What is the value of a professionalized workforce in education? Answers to this question go from an emphatic, “There is no value!” to, “It is critical and will decide the future of our educational system!” Scan the status of full-time employees in private and public education around the United States and we see immense variety. In some contexts, every teacher must meet the state requirements for licensure in a given role (principal, elementary school teacher, high school English teacher, etc.). At the same time, some “schools” do not even have teachers in the traditional sense. Some do not have principals. Some are parent-led, teacher-led, or student-led. Instead of teachers, there are schools that have emerging roles like student mentors and learning coaches. Whatever the case, scanning both traditional and alternative, public and private, we see a wide spectrum of perspective on and approaches to full-time roles within schools.
Consider the diverse backgrounds from which full-time employees in education come. Some have traditional credentials like graduate degrees in educational administration for the principals and superintendents, and a teaching license (through a traditional or alternate route). Plenty of other full-time employees in schools do not have these credentials. In certain schools, teachers without a teaching license might be practicing artists, lawyers, successful entrepreneurs, scientists, novelists, clergy, or environmental activists. Some schools and systems have started their own training and credentialing programs to cultivate a generation of educational leaders who embrace and are equipped to live out their distinct vision and philosophy. The extensive and expensive route to become a Montessori teacher is certainly a prime example of this, as well as the formal training program that KIPP schools use to equip the next line of school leaders. We see further examples in small niche specializations like the fact that there is a certification process for becoming a classical Lutheran school educator.
Even among those who have some form of credential and license, their training and experiences vary, ranging from years of college study in the field of education to minimal formal education training through a program like Teach for America. In some places, especially within private schools, we observe high school teachers with graduate degrees in the discipline that they teach but little or no formal training in education. We also see the flip side of this in public and private schools, people with degrees in education (undergraduate and/or graduate) but perhaps very few completed courses in the subject area(s) that they teach. There are even private schools that want a teacher with some sort of license, but then their work and teaching assignments are in a completely different area (a person with a high school physical education degree teaching elementary school language arts). In some states, one might be considered qualified to teach a given content area with far less than a major or degree in the specific subject area.
What type of teacher or principal is needed today? When I talk to leaders and sponsors of schools with a distinct vision or philosophy, I often hear them lament about the difficulty of finding full-time people who are a good fit for their school. Teachers coming from traditional schools and traditional teacher education programs (not to mention growing up in traditional schools) often have a great deal of unlearning to do to thrive in a PBL school, a self-directed academy, a personalized learning school, a STEM academy, a classical education academy, or a school that teaches from a specific faith tradition. Combine this with the fact that leaders and visionaries of these distinct schools are often not willing to compromise the mission, vision and values of the school or allow students to “suffer” as a result of a teacher or administrator who doesn’t “get it.”
Juxtapose this with the strong push toward professionalization in contemporary education since the 1980s. For many, a professional means that a person is part of a group with shared specialized knowledge, training that aligns with standards agreed upon and upheld by the profession, a shared code of ethics, and a common responsibility to the profession as a whole. The process of becoming a medical doctor in the United States aligns with this notion of a professional. One can always specialize as part of this formal education (specialties ranging from podiatry to neurology, psychiatry to plastic surgery), but there is a standardization in a large part of a medical doctor’s initial training. There are certain foundations that must be mastered to become a medical doctor. After getting that foundation, one is able to specialize.
This concept of professionalism is part of what drives the current teaching certification process for most roles in full-time public education today, but with far more exceptions than we see among MDs. If one wants to compare professionalism in healthcare and education, it might be more useful to look at the range of medical professionals and how their roles intersect. One does not only go to a MD, there are doctors of osteopathic medicine, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, optometrists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, chiropractors, pharmacists, dentists, nutritionists, and even music therapists. Each of them (as well as many others) contribute to patient care. Perhaps this diversity of professionals is a more helpful and accurate representation of professions in the field of education. Perhaps this leaves room for the varied schooling visions and philosophies that exist, while still maintaining a commitment to the idea of professionalism in the field.
The National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) takes a different approach to the subject. They home in on a general concept of teacher (even though contexts and schooling models are becoming increasingly diverse, calling for different types of full-time roles). NCTQ notes that the research is questionable as to the benefit of a teacher with an undergraduate degree in education compared to a teacher without that background. However, they also acknowledge that there is research to suggest that teachers from some teacher education programs are more effective than teachers from others (See page 5 in the 2013 Teacher Prep Review.). Their solution is to develop specific criteria for what should go into a teacher education program and rate Universities around the country on the basis of those criteria.
As you may expect in a field like education, there is no small controversy about the standards and data collection methods used by this NCTQ. This comes back to the earlier comments about the diversity of visions and philosophies in schools. It doesn’t do much good to give me a MD when I need a dentist, or to set up a consult with a pharmacist when I’m in need of physical therapy. And yet, the NCTQ approach (not to mention all state licensure programs) argues that a standard training is what we need for all of our schools to thrive in the 21st century. This line of thinking is that good teachers produce good schools…which produce good students.
Ultimately, the question about professionalization in education and what types of full-time people are needed comes back to the learners. The most important question is what do the learners of the 21st century need to flourish? Is the answer more teachers who went through challenging and standardized training routes? If so, then the persistent move toward refining the profession of teacher is the way to go. If not, where does this leave us?
The current state of teacher education involves a persistent debate about whether we should standardize teacher education, specialize it, or de-professionalize it. The proponents of standardization, like NCTQ and state licensure models seem to have the upper hand, as this is the current system in public education. Even though some argue over which standards to use (which are most effective), those in public education widely accept the idea of a standard route (at least for most) toward becoming a teacher. Proponents of specialization may argue for a completely different route from a standard teacher education program. These might judge their specialized training as self-sufficient, while others argue for a both/and approach. Get your teaching license plus specialized training for our particular approach to education or a specialized role. This is also largely accepted, but in different forms, and ample debates about who has the rights or responsibilities to oversee and/or offer specialized training. Then there are those who argue that the current system is broken, that professionalism in education is unnecessary bureaucracy that does not lead toward positive or measurably beneficial outcomes for learners.
As it stands, we have a system that encompasses traditional public schools, charters, magnets, different types of private and independent schools, as well as home school co-ops and emerging non-school schools. Among these different schools, we have a blend of the three options. We have schools deeply rooted in professionalization. We have those which thrive upon specialized training. We also have plenty of others who leave such formal constructs behind in pursuit of new models and visions (the unschooling movement, the free school movement, etc.). As a result, the United States has a system that collectively answers yes to all three options.