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.