On the face of it, you wouldn’t think evaluating teachers would be a terribly emotional issue. After all, professionalism implies evaluation and transparency on a regular and consistent basis. Doctors answer to tissue committees and lawyers are scrutinized by their colleagues daily. Why is teacher evaluation so fraught with emotion?
Recent surveys indicate that teachers feel under siege. Back-to-school articles, such as this one in the [Newark] New Jersey Star-Ledger), tell stories of teacher anxiety, especially over evaluation.
Teaching has always been an idiosyncratic profession. It lacks an agreed upon core of essential texts. Public school teachers are civil servants. Our public school system is radically decentralized. Professional standards tend to be local. Most public schools are governed by local school boards of non-educators. And significantly, teachers lack autonomy in their work, the signature of professional status.
In 1975, sociologist Dan Lorie published a landmark study called Schoolteacher in which he famously claimed that teaching was a semi-profession, meaning it lacked the criteria for professional status. Is teaching a craft? Is it paid public service? Or are teachers really white collar workers?
These questions are not idle. If teaching is less than a profession, then programs that compare teaching to work in the Peace Corp seem creditable. If teaching is about conforming to union rules, then it is hard to think of teachers as fully professional. If teaching is a craft, should we change our expectations of teachers?
What we do know is that in countries such as Finland, where teaching is treated as a genuine profession, student achievement soars. Pasi Sahberg in his book Finnish Lessons says this about teaching in Finland:
Today, when celebrating its national achievements, Finland publically recognizes the value of its teachers and implicitly trusts their professional insights and judgments regarding schooling. Stated quite plainly, without excellent teachers and a modern teacher education system, Finland’s current international educational achievement would not have been impossible.
In Finland there is no doubt that teachers are professionals. Gaining admittance to a teacher preparation program is competitive—only one in 10 succeeds. The course of study to become a teacher is rigorous, and once an individual is hired he or she is immediately put in charge of his or her classroom.
How different than the current policy trajectory in the United States. We appear to be on a path to de-professionalize teaching. Implicitly we require teachers to teach to the test and evaluate them on student test scores. We seem eager to replace teachers with computers. We applaud Ivy League short timers as heroes. We revere studies that appear to be meaningful (i.e. students do better with good teachers) but resist actually paying teachers a professional wage. We demonize teacher unions.
In short, we are missing the point big time. If we want to liberate learning for all students, we need to liberate teachers and institute policies that professionalize teaching. To do that we need to dramatically overhaul the curricula of schools of education, demand excellence from teaching candidates, provide professional autonomy to teachers and reward success in the classroom with more than a pat on the back or a token bonus.
These are straightforward ideas, not original to me. Unfortunately, we suffer from political paralysis. Let’s get over it. Let’s be leaders in professionalizing teaching.
Photo Credit: Oklahoma City Public Schools