Education Opinion

‘Misconceptions’ in Critique of Ladder Careers

By Russell L. French — May 14, 1986 4 min read

Over the past several years, Education Week’s Commentary page has featured on several occasions the opinions of well-intentioned but ill-informed critics of efforts to develop career-ladder programs for teachers. The March 12 Commentary by Samuel Bacharach (“Career Development, Not Career Ladders”) is no exception. Since most of what is being written about career ladders is by those who view the efforts from a safe distance, perhaps it is time for the educators who work directly with the development and implementation of such programs to speak out.

While it may be true that a few of the current career-ladder programs are really job-ladder programs as Mr. Bacharach and others have described them, those are the exceptions rather than the rule. For heaven’s sake, give some credit to the governors, legislators, lay people, and educators responsible for these programs. Many of those involved in the recent efforts reviewed the failures of various differentiated-staffing programs of the past, and also know a good bit about organizational behavior and human psychology.

Three presumptions underlying the recent Commentary are inaccurate. First, the primary goal of most current career-ladder efforts is not to motivate people to do something, but to reward them for what they have already done. Merit or incentive pay, a feature of most programs, is an attempt to do something about the abysmal financial rewards for teachers who have been doing an outstanding job for some time. The primary motivation for those teachers who are gaining experience and moving up the ladder is the hope that they can do what they love to do--teach--and earn a decent living doing it.

A second misconception in Mr. Bacharach’s Commentary is the notion that most career ladders are designed to move people into new, quasi-administrative jobs. He’s right in saying that this type of ladder is doomed to failure for all the reasons he mentioned. Most career-ladder developers know that, and most of the current programs do, indeed, reward teachers for teaching.

The programs then attempt to provide opportunities for these talented artists to further refine their skills in program planning, mentorship, observation, conferring, and decisionmaking, and to use their skills, knowledge, and experience to help other teachers and learners. Any movement out of the classroom is temporary (a day, a week, a month, a year) and is intended to allow the teachers to recharge their batteries with new challenges or provide new forms of assistance to the profession.

There are some assumptions underlying these provisions for career opportunities that those of us implementing programs in the second and third years are finding to be true:

• Good teachers are bored silly and burned out after 5 or 10 or 15 years of the same old routine in the classroom.

• Mental and emotional stimulation results from undertaking new, complex, challenging tasks.

• The teaching of good teachers improves when they have had an opportunity to experience more aspects of the educational world, reconceptualize their roles and activities, and take what they have learned back into their classrooms.

• Career development must include new tasks, new experiences, new thought patterns, and new ways to shape what teachers do every day.

A third presumption in Mr. Bacharach’s essay is that nobody out there in “career-ladder land” has ever heard of career development. Critics should look before they leap. They would find that most contemporary career- ladder programs place a strong emphasis not only on professional development, but on career development. Those implementing career ladders have studied the research on incentives, the characteristics of effective schools, and the characteristics of outstanding corporations. Some goals are more difficult to achieve in the public sector than in the private sector, but critics haven’t studied the career-ladder plans very well if they haven’t found the efforts being made to promote genuine career development.

In fact, many career-ladder programs in teaching have bettered their predecessors in at least one area of professional development: the linking of development activities to personnel-evaluation results.

Much of what has passed for professional development for educators in the past 20 years has been based on “needs assessment,” a misnomer because the assessment has been of wants and wishes rather than needs. In contrast, the first phase of career development for most current career-ladder teachers usually focuses on the improvement of teaching skills shown in comprehensive evaluations to be least developed. After that, the acquisition of new skills applicable to a range of roles inside and outside the classroom is addressed.

Frankly, I’m a bit tired of the criticism leveled at educational-reform efforts by my colleagues in higher education who haven’t gotten their hands dirty in any of the ventures. The programs under way are not perfect. There have been plenty of mistakes, and refinements over several years will be needed. But at least public-school people and the public are doing something to try to bring about significant change, rather than simply talking about what can’t be done and what hasn’t been done before.

The right to criticize is earned. I challenge my higher-education colleagues to spend a few 12- to 15-hour days with some of the teachers, administrators, state-education- department personnel, political figures, and lay people who are doing just that to conceptualize and implement reform and innovation.

Oh yes, and while they are engaged in all that activity, they might keep in mind what Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers recently told a group of school administrators in San Francisco: “Some of these [reform] programs better work. We need to make them work. If we don’t, American public education as we know it is dead.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 1986 edition of Education Week