De-Professionalizing Teachers

According to this piece in today’s Inside Higher Ed, both the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and one-time maker of crappy-but-ubiquitous software Bill Gates have recently argued that school districts shouldn’t base teacher pay on whether those teachers have masters degrees or not. This whole thing, of course, is tied up in larger arguments about “merit pay,” by which folks like Duncan seem to mean something like “basing teacher pay on how their students perform on bullshit standardized assessments of their performance.” (Alright, that “bullshit” is all mine, but the rest is a pretty accurate representation.)

All of this is also a not-so-subtle attack on the very idea of teacher education. As I discussed in two earlier posts (here and here), it has become fashionable to claim that teacher education is pointless, that learning about how people learn doesn’t make someone a (potentially) better teacher. Following this logic, medical schools should stop teaching courses in anatomy, law schools courses in jurisprudence, and business schools, well, whatever the hell it is they purportedly teach. Surgeons just need on-the-job training and a stack of pre-approved procedures: cut here, snip this off, sew this up, repeat. Why bother thinking about why you’re doing any of it?

Duncan has been using this rhetoric of wanting to “professionalize” teachers. That’s as egregious a piece of double-speak as I’ve heard since the Bush administration. What Duncan really wants is to de-professionalize teaching, to make it into an assembly line on which student test scores are the widgets being produced. Wikipedia, on the other hand, defines “profession” as “a vocation founded upon specialised educational training”. Lest you think Wikipedia is off on this one, here’s the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition:

An occupation in which a professed knowledge of some subject, field, or science is applied; a vocation or career, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.

Hmm…sounds like the sort of thing one might do after getting a graduate degree. Duncan doesn’t want teachers to be professionals; he wants them to be factory workers.

Now, perhaps there is room to debate the question of whether a masters degree should automatically earn a teacher higher pay. There apparently isn’t much research about the impact a degree has. But I do know that a teacher who earns a masters degree (beyond the baseline credentials needed to teach) is at the very least demonstrating a desire to become more of a professional. And those who earn advanced degrees often return to their schools not only re-invigorated themselves, but with lots of ideas to share with their colleagues. Isn’t that worth rewarding?


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