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Teaching Profession Opinion

Why Legally Recognized Professionalism is Necessary to Reasonable Teacher Accountability

April 14, 2008 7 min read

Last week, I discussed the idea of teaching as a legally recognized profession – like law or medicine. My view - that teachers should have a similar status, but don’t, prompted a cross-blog exchange with Corey Bunje Bower of Thoughts on Education Policy as well as comments from readers of both blogs. (See here, here, here and here.)

Let me press my point.
I come to this question convinced that k-12 education is moving relentlessly towards a focus on the performance of individual students against state standards measured by state tests. It’s no great feat of prognostication. Every day, the state of the art in our understanding of human learning; its incorporation into educational products, services and programs; and the falling costs of these technologies makes it easier to identify specific gaps in individual student knowledge, specific student learning styles, and specific programs of instruction to address that student’s particular needs – at scale. I propose that the technological imperative towards mass-customization in k-12 education unfolding over the next five years is far more important to teachers than the specifics of NCLB reauthorization next year.

The degree of competence required for individual diagnosis, prescription, delivery and review in this teaching and learning environment implies both expert knowledge and training, and the grant of a wide range of discretion to teachers in their practice. This future – looming large on the very near horizon, describes the practice of medicine and law today. Here, society’s approach to quality assurance for mass customization is self-regulation. Practitioners are individually responsible for the decisions made to meet their client’s needs. When it is called into question, their conduct is judged by peers, based on standards set by members of the profession.

I suspect many teachers share Bower’s fear of transferring the accountability of practitioners in legally recognized professions to teaching. Who would want to be held solely accountable for student test scores? Even assuming they were given absolute independence in decisions about educational programs for each of their students, teachers are almost certain to lack the resources required to fill whatever prescription is necessary, and they cannot control all of the inputs that influence student outcomes.

The fear is quite valid but, in the most practical sense, utterly irrelevant. It is only a matter of time before individual teachers will be held accountable for individual student performance. Indeed, the nightmare scenario above is already coming to pass. The most positive spin on this trend is merit pay (see The Benwood Plan an Ed Sector report, and the Dallas Independent School District’s “Pay for Performance” RFP here.) The dark side is exemplified by the apparent interest of DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s in combining something like at-will employment for teachers with student test data and her personal view of what constitutes appropriate employee performance (see here). Maybe she offers an extreme case – making teachers responsible for student failure per se. On the other hand, many education reformers see Rhee’s approach as the leading edge of k-12 labor relations.

Regardless, with the internet, the national dissemination of digital student information systems, and the ever-falling cost of data analysis, it is absolutely inevitable that individual student performance data will be tied to teachers, that calculations will be made of the value-added by each teacher, and that the results will be in the hands of everyone with a stake or interest in public education. Once this information becomes ubiquitous, it’s a very short leap to holding teachers accountable for wins and losses – rewarded for students who test as proficient, and given demerits for those who miss the mark or fail to meet some expectation of adequate progress. The formidable power of teachers unions to influence elections and call strikes can only delay the unstoppable force of this information - and has delayed it. But not for much longer.

I suggest that teachers like Bower resist the idea of applying of the legally-recognized professions’ accountability regime to their practice because they don’t appreciate its protective nature. To make this simple, note that half of the parties that hire an attorney to argue their case in court, lose. Whatever treatment, half of the women diagnosed with ovarian cancer die within five years. We hear a lot about the high costs of malpractice insurance, but only a tiny fraction of the clients who lose in court and the families of women who die of ovarian cancer sue their practitioner; fewer win. Fewer still result in the termination of a practitioner’s right to practice. Lawyers and doctors are not punished for undesired outcomes; they are accountable for doing what professionals should do given their client’s circumstances.

It seems to me that this approach not only provides students and taxpayers with clear expectations of professional conduct, it insulates teachers from unwarranted expectations. As a legally recognized profession, teacher conduct would be judged by teachers, according to standards of educational care devised by teachers, applied to the client circumstances in question. The state of Massachusetts compiles data on the survival rates of patients for certain kinds of surgery by doctors and indicates whether each physician’s rate is higher, lower or equal to the average. A lower than average survival rate does not mark incompetence per se, nor does any given patient’s death. In each case, the question is whether the doctor did everything peers believe a competent doctor should have done in those circumstances. There is liability warranting discipline and damages only if this doctor deviated from that course.

Apply this approach to the nightmare scenario for teachers. Assume a teacher is charged with the educational equivalent of malpractice after a half dozen students failed to achieve proficiency as measured by state tests. The educator’s case would be reviewed by his peers, against a standard of care established by teachers, applied to the circumstances surrounding these six students.

Like a lawyer or doctor, he would not be accountable for student failure per se. The professional question would be whether this teacher did what any teacher should have done in this situation with these students. If the teacher lacked the resources to assess the students’ real needs, identify their learning styles, or to give them the level of attention required, peers might reasonably consider this an exculpatory or mitigating factor. They might give similar weight to failures of the juvenile justice or social systems to act in a timely manner, and to the psychological conditions of the student.

Perhaps more important, this approach to professional accountability de facto allocates to school boards, central office administrators and principals their fair share of responsibility for student learning. If the school board has not appropriated sufficient funds to purchase required materials and equipment; if administrators have selected educational programs lacking much in the way of evaluation or made it impossible for teachers to receive adequate training; if principals have decided that their school will not use a particular approach suited to some students needs, the contribution of these shortfalls to student outcomes must be considered. The regression analyses and other techniques that can be used to evaluate the value added to student learning by a teacher are no less reliable means of assessing the role of every other factor discussed above (The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System employed to assess teacher performance in the Benwood Plan was also used to review the effectiveness of New American Schools designs in Memphis. See here and here.) In short, the system of practitioner accountability engaged by the legally recognized professions simply puts the broad assessment in the hands of practitioners.

It seems to me that teachers should not only welcome this approach to a review of their individual performance; they should be clamoring for it.

Individual teacher accountability is coming. Making teaching a legally recognized profession is not something school boards or administrators are likely to support. No employer wants to give away the power of professional discipline to practitioners. The only question facing teachers is whether they are going to accept the system that is bound to evolve at the current course and speed of education policy, or develop a realistic option for something different.

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