Fortunately we have time-tested criteria that can help us distinguish professions from non-professions. Years ago, in his classic Education as a Profession Myron Lieberman carefully developed major characteristics that provide us with a practical working idea of what is meant by a profession.
1. Professionals perform a unique, definite and essential social service.A teacher’s services are generally essential, but less definite and unique. After all, lots of people teach besides schoolteachers. Consider the teaching done by parents, scout leaders, clergy, corporate trainers, drill instructors, and so forth. In contrast one is required to be a physician to perform heart surgery, treat cancer, diagnose neurological disorders, etc. In a similar vein, we go to a dentist, not the local hardware store, to have a broken tooth repaired or a cavity dealt with.
There is no practical way to restrict every type of teaching to trained, licensed specialists.
2. Professionals emphasize intellectual techniques in performing their service.
Physicians rely on a scientifically derived knowledge base and chiefly work in a one on one environment. Attorneys rely on statutory and case law generally also in a one on one setting. Although teachers do have access to scientific knowledge, it certainly isn’t as detailed or agreed upon as that employed by physicians. Moreover, teachers in secondary schools typically deal with well over one hundred youngsters per day while elementary teachers typically teach more than twenty. This is important because the broad range of individual differences in such groups makes it very difficult to employ anything other than mass production techniques. This, in turn, limits the application of scientifically derived knowledge. For instance, how well could a physician apply his or her knowledge if they had to simultaneously diagnose and treat 20 to 35 patients at one time?
3. Professionals undergo a long period of specialized training.Teacher training is brief, relatively easy and competes with other course work at the undergraduate level. Aspiring teachers are never required to attend a specialized and rigorous graduate school that is the equivalent of medical, dental or law school.
Moreover, it seems highly unlikely that the present weak-kneed process of teacher education could ever be strengthened to resemble med school. More likely teacher education will grow even easier as state officials, anxious for cheaper more compliant help, create still more so-called alternative (easier) routes to certification.
4. Professionals enjoy a broad range of autonomy both for individual practitioners and the occupational group as a whole.
Today’s factory-style schools emphasize efficiency and productivity in order to reduce costs. This assembly line approach severely limits individual teacher autonomy. And this is especially true in the growing number of schools where teacher behaviors and lessons are scripted. Moreover, teaching as an occupation is subject to detailed control by the various state governments as well as, at least in recent years, the federal government.
It seems highly unlikely that state governments will turn over much if any of this to the occupation as a whole — particularly when that occupations is organized into two rival unions both of whom are on the Republican Party’s “s” list.
5. Professionals accept broad personal responsibility for judgments made and acts performed within the scope of their professional autonomy.
In recent years state and federal officials have been pushing for greater teacher responsibility — they call it “accountability.” But these same officials are certainly not expanding the scope of teacher professional autonomy. As a matter of fact, as their demands for greater accountability accelerate, they decrease limits on teacher autonomy via, for example, ever more high stakes testing.
This is a difficult position to be in and certainly does not bode well for teacher professionalism.
6. Professionals emphasize the service to be rendered, rather than their own economic gain, as the basis for the organization and performance of the social service delegated to the occupational group.
This may seem ridiculous in view of the stark difference in physician and teacher compensation. Nevertheless, physicians are forbidden from putting their own income above the vital interests of their clients. For instance, prescribing useless therapy that profits the practitioner. That sort of thing is considered malpractice and is subject to professional censure. The same holds true for other clear-cut professions such as dentistry and law.
Thanks to their lack of autonomy teachers are rarely in a position to place their own economic gain over the services they render. Consequently there is little need, much less opportunity, to organize prevention.
7. Professionals are members of a comprehensive, self-governing organization of practitioners.
State control of teacher certification erases any possibility of teacher self-governance. Right now there is no way for teachers to even approximate this goal. Worse yet, teacher trade unions not only fail to even try to govern the occupation, they all too frequently engage in knee--jerk defense of plainly incompetent teachers.
How likely is it that teachers will gain the power to govern themselves, set standards for entrance into the occupation and exercise meaningful quality control? Presently, I think there is little or none.
8. Professionals employ a code of ethics that has been clarified and interpreted at ambiguous and doubtful points by concrete cases.
For example, the American Medical Association employs a very detailed code of ethics that clarifies a wide range of issues such as inter-professional relations, social policy issues, hospital relations, confidentiality, professional rights and responsibilities as well as patient-physician relations.
Various efforts have been made to establish an unambiguous and enforceable code of ethics for teachers but most are vague and largely celebratory. For instance, the Association of American Educators, the largest national non-union teacher association, the National Education Association, the largest teacher’s union, and the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest, all have created such codes. But they frequently rely on sloganistic purr words that are subject to a wide variety of interpretations and none of them are employed in daily practice.
Conclusion: teaching fails to fulfill any of the above criteria. What is more, there is no hope it will in the foreseeable future. Should it be this way? No, not in my judgment. But it is what it is, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. What would it take to professionalize teaching? Nothing short of a full-scale revolution in the way we conduct schooling in America.
For additional consideration of this topic, see School Reform via Teacher Professionalization: Is it Cost-effective?.