Education Opinion

Career Development, Not Career Ladders

By Samuel Bacharach — March 12, 1986 6 min read

Reformers of education have never been strong students of organizational theory. Proponents of reform, in fact, routinely toss around organizational- behavior terms and concepts with little understanding of either their background or current context. One prime case in point: the rush to upgrade teaching by embracing “career ladders"--one of the most fashionable catchphrases in educational reform.

Career development has a long and honorable history in the organizational-behavior literature. Educational reformers, unfortunately, seem to have disregarded the lessons of that literature almost totally. What most reformers are today calling career ladders have absolutely nothing to do with careers. The majority of the career--ladder proposals that have surfaced so far are, in truth, job ladders--and the difference between the words career and job goes far beyond semantics.

Organizational research has shown that there are two distinctly different ways of inducing employees in an organization to get work done. One approach emphasizes the importance of controlling the specific tasks that workers carry out. The other emphasizes collegial goal-setting, individual initiative, and development of skills that complement the needs of the organization. Employers enamored of the first approach rank the specific tasks they want carried out in a hierarchical order that organizational-behavior specialists call a job ladder.

Most of the “career ladder” plans promoted by educational reformers follow this job-ladder approach. These plans take the job of “teacher,” split it into different jobs, then rank and pay the new positions by their supposed level of professional responsibility or importance. The end result? A classic job ladder: a hierarchical ordering of separate jobs, each with distinctly different responsibilities.

In job ladders education-style, those at the bottom rung usually perform the basic tasks of classroom teaching. (Under some reform proposals, teacher aides and assistant teachers may occupy even lower rungs of the ladder.) Meanwhile, those in jobs at the top of the ladder take responsibility for course development, program evaluation, and teacher training. These top-rungers might continue to spend a portion of their time in classroom teaching, but their basic functions are administrative and quasi-supervisory.

This job-ladder approach to education has one basic problem: It doesn’t work. Job ladders, as leading managerial experts in the private sector now understand, cannot motivate professionals. What does motivate professionals is the second approach: allowing--indeed expecting--them to participate in setting goals for the organization, and giving them the opportunity to practice and become skilled, even outstanding, in their professions. That’s why contemporary management experts would never design a career “ladder” that moves professionals out of the practice of their profession. Yet that is precisely what the job ladders proposed by most reformers actually do. To climb these ladders, teachers must actually teach less.

There are, of course, many fine teachers who want the recognition and higher rewards that come with climbing a job ladder, but who don’t want to teach less. Job ladders do not serve these teachers. Indeed, job ladders do not necessarily even promote the finest teachers--for the simple reason that promotions up a job ladder aren’t rewards for superior performance or a recognition of skills demonstrated at some lower level. If a job ladder is run properly, it’s a person’s qualifications for the next job on the ladder that govern promotion. A person who is outstanding in the classroom mayor may not be qualified to perform the administrative duties reserved for a job ladder’s next-higher level.

Now it is certainly true that some teachers who aspire to promotion up a job ladder are probably going to think of promotions as career advancement. But if too many teachers think that way, they are going to be sorely disappointed. Most teachers aren’t going to be promoted--not because they aren’t qualified, but because there isn’t a vacancy at the next level, or because someone else has beaten them out for the promotion.

Job ladders, in other words, come with built-in quota systems. Opportunities for promotion are limited by the number of positions at each level and by the turnover among those already in the positions. These factors have nothing to do with an individual teacher’s qualifications. But in a job-ladder system, these factors can stop a person’s career progress dead in its tracks.

A job ladder, in short, is a bureaucratic device for organizing and controlling who does what in an organization--a mechanism that reflects the traditional logic of top-down control.

This top-down logic permeates thinking about school management, not just thinking about compensation. It is the same logic that leads administrators to think that they are “involving” teachers in decision making when they put teachers on committees and expect them to ratify decisions administrators have already made, the same logic that promotes people to design curricula that are “teacher-proof.”

This sort of logic won’t solve the problems of public education. This kind of logic is itself one of the basic problems in public education. Top-down management is demeaning to teachers--and an obstacle to other solutions that might work to improve the quality of education.

One such solution is genuine career development. A system that promotes career development--a real “career ladder,” if you want to call it that--would be a system that promotes continuous learning and personal initiative. Such a system would focus as much attention on the school system’s responsibilities to its teachers as it would on the responsibilities of teachers themselves. A real career-development system would take teachers’ motivation to improve as a given, and would focus instead on the opportunities and resources a teacher needs in order to make improvement possible.

Promotions in a well-planned career-development system would be made when a person is ready for them--and not be limited by a fixed number of positions. In fact, promotions in such a system would not necessarily represent promotions to distinctly different positions at all.

There would, of course, be some differentiation in the tasks that teachers perform. A beginning teacher, for example, could hardly be expected to play much of a role in helping other beginning teachers learn how to teach. But the basic distinctions between different levels of a genuine career ladder would not turn on the tasks performed at each level, but on what the school system expects of teachers when they are performing those tasks.

Those at lower levels would not be expected to be fully competent in every aspect of teaching; they would be acquiring competence. As they acquired and demonstrated competence in more and more aspects of their jobs, their discretion would increase, the amount of supervision would diminish, the kinds of training would change, and they would earn promotions and salary increases in recognition of their growing competence and contributions.

Contrary to popular impressions inspired by well-publicized battles in states like Tennessee, teachers and their unions have been receptive to the idea of career development. Organizational-development specialists have found that where quotas and a differentiation of job duties are not present, teachers not only find the concept of career development attractive, but often take the lead in pushing for it, as the Idaho and Alabama experiences attest.

There is, I believe, substantial agreement that some sort of career-progression system is needed. But for such a system to be successful, careers, not jobs, must be the driving force.

A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 1986 edition of Education Week