To improve U.S. education, it’s time to treat teachers as professionals


Prospective teacherTeresa Sowers teaches a class while being videotaped with a 360-degree digital webcam (right) at Jefferson Junior High School in Washington, DC. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 18, 2011

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable on the right way to approach teacher incentives — with opinion pieces by Duke University behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Howard Gardner, and Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein.

“What are the right incentives to have in place for teachers?” The very question itself is jarring. It implies that teachers don’t want to perform well and that they need incentives, which in today’s parlance translates into rewards (money) and reprimands (fear of loss of benefits or position).

Let me present a very different picture: Teachers should be regarded as and behave like professionals. A professional is a certified expert who is afforded prestige and autonomy in return for performing at a high level, which includes making complex and disinterested judgments under conditions of uncertainty. Professionals deserve to live comfortably, but they do not enter the ranks of a profession in order obtain wealth or power; they do it out of a calling to serve. Be it law, medicine, auditing, education or science, the expectation is the same: professionals should work hard to gain the requisite credentials, behave ethically as well as legally, and when they err, should take responsibility for their error and try to learn from it.

Does this sound hopelessly romantic? I have had the good fortune of working with many professionals with the attributes I’ve just described. And yet, I would be naïve if I did not admit that this picture of professionals is not as vivid today as it was in 1950 or even 1980. The reasons for the decline of the professional are complex, but certainly the hegemony of market thinking is the dominant factor. If one thinks of professionals simply as individuals thrust into a market place, subject to supply and demand, and seeking to accumulate as many financial and other resources as possible, then they are indistinguishable from individuals who are not by definition professionals—such as business people or artists or athletes.

Back to teaching. Just as we would like our doctors and lawyers to behave professionally, we should want the teachers of our children to behave like professionals as well. But it’s hardly a secret that many of our teachers do not consider themselves, and are not treated, as such. And it is even less of a secret that most people in positions of power today—whether CEOs or legislators—do not want “the teachers of another person’s children” to behave like professionals. If teacher-proof education isn’t an option, these potentates at least prefer teachers who do exactly what they are told and whose rewards or sanctions are based simply on test scores or some other easily measured result.

Whether or not teachers truly did have a greater chance to be professionals a half century ago, the question is whether we have that ‘luxury’ today. And the evidence globally is that we do. Whatever the differences among Finland, Singapore and Korea, teachers in those countries are treated as professionals and consider themselves so. Being a teacher is a sought-after position, and providing the right cocktail of incentives and disincentives is not a major preoccupation of policymakers. Rather, as was the case in the United States decades ago, teachers’ salaries in these countries are more than just a miniscule proportion of those paid to lawyers, bankers and other professionals.

Having visited these countries, which are universally admired for their systems, I have one other observation. Although there are certainly differences in wealth within each country, these differences are much less visible in the schools. Countries that are considered successful educationally try to provide high-level education across the board and, to the extent possible, direct the best teachers to the students with the least human and social capital. With rare exceptions, we do the opposite.

If you sense that I am exercised about this state of affairs, you are correct. We should not tinker with incentives. We should work toward a high degree of professionalization in education—otherwise, we are just rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship.

Howard Gardner is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and codirector of the GoodWork Project (goodworkproject.org). His most recent book is Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century.

Also in this roundtable:

Dan Ariely: U.S. education’s history lesson from corporate America

Steven Pearlstein: Cheating, testing and the great education tradeoff

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