Friday, February 26, 2016

Professionalizing Teaching: what would it take?
by Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D.

Many occupations long for the positive regard that accompanies being a profession. For example, cosmetologists, social workers, physical therapists, and teachers all claim to be professions. But are they?

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]
Here are Lieberman’s characteristics of professions accompanied by comments on how well teaching fits.
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.[2]

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?.

Sincerely, GKC


1. Lieberman, Myron., Education As A Profession, Prentice Hall, 1956.


Sunday, February 21, 2016

Similarity: not a given; but, a composition.

a. This is not B. F. Skinner

c. This is a tiny reproduction of a Klee Painting

All concepts within which an entire process has been symbolized, withdraw themselves from definition: anything which has a history is not definable.— Nietzsche, Towards a Geneaology of Morals II, 13. (My translation – EGR}

Teaching Analphabets. I spent twenty years of my professional career teaching English as a Second Language (ESOL) to mostly refugee children whom misfortune had deprived of most schooling experience. (I would even have to teach some how to hold a pencil or pen to write with and to do simple lettering.)

The standard subject teachers, overwhelmed by their ESOL pupils' incapacity to communicate, would voice suspicions that most of them were mentally, or at least, perceptually deficient. On one occasion, a visiting lecturer gave a demonstration for the faculty during which she showed an analphabetic pupil she had brought with her a poster with the letters, N O P, in 144 pt Times Roman Font printed on it. Then, on a blackboard mounted to the side of the poster, she wrote a script form of O, somewhat slanted and with a loop at the end of the upstroke. “Can you tell if there is a letter on the poster like the one like the I just wrote on the blackboard?” she asked the student. He said he couldn’t.

The lecturer turned to the faculty and said, “This shows how severe a discrimination problem this student has. He can’t even tell which letter I have written! Can any of you suggest how you might go about remedying it?”

A teacher replied that the lecturer’s simple test did not prove the student had a discrimination problem. In fact, purely from a visual viewpoint, what the lecturer drew on the blackboard was visually distinguishable from what had been printed on the poster. The student may have been over-discriminating. The lecturer embarrassedly replied, “I’ll have to look into that.” The presentation was brought to a sudden conclusion.

Sometimes You Can’t See the Forest For the Trees. Nor the trees, for the forest. The problem of training discrimination is faced not only by analphabetic children learning a new language, but by native speaking adults researching new material which requires confronting new perceptions and having to learn to communicate their experiences within the framework a terminological tradition. It is not for nothing that university students have to take courses in data analysis. (For a simple data analysis example with an interesting application, see Moral Education: Indoctrination vs. Cognitive Development? )

Even experienced practitioners may have to learn to develop interrogatories to systematize their research. (See, for example, Developing Interrogatories to Aid Analysis.)

They may also need learn to apply research protocols using new instrumentation. These practices, i.e. data analysis, interrogatory and protocol development, are not so importantly issues of acquiring new perceptions as of learning standards, i.e. what counts as a relevant perception to develop data bases and to communicate their findings with other researchers. (But, for critical historical variations in the notion of objectivity, see L. Daston & P.Galison [2007] Objectivity New York. Zone Books.)

Nietzsche’s Proposition. In the epigraph above, Nietzsche was commenting on the concept of punishment as an example of one which through translation bridges over centuries and carries with it the baggage of often contradicting traditions and morals. Such a concept, he argues, rightly, I would think, cannot be expected to meet the criterion for a (Platonic) definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Other approaches to definition may work. See, for example, Concept as Abstraction. A hindrance in developing intelligence? However, practically useful definitions for us tend to yield results that clash with moral concerns deriving from historically long-lived and still extant moral systems. (See School Violence, Punishment, and Justice. ).

How is Similarity a Composition? There’s an old joke. It concerns a sculpter who was asked, “How did you make your fantastic statues?” “Simple,” he replied. You just take a block of marble, or whatever, and chip away the stone that doesn’t belong."

Of all the energies that impinge upon the surfaces of our bodies, those that don’t pass through without noticeable effect are filtered by our skin and other organs, which may absorb or transform their energies. We don’t “see” or “hear” or “feel” or “taste” or “smell” those energies as their physical manifestation passing through the universe; but, only as they impinge upon and stimulate certain cells in our body.

“Red” or “Middle-C” or “roughness” or “salty” or “skunk” are already filtered energies, thanks to the evolution which has pre-wired us and many other animals to filter out mostly energies that do not enable us as species to survive and procreate.

This is common knowledge, if somewhat pedanticly expressed. Similarities are not “out there” caroming around the universe:

a. They are composed from the welter of energies that have already been filtered through our skins.

b. they are composed by means of the nervous connections we have developed as species over millions of years.

c. they are further determined by what our attention is drawn to. And finally,

d. they are focused more narrowly by what our socialization brings us to disregard as unimportant.

Similarity is only part of the story. Any two “things” are similar to the extent that we disregard their differences. Most importantly, similarity is not identity. We learn early on in life:

a. Not all that glitters is gold.

b. It may look like a human or a duck, and even talk or walk like a human or a duck. But still be neither.

c. There are such things as counterfeit money, faked emotions, and false promises.

And also photographs, twinkling tiny pointillist stars, and soap operas. Illusions galore, even helpful illusions, similar to many things; but still not the real things.

For further discussion, see Isormorphism Everywhere? 
Imagination, Likeness, and Identity.

Cordially --- EGR

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Teaching & Chronic Scarcity: Dodging the Need for Triage.
by Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D.

New teachers routinely have to deal with too many students, insufficient time and too few resources to thoroughly do their jobs. In short, they struggle with chronic, severe scarcity. And that struggle leads to a centrally important question. Whom can they help without unduly shortchanging others?

I’ve spent 46 years as a teacher educator and have long wondered why so many of my colleagues fail to alert novices to this most difficult issue in teaching? Namely, how to deal with chronic scarcity?

I imagine some ignore this issue because their ivory tower is too far removed from reality for them to realize it even exists. Others dodge it because they don’t want to scare off candidates and thus lose their job. Still others simply are sappy sentimentalists intoxicated by the fantasy that pathological optimism and unreserved self- sacrifice will overcome all.

This is the very nonsense that Hollywood peddles in feature films about education: self-sacrificing teacher surmounts every difficulty through force of will, uncommon devotion and relentless optimism. But this happy horse manure only works in the movies. In the real world even the most dedicated teachers routinely face situations where their resources are so inadequate to the task that difficult, if not impossible, decisions have to be made.

Imagine you are in your initial year of teaching in the state abandoned School District of Philadelphia. Thanks to conservative up-state legislators both your school district and your inner city school are catastrophically underfunded. That is why you have a class of 45 first graders. And, thanks to mainstreaming, it includes a child severely handicapped by Down syndrome. Some administrator decided that your class was the “least restrictive environment possible.” The youngster is low functioning and has serious behavior problems. His uncontrolled actions ruin many lessons and he assaults classmates who obstruct his desires. Sometimes he even strikes out for no apparent reason. Once, while seated in the Caring Circle, he even impulsively kicked a classmate in the face.

You can forget about getting him transferred to special education. Such assignments do not begin until second grade. You have no aide. They all disappeared, (along with the school nurse and guidance counselor) because of draconian budget cuts. When you try to teach this youngster something it takes an enormous amount of your time and yields comparatively little. Meanwhile you have 44 other inner city youngsters to teach, each with their own needs, problems, interests and abilities.

The plain fact is, in a situation like this there is no way to adequately address everyone’s needs. So what is one of the first things you must do? Figure out how to distribute your time and resources to maximize learning for the greatest number while dealing with the guilt that these imposed choices induce. Unfortunately, your training never even suggested you might face such choices, much less explored how to deal with them. The romantic drivel that was handed you is no help. You urgently need to know what to do.

Fortunately, there is a time-tested method for coping when urgent demands exceed existing supplies. It is called triage, and those dealing with mass disasters practice it routinely. Here is how it works. All the casualties are sorted into three categories. Those requiring immediate life-saving attention receive it. They are assigned first priority. Those that can wait must do so. The dying is left untreated until the needs of the others have been satisfied.

Emergency medical personnel simply cannot afford to pretend that their time and resources are limitless. This grim but essential allocation saves lives. Yet teachers in training are rarely taught that they too will likely lack the time and resources to do everything that needs to be done and thus must perform triage. This lack of candid preparation tacitly encourages new teachers to expend unjustifiable time and resources on the most needy youngsters, while neglecting those who would most profit from their help. Such misappropriation is understandable, but ethically indefensible. (1)

Ignorance of the necessity of triage causes many potentially good teachers to blame themselves when they cannot do everything that needs to be done. This is one reason why, five years in, nearly half of newly minted teachers will have either abandoned the occupation or transferred to a new school.

Moreover, maintaining the fiction that triage is never necessary plays right into the hands of the politicians who, by perennially short changing public education, put teachers in situations where triage is ethically unavoidable. Then, making matters worse, these very same politicos demand that no child be left behind or, currently, that every child succeeds.(2)

It is past time to end this humbug. Teaching is just like any other occupation requiring extensive time and resources. Short-changing either results in sub-optimal performance. But at least the very worst outcomes are avoided when triage is employed.

Sincerely, GKC

1. See Edward G. Rozycki, The Ethics of Educational Triage: is Special Education Moral?

2. In December 2016 President Obama signed into law the Every Child Succeeds Act. It replaces the unlamented No Child Left Behind Act.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Teaching or Mowing: Mastering The First Principle of School Management

By Gary K. Clabaugh, Professor Emeritus, La Salle University

updated 2/3/21

It was my first year as a teacher. The students were seventh graders and the course was World Geography. The school year had just begun and it was hot and humid, so I had my ground level classroom windows wide open. As I began the lesson a lawnmower roared by just outside. To my utter disbelief, Copper Bands Charlie, the school’s janitor was cutting the lawn just a few feet from my classroom.[1] The kids could not hear a word I said, nor could I hear them.

I went to the windows and tried to get the janitor’s attention. When he finally noticed me I pointed to his mower, shook my head no and held my hands over my ears. No reaction — just a blank look. I tried a couple of other pantomimes, but he just shrugged and resumed roaring back and forth.

I shut the windows, but the heat was insufferable and the noise still deafening. I tried to conduct class at a shout, but that didn’t work and the kids were starting to snigger. Finally, I forgot the lesson, sat down at my desk, made sure the kids weren’t killing one another and waited until the janitor moved on.

As soon as the class period was over a neighboring teacher burst in complaining bitterly about the grass cutting. I agreed and we resolved to pay the principal a visit.

He saw us right away, listened patiently, leaned back in his office chair, shifted the habitual toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other and said, “Gentlemen, I understand; but Charlie is a very busy man. He has limited time to get everything done. He’s a good janitor and they are hard to find. Besides it won’t be long before the grass stops growing. So be patient.” And with that we were ushered out.

Dissatisfied and more annoyed than ever, we vowed to deal with Charlie ourselves. My colleague was a science teacher and a force pump was among his instructional aids. If you filled it with water and depressed the lever water shot out with astonishing force — a super soaker on steroids! Lacking anything so formidable, I armed myself with a beetle nut (about the size of a small coconut) that was included in my room’s ancient collection of largely useless geography teaching aids. Thus armed, we waited.

When the grass needed another cutting, Charlie and his mower once again roared into action. But this time my colleague squirted him and his mower with a high velocity stream of water while I threw the beetle nut at the instruction-destroying duo. I missed, but the water forcefully impacted both Charlie and his lawnmower and both were steaming. The kids thought the whole thing hilarious.

Of course my neighbor and I were summoned to the principal’s office and crossly asked why we had soaked Charlie and his lawn mower. The principal also added, “And what if that coconut had hit him?” (I thought it unwise to correct him.) We replied that we had reached the end of our tether, that it was impossible to teach with Charlie mowing and that we had already tried asking him for help.

A bit chagrined by our reminder of his earlier inaction, he let us go with a warning. “Don’t ever do anything like that again.” But Charlie stopped cutting the grass during school hours.

This was not the only incident that caused me to think this principal’s priorities were way out of wack. Before the school year began he did not allow any teachers in the building, explaining that he didn’t want the nicely buffed floors scuffed by foot traffic. He also insisted that all classroom window blinds be raised or lowered at matching heights during the day, and be just 6 to 8 inches above the sill at day’s end. He was death on classroom clutter and trash on the cafeteria floor. Attendance registers had to be meticulously maintained. And he was absolutely obsessed with classroom and hall bulletin boards. They had to be attractive, colorful and changed regularly even though I never saw a single kid paying any attention to them.

The one thing he rarely, if ever, checked on was whether the kids were actually learning. As a novice teacher I found this puzzling. As a retired veteran I understand it fully. This principal, who appeared to be a slightly befuddled hayseed, had fully mastered the most fundamental principle of school management. It is, to forget about the mission; i.e. the things that are celebrated, but fail to provoke outrage if they remain unaccomplished. For instance: “Preparing all students to reach their greatest potential, thus becoming responsible and productive citizens.”[2] A principal’s job never depends on accomplishing such lofty humbug. He or she need only give it lip service

Focus instead on functions; i.e. those things that are never celebrated but generate outrage should they remain unaccomplished. For instance, the cafeteria food being ready on time, the school grounds being well manicured (including well cut lawns) the busses being on time, and the attendance records meeting state reimbursement standards.

My principal was not the benighted hayseed I initially took him for. He shrewdly grasped what had to be done and did it. He assiduously attended to every function, making absolutely certain that things ran smoothly and looked right. He largely ignored mission related issues because he knew they were not critical for him and his future.

For a detailed treatment of the mission/function distinction see, Edward G. Rozycki, Mission vs. Function: limits to schooling aspiration.

-- GKC

[1] “Copper Bands” was so named because he habitually wore copper bands on his wrists and ankles to ward off arthritis. (Since he had worn them for years and never developed that infirmity, he was utterly convinced they were effective.

[2] This is later updated Mission Statement of the Red Lion Area School District, Red Lion, Pennsylvania. (updated 2/3/21)