Friday, February 03, 2006

Professionalization of Teachers, Part III (Educational Malpractice)

There have been many occaisions in this blog where I have advocated for the professionalization of teachers, treating them like lawyers or doctors, i.e. a self-regulated profession with tough standards and a code of conduct. I have been thinking a great deal about that recently again (in part because I have been studying Professional Responsibility for attorneys in preparation for the bar exam). In the past, I have made a case for treating teachers like a profession, with strict licensure, a high degree of specialized education beyond a bachelor's degree and promise of some future master's degree, and self-regulation. Some of the changes I advocate would be a long time coming, like developing a educational foundation for a "teacher's school" like law or medical school. But the last of my suggestions, teacher self-regulation can occur now.

One of the most significant problems that I see holding teaching back is the lack of a mechanism for instilling self-discipline on teachers. The unions, if they want their members to be treated as professionals, need to have the backbone to call a bad teacher out and demand improvement or departure from the profession. Professions such as attorneys or doctors have a vested interest, that of keeping the faith of the public they serve, in weeding out those who fail to measure up. Admittedly, both professions sometimes do a poor job of weeding out bad actors, but they system does instill an incentive for improvement and adherence to professional standards.

Right now, as far as I can see, the teaching profession has no systemic mechanism for weeding out the bad actors. There is no public mechanism for filing a complaint against a teacher with the teacher's union. One hallmark of the medical and legal professions is the ability for a member of the general public who feels they have been wronged to make a complaint with the regulating body. They can go straight to the court system or the medical society and lodge a complaint that is investigated and the complaintant is kept informed of the investigation.

When a complaint is lodged against a lawyer, for example, it is investigated throughly and if the violation is real, punishments may range from a private letter or censure to public admonishment and even disbarrment for a period of years or even permanently (although in practice a disbarrment for years tends to be permanent). The courts and the bar association take disciplinary matters seriously since there is a need for the public to trust the profession, even if the citizenry does not trust the individual practitioners.

Like the trust and faith we place in the legal and medical professions, we as a society place a great deal of faith and trust in our public school teachers. However, unlike doctors and lawyers, we as consumers of education have very little recourse for a bad actor. We can complain, but those complaints fall on deaf or ineffective ears since generally, principals have no power to fire teacher for incompetence or ineffectiveness, or even for cause, like a criminal conviction.

But, in advocating for their members, which the unions are legally obligated to do, unions regularly plea for professional treatment and professional level pay, i.e. treating teachers like professionals. Fine, but one way to do that is by subjecting your members to disciplinary proceedings administered by the union, according to a publicly adopted and interpreted Code of Conduct. The Bar Associations and the Medical Societies advocate for their members and still discipline them. The two functions are not mutually exclusive and in fact are complementary.

If a complaint is lodged with the teacher's "union" and the complaintant feels as though their concerns were not addressed, in a scenario with a publicly adopted, that is a legislatively adopted, Rules of Professional Conduct for Educators, there would be other mechanisms for enforcing behavior.

The quick among you will know that I am talking about teacher malpractice. Could the scenario I envision lead to teaching malpractice claims? Sure, and it should!!

Now, I know what some people are thinking, "Yeah, a lawyer who wants to sue teachers--that's a big surprise." While I don't like the system because it is ripe for abuse (but there is an independent third party arbiter--namely the courts), the torts system, and malpractice suits specifically, work to ensure a level of quality by defining the kind of behavior, or rather misbehavior, that the public deems unreasonable. (Reasonableness in the legal sense are those action that which an ordinary person in like circumstances would find reasonable). Would a few dozen lawsuits a year help make sure teachers are performing as we the public deem reasonable? You bet. Teachers and teachers unions would then have a very keen interest in making sure its members are acting in the best interest of their customers, and after all, is that not what education is about?

I realize that a cause of action for educational malpractice carries with it a number of serious policy implications, such as malpractice insurance, judicial standards and the all important passage of a code of conduct. Legal and medical professionals can command the pay they get because of the education they endure and the fact that everyday they place their professional careers on the line. One mistake, one oversight can lead to disaster professionally as well as personally. Teachers right now have no such stake in their daily activities.

Therein lies the difference. Demands for being treated like a profession cannot come without some responsibilities as a profession, including the responsibility to act as a profession.

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