Building a Profession

August 01, 1995 7 min read

This new teacher understands children and how they learn, can tailor lessons to meet their needs, and can explain--based on research and proven practices--how she makes decisions. In short, Samantha is a professional.

This illustration, drawn from a portrait created by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, may sound too good to be true. After all, the hurdles Samantha had to clear contrast sharply with existing standards for teacher licensure. Most states only look at whether a candidate has completed certain courses and attended a state-approved teacher education program. But now, after a decade of scrutiny and criticism, that may be changing. In fact, there are signs that teaching is on the road to becoming a true profession. Consider the following:

  • The National Board for Pro-fessional Teaching Standards, created in 1987 to elevate teaching by codifying what expert teachers should know and be able to do, this year awarded its first certificates.
  • Spurred by the national board’s work, a coalition of 38 states has drafted model standards for licensing teachers that spell out the knowledge, skills, and dispositions beginning teachers should possess. Four states have adopted the standards outright, and 10 more have modified them. In addition, 10 states involved in the coalition--officially known as the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium, or INTASC--are creating state-of-the-art assessments to examine how candidates for licensure fare in the classroom.
  • The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education--commonly known as NCATE (pronounced en-cate)--continues to strengthen its standards and press education schools to meet them.
  • A blue-ribbon National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future is exploring ways policymakers can overhaul the preparation, recruitment, selection, induction, and professional development of educators.
  • Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, with the support of the nation’s two major teachers’ unions, are studying innovative ways to pay educators that would, among other things, take into account specific skills and expertise.

Observers say all this activity is reminiscent of the strides taken some 80 years ago in the medical profession. “If you think about how long it took to professionalize medicine, it was a generation,’' observes Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “This is the beginning of the generation that will professionalize teaching.’'

James Kelly, president of the national teaching board, agrees. “The teaching profession is taking major steps to take responsibility for its own standards, for defining expertise, codifying it, and measuring it,’' he says. “Having said that, though, I don’t pretend that we’re there yet. We have a long way to go.’'

The current reforms were sparked, in large measure, by an influential 1986 report from a task force of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. The report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, called for the creation of the national board and urged changes in schools that would make teaching a more attractive job.

Since then, the drumbeat for improved student achievement has strengthened policymakers’ resolve to professionalize teaching. Higher standards for students, they have come to see, cannot be met without skillful, well-trained teachers. “This is the most important initiative to transform schooling going on in the country today,’' says Linda Darling-Hammond, executive director of the blue-ribbon commission on teaching. “We cannot do any of the other reforms if we don’t do this.’'

Darling-Hammond, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, acknowledges a heightened rhetorical commitment to the importance of good teaching, but she also notes that decades of emphasis on the routine and less skilled aspects of classroom work still heavily influence how teachers and schools are managed.

The current push to get students to think critically, synthesize information, and create knowledge, she says, mirrors reform efforts around the turn of the century and in the 1930s and 1960s. Each time, she writes in a paper prepared for the commission, the momentum was “killed by an underinvestment in teacher knowledge and school capacity.’' And each failure led to a backlash favoring standardized teaching and learning.

Over the last few years, NCATE has tried to coordinate a number of the professionalization initiatives. Recently, it launched the New Professional Teacher Project, a $2 million effort to strengthen and link three quality-assurance mechanisms--accreditation, licensure, and certification.

(Many teachers use the terms certification and licensure interchangeably, when, in fact, they refer to two distinct procedures. In most professions, states are responsible for licensure, while professional bodies grant certification. Until the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, no such body existed for teaching.)

Although the quality-assurance effort may seem somewhat peripheral to schooling, its proponents believe it will have a tremendous impact on classroom practice. By toughening accreditation and licensing standards and creating a new certification system to recognize accomplished teaching, they hope to force the nation’s schools of education to improve their programs. Stronger preparation programs, they argue, will turn out better teachers. And this new generation of teachers will have the know-how and confidence to guide student learning and transform their schools.

One strand of NCATE’s proj-ect involves revamping standards for preparing teachers in mathematics, English, and other subject areas. The standards, to be created in partnership with subject-area teachers, will define the knowledge and skills teaching candidates should have, rather than the content of courses that education schools should offer. Arthur Wise, NCATE’s influential president, believes these new “performance-based standards’’ will serve as guideposts for education schools redesigning their programs and for states creating new licensing systems.

Stakeholders in the professionalization effort are now taking their message to the states, arguing the benefits of creating a serious quality-assurance system. According to Wise, teaching currently possesses “a pale imitation’’ of such a system and has suffered as a result. It is up to the states to fix the problem, Wise says. “The state,’' he explains, “is where the action is.’'

One key to making teaching a profession, Wise, Darling-Hammond, and others believe, is the creation of autonomous state boards to set standards for teacher licensure. Such state bodies currently regulate who can practice medicine and law. Eleven states now have this kind of board for teaching.

In a new book, A License To Teach: Building a Profession for 21st-Century Schools, Wise and Darling-Hammond argue that state legislatures and agencies, which traditionally have set and controlled standards in teaching, have “a conflict of interest in enforcing rigorous standards for entry to teaching, since they must ensure a warm body in every classroom--and prefer to do so without boosting wages.’' Autonomous boards, they point out, would not be tempted, as states often are, to ease standards when fully prepared teachers are in short supply; they would maintain the integrity of the profession and the schools.

A major factor behind the overall push to professionalize teaching has been a shift in the focus of educational research. Instead of just doing surveys and crunching numbers, more and more researchers are spending time in schools and talking to teachers. The change has helped build the knowledge base about classroom practices that work. Until recently, teaching has lacked a professional consensus about good practice, which is why, many observers contend, standards have been so lax.

The new research is slowly beginning to alter the way colleges of education prepare teachers. Dozens, for example, have created training programs in real-life public schools. In these professional development schools, often likened to teaching hospitals, professors and classroom teachers work side by side, training new teachers. The programs exemplify the closer connection between teacher preparation and schooling that many experts believe is essential.

Says Darling-Hammond: “We’re taking what we know about teaching that supports kids’ learning and saying, ‘My goodness, you ought to master that knowledge in teacher education, demonstrate you have it before you’re licensed, and continue to develop it throughout your career.’ ''

--Ann Bradley

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Building a Profession