Teaching Profession

Unions: A Campaign To ‘Professionalize’ Teachers

By Cindy Currence — September 04, 1991 11 min read

Said Mr. Mitchell, noting the continuing low salary scales for the profession: “The notion that this is somehow opportunistic is ridiculous. The most opportunistic thing for teachers is to not go into teaching at all.”

Warning of an impending educational “disaster” for public schools if training and opportunities for teachers do not improve within the next decade, the presidents of both national teachers’ unions said in interviews last month that their organizations would put the full weight of their prestige and resources this year behind efforts to “professionalize” the teaching force.

''Everyone agrees that… we are about to face a major crisis in terms of both talent and supply, quantity and quality,” said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “And I am convinced that unless we make this change toward professionalism, we’re going to fail both in the quantity and the quality.”


Said Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association: “We’re looking at something America hasn’t faced before. You’re not going to be able to walk out the door and say, ‘I’m going to get some teachers'… We’ve got to give the students we recruit incentives.”

But while Ms. Futrell and Mr. Shanker drove home the message that increased status for U. S. teachers is a crucial first step toward excellence in education, other educators and policymakers interviewed last week suggested that the unions’ policy shift may not be motivated entirely by concern for educational quality and reform.

According to some experts, the unions’ new emphasis on professionalism is adroit political maneuvering by “mature” labor organizations at a time when educational reform and teacher issues are in the public eye.

Others suggested, however, that the “shift” is really a return to the original professional issues that compelled teachers to organize in the 1960’s. The new focus, they said, is an indication that the reform climate has activated a longstanding desire by teachers to wrest decisionmaking control from the hands of school bureaucrats.

Those interviewed acknowledged that the “professionalism” movement serves the interests of the unions, but they agreed overwhelmingly that the development is crucial to improving public education and advancing reform.

“Whatever the motivation, I think this is one of the healthiest things to happen during the past year,” said Gary Marx, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

“We realize, of course, that this doesn’t mean the teachers’ organizations will discontinue their union activity, but the move toward professionalism is just essential if we’re going to make the improvements that need to be made in education.”

Promoting Professionalism

A series of both large and small steps taken by both unions during the past year has gradually transformed “professionalism” from a convenient catchword in the rhetoric of reform to a full-scale movement to change the structure, status, and standards of the teaching force.

This summer, the N.E.A. reversed its longstanding opposition to tests as “a condition of employment, evaluation, criterion for certification, or promotion of teachers” and adopted a resolution in favor of requiring prospective teachers to pass pedagogical and subject-matter tests.

The N.E.A. and Ms. Futrell also have been active in supporting improved teacher-training programs. She served on the National Commission for Excellence in Teacher Education that in February called for longer and more rigorous training for teachers. And the N.E.A., as an organizational voting member of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, in June approved tougher standards for accrediting colleges of education.

The N.E.A. also launched this year a pilot “Mastery in Learning Project,” which Ms. Futrell said “is designed to teach teachers how to be more directly involved in the whole education and decisionmaking process.”

A.F.T. Activity

In January, Mr. Shanker stunned the education community--and garnered editorial support from hundreds of the nation’s newspapers--when he called for the institution of a national teacher examination similar to those required by the medical and legal professions.

Since then, he has told A.F.T. members they must “take a step beyond collective bargaining” and begin to support measures that will provide teachers with “status, dignity, and a voice in policymaking.”

Differential-Pay System

And this summer, in another surprising move, Mr. Shanker endorsed implicitly if not explicitly a differential-pay system when he advocated the establishment of national boards designed to recognize “crackerjack” teachers in various disciplines.

In their interviews with Education Week, the two union leaders characterized these recent actions as only the beginning of an agenda of professionally oriented policies and programs that will continue to grow.

Mr. Shanker said to expect several additional initiatives related to professionalism from the A.F.T. this year, although he indicated the evolving nature of the enterprise when he said he did not “even know what some of them are yet.”

The two leaders will be working together this year on a task force of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy that is expected to issue recommendations in the spring on how to promote professionalism in teaching.

Carnegie Corporation President David A. Hamburg said in announcing the task force’s creation last May that “strong consideration” would be given “to innovative ideas recently put forward to strengthen the teaching profession, including proposals for new teachers’ examinations, new approaches to teacher education, and ideas for restructuring the organization of the workforce and teacher compensation.”

Time is Right

The excellence movement has given impetus to these kinds of professionalization proposals and may have strengthened the unions’ hand in matters relating to structure and decisionmaking in the schools, several educators interviewed last week said.

“If there is a time to reconsider the structure of schooling, this is it,” said Douglas Mitchell, associate dean and professor of education at the University of California, Riverside.

The reform movement recognizes that “bureaucratic accountability,” a system requiring “teacher-proofed” classrooms, has failed, said Arthur Wise, director of the Rand Corporation’s Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession.

“Our educational policies have tried to regulate the behavior of teachers rather closely,” he said. “They tried to prescribe a curriculum in detail, they tried to specify teaching methods in detail, they imposed elaborate test/reteach/test systems.” Most reform policies of the past, he added, merely increased the amount of administrative supervision over teachers.

“But today there is a recognition that bureaucratic accountability has failed and there is a search on for another alternative,” Mr. Wise said.

Lesson from Business

That alternative, according to many experts, is professionalism.

“One of the major problems with schools is that decisions tend to be made by the upper-level bureaucracies, by the administrators, rather than at the school level,” said Alan K. Campbell, chairman of a task force on education sponsored by the Committee for Economic Development and executive vice president and vice chairman of the board of A.R.A. Services in Philadelphia. The C.E.D. task force’s report was scheduled for release this week.

Mr. Campbell advocates the C.E.D. task force recommends--a system in which teachers and principals are responsible for most educational decisionmaking. “This is a lesson the business community has learned well,” he said, “that you need to delegate down to the unit that actually delivers the service as much as you can.”

“We need to reinfuse teachers with autonomy,” said Denis Doyle, project director of the C.E.D. report and director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

The effect of creating a professional teaching force, Mr. Doyle said, is going to be an increase in the quality of teachers and an increase in teachers’ salaries.

“By restricting entry into teaching, by holding the line on standards, you force up wages and salaries,” he said. ''This is a tactic developed by medieval artisans, but for some reason American teachers didn’t get wise to it until now.”

The fact that the unions have gotten “wise,” Mr. Doyle said, is “a reflection of their increasing maturity and sophistication.”

Seizing the Historical Moment

It is also a reflection, said other observers, of their careful reading of the public mood and the historical moment.

Increasing public scrutiny of education--particularly of public schools and public-school teachers-- has sensitized unions to the negative impact of collective bargaining on the profession’s image, said Mr. Mitchell of the University of California, Riverside.

“Educators on both sides of the negotiating table realize that they have been suffering very bad political press,” he said. “They’re recognizing that when teachers and administrators carry out their fight in public, the whole thing suffers.”

''The Intelligent Thing”

“We’re just doing the intelligent thing right now,” Mr. Shanker said. “When you’re threatened by an outside force, you reduce the internal conflicts. You can’t fight a two-front war.”

The A.F.T. president said teacher unions’ concentration on “trade-union aspects” in the 1960’s had given way because its purpose--the building of “a powerful organization"--had been accomplished.

He concurred with Ms. Futrell, however, in the belief that collective bargaining has a role beyond wage negotiating and should include issues relating directly to professionalism.

“Collective bargaining is probably the most viable vehicle that teachers have in influencing the decisionmaking process,” Ms. Futrell said.

‘Pragmatic’ Considerations

The unions’ turn to issues of professionalism also demonstrates an appreciation for the political and educational implications of scarce resources and changing demographics, said Michael D. Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D. C.

“Their decision to alter their political style and orientation is an enlightened and pragmatic decision,” he said.

Twenty years ago, when more than half of all taxpayers had children in school, Mr. Usdan said, the teachers’ organizations and education organizations in general could afford to engage in the more “adversarial facets” of collective bargaining.

But today, with only about 20 percent of adults having children in schools, education is no longer a “bread and butter issue” for the majority of adults, he said.

“The education groups are realizing they need to reach out and build broader coalitions to get political strength and support for public schools,” said Mr. Usdan.

‘Window Dressing’

Some union experts suggested, however, that the new emphasis is not new at all.

“The popular assumption has been that the initial motivations for the union movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s were purely economic and that teachers’ claims regarding broader concerns were only ‘window dressing’ designed to attract public sympathy for their cause,” said Dorothy Kerr Jessup, professor of sociology at the State University of New York, New Paltz, and author of the recently published book, Teachers, Unions, and Change.

“The real issues underlying the teacher movement are, in fact, deeper and more complex than most people have recognized,” she said. “The issues at stake included not only salaries--which, by comparison to similar professions, were exceedingly low in the 1960’s--but, in addition and perhaps even more important to the movement--teachers’ feelings of being subject to unfair, arbitrary treatment by administrators and school boards and their sense of powerlessness in influencing decisions that affected their teaching environments.”

Ms. Jessup said she thinks “a little bit” of the professionalism rhetoric may be “union propaganda.” But her recent research on the union movement, she said, indicates that teachers “cared quite deeply about these issues. And that is not something that you can just put on.”

Mr. Mitchell also traced a concern for professionalism among teachers back to the original organizing days.

“It is important to remember that most of the states’ collective bargaining laws narrowed the scope of bargaining intentionally to keep teachers out of the decisionmaking that legislators felt rightfully belonged to elected school-board officials,” he said.

Consequences of Failure

Today, the unions sense not only the opportune climate for finally effecting these longstanding professional goals, but also the dire consequences of failing to meet the public’s increased expectations.

Mr. Shanker predicted that failure to improve the quality of the teaching corps would force middle-class Americans to flee the public schools en masse.

Ms. Futrell foresaw a reversal of the progress beginning to be felt through the reform movement. “If we don’t do the kinds of things we’re talking about, in 10 years people will be complaining again about the profession,” she said. “That the teachers aren’t trained, that they aren’t qualified, they aren’t competent. Why repeat it?”


But supporters of the teachers’ unions’ new direction reject any suggestion that the current positive climate casts the professionalism movement in an opportunistic light.

Said Mr. Mitchell, noting the continuing low salary scales for the profession: “The notion that this is somehow opportunistic is ridiculous. The most opportunistic thing for teachers is to not go into teaching at all.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1985 edition of Education Week as Unions: A Campaign To ‘Professionalize’


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