have a legally recognized, self-regulatory body.

I have long thought this to be a much more sensible approach to treating teachers like professionals. However a self-regulatory body that governs the right of teachers to teach in a given state is a difficult step to take and would require significant changes in how teachers are trained, retained, managed and compensated. Millot makes this point:
As a matter of law, professional work involves three key attributes. By these criteria, teaching is no profession, but should be.

The first two are joined at the hip. Members of legally recognized professions owe a special duty of care to their clients – based on their specialized knowledge and expertise. They are personally liable for their decisions, and so enjoy the autonomy necessary to exercise their professional judgment.

Public school teachers have no specific duty to their students beyond assuring their safety. They are not legally responsible for providing their students with what each needs to know and be able to do at grade level (see here). They have a very restricted range of discretion in what they can do for any student, and requirements to follow state, local and school policies that might even make it harder for a kid to learn.

The third attribute is self-regulation. Society makes the practice of many trades a privilege rather than a right via some kind of licensing and/or testing requirement. Barbers, real estate brokers and teachers are licensed based on a test. Lawyers, doctors and accountants are as well, but their exams are devised, administered and scored by a governing body elected by members of that profession. The privilege to practice law, medicine and accounting is granted by these bodies, and only these bodies can withdraw the privilege.

For his error in surgery, a Doctor may be fired from his hospital practice, thrown onto the street by his partners, sued in civil court for malpractice and tried for murder under criminal law. But only his professional body can take away his privilege to practice medicine. This is not true of teachers. They do not control their own licensure or professional discipline.
However, what is interesting is that development of the idea and its impetus will not come from the current crop of teachers nor the teachers making their way through education schools. No, I see the change being driven from without the education establishment, from groups like Teach for America, whose corps members are not beholden to the education establishments myths and beliefs. Whether that comes to pass is another story.

Millot wonders if teacher would be willing to trade automony for an accountability that could be uncomfortable--i.e. professional malpractice. Millot's second question cannot be answered by teachers so easily. To be honest, teaching is not nearly as under paid as one would be led to believe, at least in some parts of the country. (See a post I did over here, about teachers in my home county of Frederick Maryland.) However, with the legally recognized professions, such a medicine and the law, there is potential to make serious funds. But to be real, most lawyers and doctors don't make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year right out of law/medical school. Some do, a lot do, but in reality, most don't. (I don't as an attorney). I think that if teaching became a profession where teachers are able to exercise independent judgment about their students and be capable of providing that student with what they need to succeed, then the compensation will follow.

There was this comment, which I thought to be a brilliant couple of observation:
This is an interesting comment. My sense is that in the end some of the strongest resistance to the idea of teachers as professionals will come from school administrators and governing boards.

Given current school structures, teachers would be more analogous in-house legal staff than to lawyers in a private firm -- though you could imagine teacher-run schools that were similar in structure to private law firms.
First, there will be intense opposition by administrators most directly. I think governing boards, i.e. school boards far less so. But the biggest resistance will come from the very entity designed to "protect" teachers--the unions. Generally professionals are considered independent workers, even if they work at a firm. As such, they are not subjec to the same rules under the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act and unable to unionize. (Some lawyers and doctors can unionize, but their working conditions do not grant them a great deal of autonomy outside of the defined field. Thus doctors on staff at a hospital could unionize, but most don't). So if teachers became a recognized profession, they would have to forgo the collective bargaining rights they currently enjoy and exercised through the union. The power of the union would be greatly diminished and that is unacceptable to the union, despite the fact that teachers as a group might support the idea.

The second observation about the difference between in-house and firm attorneys is interesting. I would like to tackle the "firm" analogy. I think teacher run schools could be very effective or they could be disaster, it all depends on the teachers themselves. There is a lot more to running a school than might appear at first glance. What would be necessary is to hire a professional to run the administrative side of the school. Whether you call that person a principal or a director of operations doesn't matter.

One of the more interesting developments in the legal world of late is the rise of the non-lawyer manager. In the past, law firms were managed by a "managing partner" who often spent more time running the business of the law firm (particularly at larger firms) than being a lawyer. The problem of course is that lawyers are generally not trained to be businessmen. In recent years, there has been a trend amoung some big firms to hire a professional business manager to allow the firms lawyers to actually lawyer as opposed to run the business side. The business manager still answers to the partners or a committee of partners of the firm, but it puts people in management for whom management is their profession rather than their "second hat."

A teacher run school could look the same way, assuming the teachers were professionals. You would have a management committee made up of senior teachers, who among other things manage the schools over all goals, mentor younger teachers, ensure staff developement etc. A business manager or director of operations would see to day to day management matters, i.e. getting the bills paid, getting the lunch, maintenance, security, safety and logistical matters addressed, allowing teachers to actually do their job--teach.

The idea intrigues me a great deal.

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