Thursday, August 18, 2011

Psychoanalyzing the Politics of Teaching (part 3): the Would-Be Profession

This is the third post in a series about the professional status of teachers. In my last post, I viewed the struggles of the teachers’ unions in the light of teachers’ ongoing and often frustrated struggle for legitimacy as a profession. In this post, I will talk about why that legitimacy has proven so elusive.

Teaching has never been on solid footing as a profession. A professional is a recognized expert, an authority within a particular field. Any field that attains professional status needs at least these three ingredients: specialized knowledge and skills; specialized training; and a system of formal certification, marking mastery of the skill set, completion of the training, and membership in the profession. Without these three ingredients, the professional’s expertise would have no recognizable validity; she would be indistinguishable from a snake-oil salesman. (There are other characteristics of professions that grow naturally out of these three, but these are the essential ingredients.)

Teaching has, for about a hundred years, possessed at least the semblance of all three elements—but only the semblance. There are tests required for teacher certification, but the tests are extremely easy; most well-educated non-teachers could pass them. There is training, but the curriculum and content vary wildly from one training program to another; so, though it may be specialized, it is not specialized in any particular way. The training is also brief, often undemanding, and of dubious practical value to teachers; and you don’t actually need to complete it to begin teaching. Teaching—or good teaching, at least—requires plenty of specialized skills and knowledge, but there’s not much agreement as to what those skills and knowledge are, and no one actually thinks that all or even most teachers possess them.

The Training Problem

The problem goes in two directions. One begins with training: teachers have no common skill-set, because teacher training is minimal and, in most programs, focused on psychology and pedagogical theory, rather than on practical skills. Both psychology and pedagogical theory are subject to continuous revision, so training in them does not produce a consistent, reliable knowledge set. Also, because those fields don’t have direct, practical application, they lead to knowledge, but not to demonstrable expertise. Teachers who seem to be experts at teaching—that is, at interacting with and instructing children—get that way through instinct and job experience, not through formal training

Teacher subject-area training is also weak. The history of graduate education departments—in particular their own parallel quest for legitimacy as academic departments—has lead towards profession-specific knowledge and therefore away from subject-area knowledge; but the lack of strong, consistent subject-area knowledge among teachers has done nothing to help either their public image or their ability to teach effectively. In fact, subject-area knowledge can and should be part of a teacher’s professional expertise; it forms the most explicit basis of her authority in the classroom, and it ought to accord her authority outside of the classroom as well. A good subject-area teacher is someone we can look to for answers to questions in her field, whether we’re adults or children. If my friends have a question about math, for example, they usually ask me, because I’m a math teacher. The fact that they do accords me authority; it makes my profession (or would-be-profession) a source of personal status and worth, as a profession ought to be.

The ascendance of standardized testing has not helped the situation. With the narrowing of instruction to align with state standards, teachers (like their students) have become specialists in content-area knowledge that is jumbled, disconnected and sometimes lacking in relevance outside the peculiarities of their state curriculum. Any ninth grade math teacher in New York State can tell you how to simplify rational expressions, but few of them can tell you what the purpose of rational expressions is, what they describe, why we care about them, or how they relate to the rest of mathematics. A New York State writing teacher can list the five purposes of writing (explain, describe, narrate, persuade, or express feelings) and tell you how to identify each (if you couldn’t figure it out on your own) but does this knowledge have any external validity? Could Philip Roth or Toni Morrison list the five purposes of writing? Could E. B. White or Virginia Woolf have done so?

Ideally, though, the teacher’s subject-area knowledge is not only broad, cohesive, and relevant, it’s also profession-specific. In my years as a math teacher, I’ve learned a lot about math that I didn’t know going in. Some of that was the kind of procedural and topical knowledge that an engineer, physicist, or mathematician might need to know. Much of it, however, was more peculiar to teaching: knowledge about how different mathematical procedures can be described, explained, and interpreted, how they can be illustrated visually, narratively, or through interaction with physical objects, and how they can be exercised through a wide variety of problems. That knowledge is detailed and rich, and it does not follow automatically from general knowledge of procedures and concepts.

The Public Experience Problem

I said the problem goes in two directions, and the other direction begins with the project of education itself. If your doctor sets your broken limb or biopsies that weird spot on your back, you don’t come away thinking you know how to set a limb or biopsy a mole. If your electrician comes by to rewire a power outlet, you don’t decide now you know how to wire a power-outlet. The subject of all these procedures is not you—it’s your arm, or your mole, or your outlet, but it’s not you yourself—so having them done doesn’t teach you to do them. But the subject of education is the person himself, his mind, his character; and therefore being educated gives one strong opinions on how education should be done; and to make matters worse everybody goes to school. The result is that you’d be hard pressed to find an adult in America who doesn’t think he has some insight into how kids should be taught.

And he does. Anyone who’s been to school has valid insight into how education works and how it might be done better. That knowledge is incomplete—it’s based on the experiences of a single individual, attending a handful of schools, and it’s filtered through the distorting lens of childhood memory—but it’s valid knowledge, and the would-be teaching profession will get nowhere if it seeks to establish its legitimacy by disparaging that knowledge. If the teacher is to be accepted as an expert, it will be by developing an understanding of her field coherent enough to incorporate the many conflicting educational philosophies held by the public, and by wielding that expertise with humility and respect for parents’ educational beliefs; unlikely as the former requirement sounds in the current polarized atmosphere, I do believe it’s possible.

These two forces—the inadequacy of teacher training and the inherent validity of lay knowledge in the field of education—have left the teaching profession stranded in limbo, credited with good intentions, accused of incompetence, saddled with massive responsibility, and granted little or no authority over its field. The profession has often responded defensively—as seen, for example, in the efforts during the 1970s and '80s to invalidate all forms of parental instruction, especially in literacy, through a supposed, but unconvincing monopoly on pedagogical knowledge; as seen again in the rigid anti-reformist positions that the teachers’ unions took during the late 90s and early 2000s; as observed last post in Ms. Weingarten’s slightly paranoid comment on the effort to reduce homework loads. All of these reactions have been misguided, of course, in that they have failed to address the fundamental issue: the lack of any consistent body of useful, established knowledge among teachers. They are attempts to gain the status of professionals without the actual expertise, and they have resulted, ironically, in a worsening of teachers’ public image and a more adamant denial of their professional authority.

The lack of consistent expertise or acknowledged authority among teachers has effects far beyond the frustration it causes teachers themselves. In my next post, I will argue that the dubious professional status of teachers impedes the entire project of education reform in America.


  1. I think your post accurate captures the public perception of the "problem" with teachers. It's just that the public is demonstrably wrong.

    A professional is a recognized expert, an authority within a particular field. Any field that attains professional status needs at least these three ingredients: specialized knowledge and skills; specialized training; and a system of formal certification, marking mastery of the skill set, completion of the training, and membership in the profession.

    Teaching has all of those. I say this despite agreeing with your characterization, for the most part, of each component.

    1. Teaching does have specialized knowledge and skills. Just as not all beginning lawyers are good in the courtroom or deposing witnesses, so too are most beginning teachers inexperienced at classroom management and lesson planning. Law schools don't cover courtroom tactics or depositions at all; ed schools at least try to cover classroom management and lesson planning. Sure, ed schools disagree. So would law schools if they had to define the elements of effective courtroom behavior.

    2. Single subject (high school) teacher certification tests have been quite challenging for 20 years or more. The Praxis II and CSETs are comparable to SAT Subject tests, and high scores are about as difficult to get. Just as lawyers pass the bar by their fingernails or a mile, so too do teachers pass their certification tests by a little or a lot. Many highly educated non-teachers could get a passing score in one test or or maybe two, but relatively few could get a high score on any. (I've gotten very high scores on 9 CSET Subtests, and middle scores on one, and very few people can say that about three credentialed subjects, so I speak with some authority).

    Elementary school credentialing was basically non-existent until a decade ago, and the decline in teacher quality from 1970 to 2000 was severe. However, in 2003, most states instituted a much more difficult qualifying test, requiring a (genuine) tenth grade knowledge in all subjects.

    But then, no one really expects an elementary or middle school teacher to be an expert in a given subject, unlike those at the high school level. What they are "experts" at is understanding kids and having a reasonable level of well-rounded academic knowledge.

    (It's interesting to note that the tremendous increase in teacher content knowledge requirements over a decade have done nothing to increase scores. Don't know what that means, though.)

    3. Membership in the profession: oh, come now. This one has always been a given. Teachers have to be credentialed by the state, just as lawyers and doctors do.

    So teachers have all three components. I agree that most people look upon the components with disdain, but the disdain comes first, the components are just a convenient target.

  2. Part II (lordy, I write long posts here. Sorry.)

    I've just pointed out the parts of lawyering that aren't taught in schools, that are an essential element of lawyering. But at least lawyers meet the "profession" criteria. Computer experts do not. Most of the famous technologists are college dropouts (Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Wozniak, although he finished his degree later, Ellison), and until Google came along and demanded comp sci majors for everyone, the field was notorious for valuing demonstrated ability over field of college study (I was in tech for years, ten of them as a tech consultant, with an English degree).

    Business? The MBA? Come on, let's all laugh. The MBA is basically an opportunity to review some case material and network. And that's for people who bother to get an MBA. There are people making millions in the financial industry, as well as thousands of government analysts deciding our policy, who have a BA or BS.

    Nursing, on the other hand, is a profession. Would you say it's more highly regarded than that of a securities analyst? I wouldn't.

    What's my point? Your article accurately captures the public perception of teaching, because the public thinks that teachers are failures. The failures, they think, are caused by all these problems that various experts have come up with as a cause. Yet, as I pointed out in earlier comments, all the supposed problems with teaching were inherent to the profession for generations, and we've made vast strides in "fixing" these problems in the past 30 years. And I think there's a good case to be made that all the "problems" can be found in all sorts of other professions held in much higher regard, while the "high standards" haven't helped some careers, like nursing, to be highly regarded or highly paid.

    The entire conversation about saving public education, about the terrible problem of low quality teachers, is based on a faulty premise. Until we get to that point, we'll maunder around talking about the wrong things.

    I want to be clear that I don't think teachers are noble public servants, nor do I think they are underpaid. I think they run the gamut from lousy to superb, just as they do in the legal, medical, and nursing professions. But I think all our so-called certainties about teaching (more professionalism, more training, more whatever) are based on the perception that we're failing to educate our population, and that's simply not true.

  3. "Elementary school credentialing was basically non-existent until a decade ago." I beg to differ. Once the 2-year normal school preparation path was left behind in about the 1950's (with grandfathering for those who were trained earlier), elementary ed teachers had to acquire a degree in that subject or an el ed credential on top of a different major. In most states, they also had to pass a laughably easy test. There was credentialing, but it permitted almost everyone who could pass some not-difficult courses to become a teacher. The tests have become somewhat more demanding, but many of the college courses have not. Of course, there must be exceptions. But out of the many hundreds of teacher preparation programs in the US, the proportion that have a rigorous curriculum and high standards is way too low. Elementary school teachers don't need to be huge contente experts, but they do need to be well educated and aware of research-based instructional methods, and many are not.

  4. What you describe is what I would consider "basically non-existent" (given that I was asserting teachers did have some credentialing).

    Why should the college courses be more demanding? There's really not all that much to teach about teaching. If they can pass the content test then they are "reasonably" well-educated, and as for "research-based instructional methods"--well, let's all laugh. There's no such thing.

    Remember, too, that before and after the changes we're describing, elementary school teachers continued to do the same solid job of educating middle and high income kids. Apparently, "researched-based instructional methods" (oh, lord, there I go laughing again) are something that's not necessary for teaching everyone, just those who we are tasked with teaching more than they can effectively learn.

    But my point here is that teaching *did* have some form of credentialing, weak as it was for elementary teachers for many years.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Cal and Anonymous. This is some useful data on the history of teacher credentialing. My expertise is in pedagogy, and my knowledge of education history is not nearly as thorough. It's nice to have well-informed commenters weighing in on the blog.

    Anonymous, I agree with most of your analysis. Unlike Cal, I do not find the idea of research-based instructional methods laughable (Cal, it's not clear to me why you find it so; just because you haven't encountered them doesn't mean they're a joke, does it?) but I do think the phrase needs some refinement, specifically with regard to the word "research."

    I'm skeptical, for example, that quantitative research methods can yield useful information on instructional techniques. A quantitative study needs a clearly defined method, applied consistently to a test group. I don't think that effective instructional techniques can be defined narrowly enough nor implemented consistently enough, from teacher to teacher, to be susceptible to this kind of evaluation.

    Effective instructional techniques are hard to isolate and to pin down, but that doesn't mean they cannot be researched. Doug Lemov has done some fantastic qualitative research on good teaching practices; I've been trained in his techniques, and I found them insightful and effective.

    The questions we're dealing with here (what constitutes effective teaching methods? How do we identify them? How do we describe them to others?) are central to the problem of improving teacher education. I intend to write more about this in future posts.

  6. Max, some subjects, at some grade levels, do have a research basis. Direct Instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics for beginning readersis one example. But the older the students are, and the more content-based the subject is, the less research has been done (or, as you point out, even could be done).

  7. Hi Anonymous,

    You're right that there's more scholarly agreement regarding certain pedagogical questions in the early grades, but I think the example you provide shows the difficulty of applying quantitative pedagogical research to actual classroom teaching.

    I haven’t read the quantitative research on early literacy instruction myself, but I have gathered that there’s general agreement on the need for some direct instruction in phonemic awareness. This does not, however, tell us what portion of students’ time should be spent on such instruction. My understanding is that research has shown only that pure whole-language instruction with no phonics component is ineffective, but that a mixture of whole language and phonics may still be preferable to either approach on its own.

    The research also doesn’t tell us how direct phonics instruction should be implemented. Phonemic awareness can be taught in many ways: through reading real words, either in isolation or in sentences or stories; as an isolated exercise with nonsense syllables (as is done in some No-Excuses schools I’ve observed); with the use of specialized strategies, like “tapping it out;” etc. I learned the basics of reading from my parents and from the teachers at my Montessori preschool, but my instruction was grounded in direct instruction in phonemic awareness: I learned to read by sounding words out. I’ve also observed highly scripted phonics interventions at contemporary charter schools that look nothing like the instruction I received but still meet the criteria of giving direct instruction in phonemic awareness.

    The conclusion that early readers need direct instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness provides a good demonstration of the problems with quantitative, experimental research in pedagogical methods: it tells us something so broad as to have a thousand possible implementations. It may help to resolve the literacy wars, but it does not tell real teachers how to teach.

    I suspect, too, that hardline whole-language proponents would argue that mainstream research on reading instruction has relied on ineffective and adulterated versions of whole-language instruction and has therefore obtained invalid results. In the murk of pedagogy, there will always be room for plenty of doubt.

  8. Here's a thought: is it possible that the recent "attacks on teachers" are somehow just a symptom of an increase in teacher status? For comparison (though on a totally different level), consider how a number of aspiring presidential candidates have adopted anti-gay platforms. Is this not in response to the real successes of the gay rights movement? In both cases, there is always a certain aspect of society that will react to changes in the status quo.

    Just a thought, at any rate, though I did find a recent poll that provides some support.

    "Nearly three out of four of those surveyed said they had confidence and trust in teachers today, and two out of three said they would be in favor of their child becoming a public school teacher. It wasn’t just their own children they wanted to become teachers—they wanted the highest-achieving high school students to be recruited for the classroom."

  9. Max, with a few exceptions, research on instructional methods does, as you note, fall short of being able to name the precise actions a teacher should take in order to teach a subject or skill most effectively. It seems to be most helpful in identifying the hierarchy or order of content/skills that needs to be followed, plus some specific instructional rules (make one point at a time, do some reinforcement in various ways, check to see if children understand, have them use the skill or content in a naturalistic or interest-based way so they'll understand why they're learning it, etc). Good teachers either know these rules before they start, or learn them very quickly. Good teachers are also willing to learn from the experience of those who went before, and understand the importance of structure in a curriculum.

  10. Thanks for your comments, Brainopennow.

    I think what you’re seeing here are two different kinds of status. On the one hand, we have public perception: the American public purports to hold teachers in high regard. (Although, I don’t find the number of people who would be in favor their children becoming public school teachers so impressive. Do we think that only two out of three people would be in favor of their child becoming a doctor?) On the other hand, as the article you linked to points out and as I discussed at length in my second post on the professional status of teachers, we have a federal government that is enacting policies that fly in the face of long-held union goals and undermine teacher autonomy; on the state and local level, we are seeing much more active campaigns to vilify teachers, to revoke their unions’ bargaining rights, and to shut the unions—and thus the teachers themselves—out of all decisions about education policy.

    What’s interesting is that much of the public policy that, I have argued, undermines teacher autonomy is carried out amidst rhetoric about the value and nobility of teachers themselves. The disconnect is probably not exactly conscious. I doubt that politicians see the debates over merit pay and high stakes testing in the terms that I do, and they probably do not see the conflict between those policies and teachers’ professional status. They don’t see it, I believe, because they have never considered what it would look like to have a professionalized teaching force. I’ll talk in future installments of this series about what I think that would look like.

  11. Agreed, Anonymous. That seems to be the general state of things.

    I do think, though, that qualitative, observational research, especially when carried out first hand by teachers and teachers-in-training, or when documented with the aid of video recording, can yield useful ideas about instructional and managerial techniques. Lemov's Taxonomy, which I mentioned above, is a good example, but it seems to me there's plenty more work do be done in this area.