Opinion
Education Opinion

Teaching Should Be a Legally-Recognized Profession, But It’s Not

April 10, 2008 5 min read

I was prompted to consider this issues by “Are Teachers Professionals?” an April 7 posting by blogger Corey Bunje Bower in Thoughts on Education Policy noted by Alexander Russo’s This Week in Education.

The nature of public education’s workforce shapes the school improvement marketplace. A teaching corps with the professional status of lawyers, doctors and accountants would encourage a very different sell-side than we have today. By the same token, the private sector market structure that has served pubic education for the past 150 years proceeded from a view of teachers that resembled nothing so much as proletarians on the manufacturing shop floor prior to the introduction of quality circles in the 1980s. As a consequence, the traditional education industry sells and markets to administrators.

Whether teaching should or will become a legally recognized profession, I think most observers have come to realize that our view of teachers needs to move in the direction of doctor and lawyer and away from assembly line laborers in the industrial revolution’s early phase. This is certainly the implication of proposals to hold teachers accountable for student outcomes.
At least as important, to the extent that the nation has determined to leave no child behind as measured by state standards of proficiency, public education must necessarily move decisions on curriculum and pedagogy from the central office to individual teachers. NCLB essentially changes teaching and learning from “any color you want as long as it’s black” to the identification of specific students with specific gaps in skills and knowledge, specific strengths and weaknesses in learning, and so needs for specific interventions. We’d all like to see our kids have individualized learning plans, and we can see the technological capacity to do so on the horizon. The process of individualized diagnosis, prescription and delivery implies the decision making discretion and responsibility normally associated with professionals. In this scenario, teachers replace administrators as the buyers of educational products, services and programs. In this scenario, the school improvement industry replaces todays k-12 education industry.

As a matter of law, professional work involves three key attributes. By these criteria, teaching is no profession, but should be.

The first two are joined at the hip. Members of legally recognized professions owe a special duty of care to their clients – based on their specialized knowledge and expertise. They are personally liable for their decisions, and so enjoy the autonomy necessary to exercise their professional judgment.

Public school teachers have no specific duty to their students beyond assuring their safety. They are not legally responsible for providing their students with what each needs to know and be able to do at grade level (see here). They have a very restricted range of discretion in what they can do for any student, and requirements to follow state, local and school policies that might even make it harder for a kid to learn.

The third attribute is self-regulation. Society makes the practice of many trades a privilege rather than a right via some kind of licensing and/or testing requirement. Barbers, real estate brokers and teachers are licensed based on a test. Lawyers, doctors and accountants are as well, but their exams are devised, administered and scored by a governing body elected by members of that profession. The privilege to practice law, medicine and accounting is granted by these bodies, and only these bodies can withdraw the privilege.

For his error in surgery, a Doctor may be fired from his hospital practice, thrown onto the street by his partners, sued in civil court for malpractice and tried for murder under criminal law. But only his professional body can take away his privilege to practice medicine. This is not true of teachers. They do not control their own licensure or professional discipline.

To my mind, the key policy questions are: 1) will teachers embrace the trade-off of autonomy for accountability that other professionals enjoy/fear and 2) will society give them the remuneration and supporting resources that other professionals have to exercise that discretion and justify being held to account for outcomes?

Two points are generally raised in discussions about putting teachers in the same position as doctors, lawyers and other legally recognized professions.

The first, raised by Bower, is “it’s a lot easier to define when a bridge is poorly designed than it is to define when a child is poorly taught.” True, but the professional discipline question is whether the engineer or teacher met a level of care the profession expects of reasonable professionals in the same circumstances. The circumstances faced by lawyers, doctors and accountants that lead to disciplinary hearings are often tough calls, but professionals policing themselves make the tough calls - balancing the need for public confidence against the impossibility of perfection, and informed by an advancing state of the art.

Bowers also raised the second point, that “engineers have a lot more control over what the bridge will look like than teachers do over what a child will learn.” Yes, but this kind of factor is accounted for in professional discipline. Time, money, circumstances - all are part of the calculation made of whether what the professional did - given the circumstances they confronted - met the profession’s standard of care.

Now the fact of the matter is that professional disciplinary bodies do tend to go easier on their members than, say, a jury in a civil trial, But that’s why professional have liability insurance, and why insurance carriers also act in ways to make sure professionals take the reasonable actions justified by the state of the art at the time of the incident required to avoid liability and meet the standard of care.

Through these mechanisms, the duty of care becomes an evolving standard driving and in turn driven by an advancing state of the art. This may be one reason why the doctor or lawyer of 1907 could not work in the modern hospital or law firm, but the k-12 teacher from 1807 might well master most of the curriculum and pedagogy in their field.

Throughout the history of professions, practitioners decided that society needed to differentiate the quality providers from everyone else. The quality providers took this responsibility on themselves, and only gradually convinced government that theirs were the only valid standards. If American teachers want teaching to be a profession, some brave few will need to take the steps the legally recognized professions took in the last century, and many other would-be professions are trying to follow today.

Who will bell the cat?

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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