Published Online: September 15, 1999
Published in Print: September 15, 1999, as 'The Not-Quite Profession'

'The Not-Quite Profession'

The century was young when the activist Margaret Haley dared to speak from the floor of the National Education Association's convention in Detroit, challenging the assertions made by its president. As William T. Harris cited statistics showing public education to be flourishing under capitalism in 1901, Haley begged to differ. Teachers, she complained, were grossly underpaid.

"Pay no attention to what the teacher down there has said," Harris told the assembly, "for I take it she is a grade teacher, just out of her schoolroom at the end of school year, worn out, tired, and hysterical."

Haley, an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Federation, was undeterred. Three years later, in St. Louis, she delivered a powerful speech at the NEA meeting arguing that teachers should join the union movement. Salaries, she said, were "wholly inadequate," teachers had insecure tenures and no provisions for their old age, and they faced "overwork in overcrowded schoolrooms."

In addition to those concerns, Haley touched on a broader theme. The tendency toward "factoryizing education," she warned, made teachers automatons "whose duty it is to carry out mechanically and unquestioningly the ideas and orders of those clothed with the authority of position."

Over the next nine decades, teachers would continue to struggle with the issues so forcefully delineated by Haley, the first woman ever to speak from the floor of an NEA convention.

As teaching moved from a short-term occupation--primarily for young, unmarried women--to a career, activists won pension benefits and job protections. Class sizes have become dramatically smaller than the typical 50- to 60-pupil classrooms common in the 1940s and 1950s. Teachers now earn middle-class incomes, although less than many similarly educated workers, and are among the most heavily unionized of all employees.

But teachers have not won the autonomy and control over their own work that Margaret Haley, John Dewey, and other reformers sought in the name of making schools democratic institutions equipped to prepare students to live in a democracy.

For her efforts, in fact, Haley was blasted as "a fiend in petticoats," write David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot, who describe Haley's lively exchange with the NEA president in Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 1820-1980, published in 1982.

Teaching, both in Haley's day and now, is bedeviled by special circumstances that have militated against efforts to make it a true profession.

The status of teaching is profoundly affected by the sheer number of practitioners (more than 3 million), the custodial aspects of the job, and the widespread perception that "no agonistic struggle" is involved in becoming a teacher, the scholars Gerald Grant and Christine E. Murray write in their book published this year, Teaching in America: The Slow Revolution.

That teaching is also a predominantly female occupation, historians and sociologists agree, has colored virtually every aspect of the field.

"The perceptions that teachers were 'mothering,' or that women teachers were only marking time until marriage, had unfortunate effects for the image of professionalism," Geraldine Jon‡ich Clifford writes in a chapter of American Teachers: Histories of a Profession at Work, published in 1989.

While members of other professions gained control by laying claim to specific bodies of knowledge, the idea of "professionalism" in teaching evolved much differently. What characterized a professional teacher, Grant and Murray write, was altruistic service, natural ability, and virtuous womanhood.

Americans' reluctance to tax themselves to pay teachers more and their attitudes about both working with children and intellectualism further complicate teachers' status.

"Teaching is too intellectual to be worthy of respect in a society that has an anti-intellectual cast to it and is suspicious of impractical work," says David F. Labaree, a professor of education at Michigan State University. "Teachers also are way too familiar and too visible, and what they know seems to be all too common."

Still, over the century, teaching has gained some of the trappings of a profession: standards for licensing, a national accreditation organization, and a system for advanced certification of outstanding teachers. In the process, the requirements for teachers' initial academic preparation and continuing professional development have mushroomed.

But today, it remains what the noted teacher-educator John I. Goodlad has called "the not-quite profession."

The 'Woman Peril'

By 1900--as immigration, urbanization, and westward expansion produced rapidly growing student populations--nearly three-fourths of the nation's teachers were women. Thirty years earlier, when reliable state and national statistics on teachers' gender first became available, two-thirds of teachers were women.

What scholars call the "feminization" of teaching represented a turnabout from earlier times. In Colonial America, teachers were overwhelmingly men, tutoring or teaching in private homes or schools operated for a fee. Most were young and didn't teach for long, moving on to higher-status professions such as the ministry or law.

But the growth of America's system of free public education, and particularly the rise of city school systems, attracted young women to teaching. It was a respectable choice for modestly educated women hoping to marry who could earn modest sums in exchange for their labors.

As states began to assert greater control over teacher education and licensing, a process that began in the mid-19th century, more and more regulations made teaching unattractive to men. In most cities, they could earn far more with their backs, in steel mills or factories, than in a job that required increasing amounts of formal preparation.

"While a stint of teaching might buy a woman a trousseau," Clifford writes, "the same experience could not provide most young men with the means to marry and establish a household."

At the same time, she notes, male administrators and college professors debated the "woman peril" in teaching, fearful that women would drive out men altogether and make inroads into their own ranks.

Along with the feminization of teaching came paternalistic rules governing teachers' lives. Job contracts were highly specific and forbade all sorts of personal behavior, including socializing with men, going out alone in the evening, and marrying. Some teachers were told how to dress and wear their hair.

"Teachers were surrounded by prohibitions, some by contract, others by custom--no drinking, no dancing or card-playing where the community attitude was against it, no 'gallivantin' around,' no slang. ... [W]e wore ruffled thing-a-mabobs to conceal our maidenly forms," wrote Rosa Schreurs Jennings, who taught in Iowa at the turn of the century.

Jennings began teaching in the 1890s after completing 16 weeks at the Iowa State Normal School, founded in 1876. Like other country teachers, she boarded with families as she taught in one-room schoolhouses, writes Mary Hurlbut Cordier in her 1992 book Schoolwomen of the Prairies and Plains. The tradition came to be known as "boarding 'round."

The additional requirements Jennings faced for keeping her license--fulfilled by attending normal courses or summer teachers' institutes--were typical of states' efforts to upgrade their teaching forces.

By 1910, however, only 5 percent of the nation's teachers had more than a high school education. Many teachers with the equivalent of 8th grade educations taught in rural schools for a few short years before marrying and letting other young women have a go at controlling rowdy farm boys.

'Triumph of Credentials'

Unprecedented teacher shortages after the First World War prodded states and districts to act to improve the conditions of teaching and raise professional requirements to enter the classroom.

Until the mid-1800s, states did not exercise significant authority over who taught. Instead, licensure was in the hands of local authorities or teacher-certification agencies, which gave permission to teach on the basis of examinations. But the growth of state education departments gave rise to centralized standards for teaching.

By 1911, 15 states issued teacher certificates; another 18 set regulations and generated questions for examinations, though they were corrected by county authorities, who issued certificates.

Nevertheless, when faced with the need to hire teachers, states and districts lowered their standards and granted permits to people otherwise unqualified to teach, a course some continue to take today.

At the end of the war, complaints about the qualifications and shortage of teachers were rampant. Low salaries, lack of status, and the military buildup that drew male teachers into the armed forces had combined to force a crisis.

In 1920, Harry W. Rockwell, the president of the Buffalo Normal School in New York, complained bitterly about the plight of teachers in his state. His address, printed in the May issue of The American School Board Journal under the headline "Normal Schools and the Teacher Shortage," was billed as an accurate picture of conditions typical across the country.

The state's 10 normal schools, he wrote, had fewer than half the students they had in 1916. With poor salaries, few people wanted to teach. Rockwell was outraged that a popular, recently deceased Buffalo high school principal had earned $1,000 a year less than a locomotive engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

"It is evident that it is more profitable to 'mind a train' than to 'train a mind,' " he wrote.

Of the 600,000 teaching positions in the United States, Rockwell reported, 60,000 were either vacant or held by "teachers of very inferior qualifications." Only one-fifth of teachers had graduated from high school and a normal school or college.

In response to such alarms, policymakers raised salaries, instituted tenure provisions, relaxed barriers to married women teachers, and adopted uniform-salary schedules to reduce what Michael W. Sedlak, a professor of the history of education at Michigan State University, calls "whimsical" reward systems.

And education leaders argued successfully for states to raise certification standards for elementary teachers as a way to improve the professional status of teaching.

Only 10 states required four years of higher education for secondary teachers in 1920, and none required elementary teachers to possess more than a normal-school education.

"Providing instructors for the ever-expanding population of students had made it difficult to improve the educational qualifications of teachers much beyond the pace of the population in general," Sedlak writes in American Teachers.

States' efforts paid off, and standards marched steadily upward, even during a teacher surplus in the Depression-racked 1930s. Teachers were no longer simply interviewed or tested by local authorities, a practice that invited nepotism and patronage, but licensed on the basis of their professional preparation.

In fact, the basic model for licensing--or what Sedlak calls "the triumph of credentials"--was firmly fixed in place for the next half-century.

"Historically," he says, "standards have been raised most aggressively during times of relative shortage."

Early Activism

Teachers' low status and poor pay during the early part of the century captured the attention of activists such as Margaret Haley. She also campaigned vigorously against the trend toward "scientific management" that was standardizing all aspects of schooling.

To gain a voice, Haley joined the labor movement. The Chicago Teachers Federation was a founding local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which was organized in 1912 and affiliated with the American Federation of Labor in 1916.

In contrast to the AFT's labor orientation, the National Education Association was explicitly a professional association. And when it came to teachers' issues, the NEA was asleep at the switch. Dominated by male professors and administrators, the NEA had some 30 departments concerned with administration, curriculum, teacher education, and even audio-visual instruction.

The NEA's department of classroom teachers was not formed until 1913--late for an association founded in 1857, according to ea: The First Hundred Years, The Building of the Teaching Profession, by Edgar B. Wesley, who was commissioned to write the organization's history in 1957.

Unlike other branches of the association, the department had no membership rolls and no income. But every NEA member who was a classroom teacher below the college level automatically belonged.

The explanation for the association's delay in embracing teachers' issues, Wesley wrote, had to do with the second-class status of women. Since women weren't guaranteed the right to vote until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the political leverage of the majority of the teaching force was limited.

While the NEA passed various resolutions calling for higher salaries, "for more than half a century it did little to secure them," according to Wesley.

"The educational leaders assumed that the building of a profession took precedence over problems of the personal welfare of teachers; that once the profession was established, teachers would naturally achieve status, security, and dignity," Wesley explained. By "profession," Wesley meant the entire enterprise of public education, with its trained administrators and their theories of curriculum, pedagogy, and supervision.

But teachers weren't content to wait. Classroom teachers' organizations had begun to emerge in states around 1910, according to Education in the States: Development Since 1900, a 1969 report by the Council of Chief State School Officers. The "classroom-teacher movement" caused state associations to start paying more attention to teachers' welfare.

Haley, who was also a member of the NEA, helped draft what Wesley called "vigorous" NEA resolutions denouncing teacher-rating scales and calling for the establishment of advisory councils of teachers to give expert advice to superintendents and school boards.

In Chicago, Haley successfully took utility companies to court for failure to pay their school taxes. She and Ella Flagg Young, who was serving as Chicago's superintendent of schools in 1909, argued for the creation of teacher councils to counter the increasing weight of the administrative hierarchies that relegated teachers to the bottom of the heap.

"Haley is really central in trying to define teaching as work, but also work that has a professional aspect," says Kate Rousmaniere, an associate professor of educational leadership at Miami University of Ohio.

Chicago's teacher councils faded when Young's historic superintendency--she was the first woman to head a big-city school system--ended in 1915. But similar panels proliferated in other big cities after that time, only to dissipate in the 1920s. Superintendents and building administrators were much more concerned with using the councils to head off teachers' attempts to unionize, scholars agree, than they were in giving them a legitimate vehicle to make their concerns known.

While the NEA remained a conservative organization, it hired a woman, Charl Williams, a former Tennessee teacher and administrator, to travel the country to recruit new members, Rousmaniere notes. The NEA's research department, established in 1922, also tackled issues of vital interest to classroom teachers, including working conditions, salaries, and school finance.

Teachers Across Time

1906
National Education Association (founded in 1857) chartered by Congress as a nonprofit, charitable, tax-exempt organization.

1910
Ella Flagg Young, superintendent of Chicago public schools, elected first woman president of NEA.

1912
American Federation of Teachers founded.

1920
NEA forms Legislative Commission, which presses for federal aid to schools and a U.S. Department of Education with a secretary in president's Cabinet.

1926
Teachers College, Columbia University, abandons undergraduate programs in education in favor of advanced professional training of educational leaders.

1932
Willard Waller, professor of sociology at University of Nebraska, publishes classic The Sociology of Teaching, describing teachers as hired hands who must do the community's bidding to keep their jobs.

1933
First advisory council on teacher education and certification created in Kentucky.

1940
First National Teacher Examination licensing test administered.

1946
Teachers in Connecticut, Minnesota, and New York go on strike.

1948
American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education formed.

1954
National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education established.

1955
Tenure laws protecting teachers are in place in 32 states.

1966
NEA merges with American Teachers' Association, whose members are African-American.

1972
NEA-PAC, National Education Association's political action committee, endorses first candidates for seats in U.S. House and Senate.

1974
Merger talks between National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers break off.

1975
Dan C. Lortie publishes Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, finding that teaching occupies "a special but shadowed social standing" in America.

1976
NEA endorses first presidential candidate--Democrat Jimmy Carter, who pledges to create an Education Department.

1984
In wake of critical 1983 federal report on education, A Nation at Risk, dozens of states begin implementing teacher-testing programs.

1990
Teach for America launched to recruit young liberal-arts graduates to teach for two years. Advocates of formal preparation charge program doesn't offer enough training.

1996
National Commission on Teaching & America's Future releases influential report, "What Matters Most," arguing for policy changes to ensure a caring, competent, and qualified teacher in every classroom.

1998
Delegates to NEA's annual Representative Assembly resoundingly reject guidelines for merging with American Federation of Teachers.

New Salary Schedules

On the local level, teachers' associations joined with school administrators to ask state legislators for relief from property-tax limitations that thwarted their efforts to raise salaries, according to Education in the States. They also began to fight for what they called "equal pay for equal work."

Salary schedules typically paid teachers based on their years of experience, gender, race, and grade level. Whites earned more than blacks, while secondary school teachers--who typically were men and better educated--were paid more than female elementary teachers.

In 1921, Denver and Des Moines, Iowa, became the first cities to introduce single-salary schedules that paid all teachers according to years of experience and academic preparation, eliminating discriminatory practices. By 1950, according to Allan Odden, an expert on teacher compensation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, nearly all urban districts had shifted to similar salary schedules. Such schedules--objective, measurable, and not subject to administrative whim--remain the prevailing practice nearly 50 years later.

State teachers' associations also began helping their members on another front: They increasingly began to provide legal defense and to advocate for tenure protection. By 1945, 38 states had tenure laws, which offer teachers procedural guarantees against arbitrary dismissal.

Despite such activism, the NEA leadership promoted membership in the association as "a demonstration of professional behavior," while it considered membership in militant, union-style organizations unprofessional, Grant and Murray write in their book.

Such attitudes prevailed. By 1925, the NEA had 150,100 members, while the AFT claimed only 11,000. The AFT's early organizing activities were stifled by the prevailing anti-labor sentiment, Rousmaniere says, and then by the Great Depression.

During the 1930s and 1940s, moreover, the AFT's leaders were caught up in a struggle with Communists within their ranks for control of the union. The bitter internal battles--which eventually resulted in the 1941 expulsions of the New York City and Philadelphia affiliates--"almost totally diverted the attention of the union from the everyday problems of teachers that were deepening as the Depression wore on," Wayne J. Urban, a professor of history and educational policy studies at Georgia State University, writes in American Teachers.

Black Teachers' Plight

The surplus of teachers caused by widespread unemployment during the Depression allowed states to continue raising standards for entrance into the classroom.

The Depression also brought about "a phenomenal change" in the composition of the teaching force, according to Education in the States.

While a declining birthrate caused a drop in elementary school attendance, youth unemployment contributed to a rapid growth in secondary school enrollment. The proportion of high school instructors in the teaching force grew from 25 percent in 1930 to 35 percent by 1945, and the number of men in teaching climbed with those increases at the secondary level.

Some of that growth in the ranks of male teachers may have been due to the firing of married women teachers, a policy that many districts followed during the Depression to make room for men who were seen as their families' chief breadwinners.

Hard times also underscored the abysmal conditions facing black teachers in the South, described by Linda M. Perkins in American Teachers as "abbreviated school years, starvation salaries, inadequate curricula, and inferior buildings and equipment."

Compounding the problems, rural black teachers themselves tended to be poorly educated. A 1930 study found that 39 percent of all black teachers in the South had not earned a high school diploma, while 58 percent had studied less than two years beyond high school--the usual minimum for teaching elementary school at the time--and only 12 percent were college graduates, Perkins writes.

The average annual salary for black teachers in the United States was just $360--or about one-third to one-half of what white teachers earned.

In contrast to the South, major Northern cities with black high schools attracted black educators with outstanding credentials. Regardless of their educational levels, black men and women could find work as teachers in segregated schools when few other jobs were open to them. In the black community, in fact, "teaching and preaching" were the two primary occupations open to educated people.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began a campaign in 1936 to eradicate salary differences between black and white teachers in 15 Southern states. By the end of 1941, it had won half the suits it had filed on behalf of black teachers, Perkins writes.

They could not turn to the local teachers' associations for help. Local and state chapters of the National Education Association barred blacks as members in the South, although the national organization never had racial restrictions on membership. In 11 Southern states, black teachers formed their own organizations, which made up the American Teachers' Association.

The two organizations formed a joint committee in 1940 to try to improve the status of black educators in the national association, according to the Nea Handbook. Among other measures, the committee drafted policies by which black teachers who were members of the ATA could serve as delegates to the NEA's Representative Assembly. It also worked with publishers to identify textbook authors, editors, and consultants who were free of racial bias, and it studied the health problems of black children.

In 1966, the NEA and the ATA merged--an event commemorated annually at the NEA's Human and Civil Rights Awards Dinner.

Speaking Up

Continued dismal conditions for most teachers prompted the NEA to greater action in their behalf at the outbreak of World War II. To crusade for improvements, association leaders created the loftily named National Commission for the Defense of Democracy Through Education.

Donald DuShane, the president of the association, described the conditions of the time: "classes overcrowded ... criticism rampant ... when charges are made, there is no method to meet them ... there is no one to speak for the profession ... it is just as important to defend democracy thru [sic] the schools as it is to defend democracy thru [sic] the army or armament."

The commission campaigned for higher salaries, academic freedom, and tenure protection and "investigated individuals and organizations who were critical of public schools," wrote Wesley, the NEA historian.

For example, in 1944, the commission publicly rebuked Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York for illegally interfering with the city's board of education. It also expelled the superintendent of the Chicago public schools from the NEA, Wesley wrote, after declaring the city's schools "to be the worst educational situation in the United States."

In 1942, the NEA established the Kate Frank Fund, named for a teacher in Muskogee, Okla., who was discharged by the school board, apparently for her role in exposing financial irregularities in the district. Frank was reinstated after a vigorous defense by the association.

"Teachers all over the nation became aware of the growing power and influence of the NEA," Wesley concluded. Its membership skyrocketed from 271,847 in 1944 to 659,190 in 1956.

At the local level, teachers began to take to the streets with their grievances. Teachers in Norwalk, Conn.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and St. Paul, Minn., went on strike in 1946. They were protesting the effects of the rampant inflation that accompanied the end of wartime price controls, Georgia State University's Urban notes. The walkouts shocked the public and many teachers themselves, but were a harbinger of more to come.

Indeed, 1946 was a nadir of sorts for the profession. The war had drained the schools of teachers, creating another severe shortage.

A Reader's Digest article proclaimed, "America's classroom crisis is no joke." With the average annual salary for principals and teachers less than $2,000, classrooms were losing talent as teachers fled to take better-paying jobs as waitresses, taxi drivers, and auto-plant workers.

Salaries had sunk so low, the article posited, that teachers were losing the time-honored community respect that had always taken the sting out of relatively poor pay.

As a result of the shortages, it said, more than 2 million children between the ages of 6 and 15 didn't attend school in 1945. And while the NEA advised that classes should never be larger than 35 pupils, they sometimes exceeded 50 or 60 children.

Besides half starving teachers, the Reader's Digest article said, "we also like to bully them. No group of women outside religious orders is asked to live as prim a life as the teacher in an American small town."

Attacks on Qualifications

In contrast to the 1940s, which saw rumblings of teacher unrest, the 1950s proved a relatively quiet decade in labor relations, despite the strains of the postwar baby boom. Schools were consumed with just finding room for the children arriving at their doors. It was an era of crowded classrooms, split shifts, and feverish construction.

At the same time, the composition of the teaching force changed markedly, Clifford observes in American Teachers. Remaining prohibitions against married teachers were dropped; there were simply too many students needing instruction to send married women home.

Still, the proportion of men in teaching grew from one in five in 1940 to one in three by 1968, Clifford writes. The new crop of young male teachers also elevated the general educational level of the profession, according to Education in the States, as the men were more likely to pursue graduate work.

Those young men, that Council of Chief State School Officers history says, were "activist in outlook," comfortable with collective bargaining in private employment, and impatient with the "public relations approach" to teacher-related issues.

Americans, who had flocked to the cities in the early 1900s, began to flee them. As the suburbs grew, they attracted a well-educated, well-to-do class that owed its success to education. Those same people, however, were quick to bite the hand that had fed them. Public discontent with the quality of schools became a common theme in the 1950s--and teachers a prime target, as they remain today.

A number of stinging commentaries about teachers and teacher education during the 1950s raised or underscored affluent parents' concerns about teachers' qualifications. Books such as Quackery in the Public Schools by Albert Lynd, a former school board member, drew wide attention.

Many such critics were inflamed by the lack of rigor of the so-called life-adjustment courses of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which stressed everyday skills and social relationships at the expense of academics.

"The parents saw teachers as having less education in total, and certainly the academic rigor of teachers' education was perceived as less than that of an M.B.A. or a dentist or a social worker or any of the other white-collar, middle-class fields," Michigan State's Sedlak says.

Rise of Unionism

The next decade proved to be a watershed for the nation's teaching force.

Teachers' discontent with their salaries and lack of respect boiled over in the 1960s in a wave of militancy that forever changed the image of the profession. Collective bargaining did not come to teachers without a struggle and a great deal of internal controversy.

In 1952, the historian Marjorie Murphy writes in her 1990 book Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980, the American Federation of Teachers reaffirmed its no-strike policy. But by 1958, spurred by the efforts of President Carl Megel to educate members about the process, the AFT urged the repeal of no-strike legislation and edged closer to collective bargaining. The National Education Association remained steadfastly against strikes by teachers.

From 1952 until the landmark New York City teachers' strike of 1962, Murphy writes, the move toward collective bargaining for teachers was "a slow, often discouraging, and sometimes extraordinarily frustrating battle of wits between young, dedicated, idealistic organizers and a stubbornly ensconced bureaucracy that was bent on ignoring them."

In New York City, organizers led by Dave Selden and Albert Shanker of the AFT began planning for a strike to earn collective-bargaining rights. The one-day strike in November 1960 won the union an election, held the following spring.

About the same time, the idea of collective bargaining was spreading. Wisconsin passed a law in 1959 allowing public employees to bargain, and President John F. Kennedy signed legislation in 1962 permitting federal employees to organize and bargain collectively.

Although New York City teachers had won the right to bargain, they had to strike to have their demands met. On April 12, 1962, 20,000 teachers, or about half the city's teaching force, went out on strike.

It was "not just a local affair," Murphy says of the strike. "Hundreds of thousands of other teachers and public employees in other parts of the country looked to the New York strike as an important precedent."

By 1966, 30 teacher strikes had taken place; in 1967, the number had jumped to 105.

The teacher militancy made the NEA leaders distinctly uncomfortable. In 1964, Murphy notes, William Carr, the executive director of the association, warned against the AFL-CIO--the giant umbrella organization for organized labor--and characterized unionization as "an assault on professional independence."

Instead, Urban points out, the NEA continued to lobby for what had been its primary focus since the 1920s: securing a federal education bill that would funnel general aid to schools.

Over time, the NEA's reluctance to embrace collective bargaining waned as it began to compete head to head with the AFT. Between 1961 and 1965, the two unions competed in 40 different elections to determine who would represent teachers, Murphy writes. Although the NEA won the majority, the AFT took the larger districts and thus gained more new members.

The unions also began to talk about using the bargaining process to achieve what they considered to be "professional" compensation, hours, and working conditions, a new twist on the word.

By the early 1970s, the national principals' and administrators' groups that had been affiliates parted ways with the NEA over the issue of collective bargaining. In some cases, they were forced to move out of the association's Washington headquarters into their own office space.

Union activism spread from New York, Chicago, and other major cities to smaller ones such as Cincinnati in the 1970s.Tom Mooney, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, started his career in 1975 and recalls his own frustration and that of his friends. They were, he says, "getting out of college, starting a career, making no money, facing double-digit inflation, and districts were unable to pay decent salaries and didn't care much."

The 1960s and 1970s also challenged teachers as a wave of federal programs and continued social change, including desegregation, put strains on schools. Indeed, the scholars Grant and Murray write, teachers taught through nothing less than "overlapping social revolutions," struggling to find ways to reach students with social backgrounds and expectations dramatically different from their own.

But while it has improved teachers' financial circumstances and given them a measure of collective control over the conditions of their work, unionism also has had negative effects on the profession.

Many Americans were uncomfortable with militant, striking teachers, and remain so today, eroding public sympathy for teachers. Southern affiliates of the NEA still take pains to disassociate themselves from the union label; some teachers instead belong to "professional educator" groups that specifically renounce bargaining and striking and are not affiliated with the national labor unions.

In 1975, when collective bargaining was still relatively young, the noted sociologist Dan C. Lortie presciently warned that teachers could find a "trap" in attempting to correct what he called "status deficiencies" through collective bargaining.

By using restrictive rules, he wrote in his landmark book Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, "they may appear uncaring and uncommitted; various publics may conclude that the work rules are intended to reduce total effort rather than to enhance teaching effectiveness.

"If teachers' actions are construed as little more than attempts to get greater benefits for less effort," Lortie concluded, "they will lose the advantages of reputation which have made teaching something more than simply a job."

Standards-Based Teaching

The early 1980s saw a resurgence of criticism of public education, marked by a number of influential reports calling for radical changes in the structure of teaching.

A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, warned that too many teachers were being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students and that their preparation programs were loaded with methods courses rather than subject-matter work.

But the report also was sympathetic to teachers, arguing that their professional work life was "on the whole unacceptable." Teachers were poorly paid, required to supplement their salaries with summer and part-time jobs, and had little influence over critical professional decisions such as textbook selection.

In 1986, the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession took those themes further. In A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, the panel argued for building a teaching profession based on high standards, a professional environment that freed teachers to decide how to meet state and local goals for student learning, and a restructured teaching force with "lead teachers" to provide leadership in such schools.

A year later, the Carnegie Corporation of New York helped launch the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which over the past decade has built a voluntary system for certifying outstanding teachers. The board expects to have certified 5,000 such teachers by this fall through a series of performance assessments based on teachers' work in classrooms.

States and districts across the country have offered financial rewards and other incentives for teachers to seek board certification. Education schools also have begun to retool their coursework around the national teaching standards.

In their book, Teaching in America, Grant and Murray praise the national board and its promise for transforming teaching into a true profession, characterized by practitioners' control over their work.

But the concurrent movement to set high standards for students--accompanied by the press for so-called high-stakes testing to increase the accountability of schools and educators--also threatens to undermine teacher professionalism, many observers believe.

"When you hold teachers accountable for a fixed curriculum with behavioral objectives and monitor it through test after test after test, the old-fashioned autonomy that my mother used to enjoy as a 1st grade teacher really gets restricted," says Joseph W. Newman, a professor of educational leadership and foundations at the University of South Alabama and the author of a widely used textbook about American teachers.

This tension between teacher judgment and externally imposed curricula, tests, and accountability measures brings teachers full circle at the close of the 20th century.

"The more and more that policymakers get into specifying school practice, the more they are interfering with the development of a profession," says Goodlad, the author of numerous books on teacher education.

Echoing Margaret Haley nearly 100 years ago, he asks: "Who wants to get well-prepared to teach, and then discover that what you have to do is being dictated?"

PHOTO: In rural areas, teachers often worked in rundown schools with limited resources. Conditions tended to be worse for black teachers, who were paid one-third to one-half of what white teachers earned. Above, a teacher in the Mississippi Delta looks over her students' lessons in 1939.
—Marion Post Wolcott
PHOTO: Defying convention, union activist Margaret Haley, far right, dared to speak out in behalf of the ordinary classroom teacher in the early years of the 20th century. She was branded a "fiend in petticoats" for her efforts.
—Chicago Historical Society
PHOTO: In rural areas, teachers often worked in rundown schools with limited resources. Conditions tended to be worse for black teachers, who were paid one-third to one-half of what white teachers earned. Above, a teacher in the Mississippi Delta looks over her students' lessons in 1939.
—Marion Post Wolcott
PHOTO: Teachers in St. Paul, Minn., picket in 1946. The strike by the American Federation of Teachers local shocked the nation. Teachers' unions in Norwalk, Conn., and Buffalo, N.Y., also staged walkouts that year.
—G.H. Walker/Life Magazine
PHOTO: With rising salaries have come rising expectations. Parents and policymakers have begun to hold teachers to higher standards. In Philadelphia, parents demonstrate outside the school board's offices in 1986.
—Michael Viola/Philadelphia Inquirer

Vol. 19, Issue 02, Pages 31-36

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