The Way We Talk: Professionalism

newamericafoundationConor Williams of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation takes on those in the “teacher professionalism” camp of education reform.  In an article sparked by Harvard Education Professor Jal Mehta’s new book and article, “Why American Education Fails: And How Lessons From Abroad Could Improve It”, Williams speculates that the concept of education reform labeled as “teacher professionalism” rather than “teacher accountability” passes the buck by targeting under-performing education certification programs rather than current under-performing teachers.

Those in the “teacher professionalism” camp, such as Mehta, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, and Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation, argue that reforms that focus on improving the programs that prepare new teachers, perhaps by implementing a “bar exam for teachers”, will have a manifold beneficial impact on American education. First, these sorts of reforms are more politically palatable and therefore more likely to actually continue to be implemented. Second, they avoid targeting teachers, most of whom are responsible professionals. As current and new teachers are better trained and it becomes more difficult to enter the teaching profession based on more rigorous professional testing and provisional teaching periods early in teaching careers, the overall level of respect for teachers in the United States will improve, likely also resulting in higher levels of pay. This is turn will lead to better teaching, or so the argument goes, according to Williams.

Williams first attacks the idea of “teacher professionalism” reform because he argues that it actually does what the “teacher accountability” reforms want to do, which is bring more competition-based corporate ideas to school reform. Williams says, “Like market-based reformers who believe that school choice brings competitive pressures to bear on poorly run schools, Mehta argues that prospective teachers will abandon teacher training programs unable to prepare graduates to pass the ‘bar.’ Tougher entry standards will force teacher education programs to put up—or shut down.”

Second, Williams asks for those in the “teacher professionalism” camp to be more specific about the idea of provisional teaching status because many states and districts already employ this practice before teachers can gain full certification and/or tenure.

Third, Williams argues that most Americans already do respect American educators, and he also is dubious, citing the armed services as proof, that respect for professions leads to higher pay.

Finally, Williams worries that the “teacher professionalism” reforms leave out an important element of improving American education:

The biggest weakness for professionalism advocates, however, is that they don’t often engage with the current crop of teachers. Everyone is eager to raise the quality of new teachers—but the truly bedeviling debates stem from other questions: What do we do with today’s low-performing tenured teachers? How can we ensure that all of today’s students get an excellent education from pre-K until college and beyond? These are inescapable questions—and the answers have enormous consequences for students right now. While it’s critical that we prepare a higher-quality teacher corps for the future, we shouldn’t pretend that the professionalism approach also addresses our present needs.

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