Putting the Focus on the Profession, Not the Teachers

Educator Shaun Johnson wrote a captivating article (What if We Treated Doctors the Way We Treat Teachers?) on The Huffington Post that drew a torrent of divided responses. As the title suggests, Johnson insinuated that teachers were unjustly scrutinized compared to doctors, in light of the current accountability movement in education reform. The majority of commenters: 1) agreed with his point; 2) pointed out the fallaciousness of the comparison; or 3) proposed ways to be more equitable. Here were some of the typical, if not sarcastic examples:






  • Physicians should be held accountable for their actions, and legal action should be taken for any unfavorable outcome, including (but not limited to): complications secondary to chronic medical conditions, poor response to prescribed medications, failure to achieve a 100% diagnosis rate.
  • The analogy is fundamentally flawed: doctors are expected to fight an ultimately losing battle against aging and disease, and practice on patients who get to select them, and who stay for typically long periods of time. On the other hand, teachers get a new crop of students every year, neither students nor parents get to pick their teachers (at least in public school education), and the whole point of education is for the kids to end the year smarter than when they started.
  • Please don’t try an tell me that the poor health you may experience has more to do with your doctor’s failure to disseminate information about public health than your own behaviors. There are massive amounts of public health information disseminated to U.S. Citizens every day. If they choose to ignore it and fail to take some responsibility in their own health maintenance, how does the fault lie in its entirety on their physician- who they may or may not attempt to see for years at a time?
  • Your thoughts may change after you see what residents have to go through. My wife is an internal medicine resident and she works about 80 hours a week with the least being 50 and the most being 110. She does not get paid overtime. Lawsuits are threatened on a weekly basis and she has to put up with constant sexual harassment by patients and cannot do anything about it.

Though many comments were insightful, far too many endlessly debated the minutiae of teachers vs. doctors. Instead, two conclusions should be drawn:

1) Both professions are vital and neither should be given a short shrift; and

2) The debate highlights the inadequacy of the teaching profession, not of teachers — a major distinction.

The majority of current education reform discussions (including value-added modeling, merit pay, and teacher evaluations) have focused on teachers, as opposed to the teaching profession. What is the difference? By nature, reforms that focus on individuals such as teachers are reactionary and enact measures that tend to be punitive or denigrate the profession. Those that focus on the profession are measures that invest in, support, and build autonomy in teachers. The difference in the framework is crucial, as it determines how to approach solutions.

For example, if one were to reform the teaching profession, the framework requires addressing questions such as:

  • What are the [stringent] requirements to become a teacher?
  • How can teachers be experts with authority in their field?
  • How can we create peer-reviewed structures that help the profession be more autonomous and self-regulated?

Such questions require answers that address initial as well as ongoing training. However, if reforms were applied to teachers individually (as is currently being debated), then a different set of questions arise:

  • How can we weed out ineffective teachers?
  • How do we ensure that teachers are making improvements in children?
  • How do we incentivize them?

These questions require external regulators to react, punish, or reward. Do you see the difference?

In developing policies for the latter, politicians (and the public) implicitly show a lack of respect and support for the teaching profession, and rightly so, because it has never been, well, professionalized. The medical trade, in contrast, is insulated from such attacks precisely because it is autonomous and self-regulated. The teaching profession does not have these mechanisms in place and thus can be more easily manipulated and attacked by external forces.

By focusing on improving the profession, other problems such as teacher accountability become less of an issue; teachers come into the trade already prepared and would be consistently supported and invested in by their peers. Take a look at those in Finland, Singapore, or South Korea, for example, where talents are initially selected from the top third of graduates. Teachers then go through a fully-funded and stringent training process in a professional environment that continually develop and reinforce high standards. This in turn leads to decision-making authority in pedagogy, school policy, and even management. Job security, compensation, and prestige are indirect benefits that continually re-invigorate the profession.

That is what the doctor profession currently enjoy, on the whole. For the short term, teachers may need to be scrutinized, but the profession itself must be better cultivated in the long run to realize student benefits.

(For more details about improving the teaching profession and global comparisons, read the 2010 McKinsey Report, Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top Third Graduates to a Career in Teaching. McGraw-Hill Research Foundation has a policy paper to the same affect, called “Lessons from PISA”.)

Addendum: Since my post, the New York Times wrote a similar article on March 16, 2011 about the need to raise the teaching profession: U.S. Urged to Raise Teachers’ Status. Soon after, researcher Linda Darling-Hammond wrote an article in the Washington Post about how other countries like Finland and Singapore invest in the teaching profession compared with the U.S. The NEA has also documented the need for professionalization through its surveys and report, The Professionalization of Teaching.

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