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A Question of Professionalism

March 29, 2012 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

A friend recently reminded me of an old joke: What do you call the person who graduates last in their medical school class? Doctor. To me, that's a reminder that every field contains a range of abilities, and how employers manage that range in terms of pay, promotion, and retention sets the professional norms for that field. As we enter the closing stages of the fight over teacher seniority, waiting for the governor's signature or veto of a final version of H.F. 1870, the question of professionalism deserves some discussion.

It should be clear that teachers right now are not treated as the creative professionals they are. They aren't paid enough, and they're overworked. Pay is determined in most districts by a calculation of seniority and credentials, with minimal attention paid to quality of performance. In short, teachers are still treated like factory workers, as if they simply dumped knowledge into the heads of each batch of students before the assembly line sweeps in the next batch.

Unfortunately, moving past this is a lot harder than it seems. There's general agreement from reformers and teachers alike that teachers should be evaluated based on the quality of their teaching [PDF, check pages 32-41], but defining quality gets tricky. The most difficult part is resisting the siren call of the easy measure.

Consider a software company. The main product of the company are programs, composed of lines of code. The easiest available measure is lines of code, and at first glance "lines of code" seems a reasonable proxy for worker output -- more productive workers will write more programs, which means more lines of code, right? Well, sometimes. Often, however, the best solution requires fewer lines of code, so the best programmers won't always produce the most lines of code. And what about the accountants, the project managers, the customer service representatives? Lines of code is meaningless for them.

In education, the easy measure is test scores. As analysis of teacher data from New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere has shown, these scores are ridiculously unreliable. The margins of error for individual teachers are so high, and there are so many other factors that affect scores, that these scores aren't a good proxy for teacher quality. What's more, many teachers are in untested subjects, and it will always be ridiculous to use math and reading scores to determine the quality of a band director, computer skills teacher, or US history teacher.

Determining the quality of an employee's work in a creative field like teaching requires more than an algorithm. It requires supervisors and peer reviewers who are trained in a good system, who identify a different threshold of success for each teacher, and who use a variety of measures to assess that teacher's success. This is complicated and depends on having good evaluators with manageable workloads, which may be why it doesn't get nearly as much attention from our policymakers.

Assuming that we've got strong evaluators providing good assessments of teacher quality, the question then becomes what to do with those assessments. A few states have just started to experiment with sorting teachers into tiers (for example, Iowa is looking at a system with novice, career, mentor, and master teachers), and there's potential in these structures to create a more nuanced understanding of teacher quality and a greater variety of teacher roles and responsibilities to be apportioned based on interest and ability.

With this nuanced understanding should also come the realization that, while we may not have as many excellent teachers as we'd like, we also don't have as many irredeemably terrible teachers as some fear. We need to recognize that having human beings take on a very difficult, time-intensive job means that most people won't meet every expectation all the time. Absent a supply of superhero-teachers, however, we need to be OK with this while expecting teachers to work towards excellence.

In the short-term, we need to call out the current efforts to punish teachers using unreliable tests for what they are. They won't advance "professionalism," and linking the notion of "education reform" with a quest to replace one unprofessional standard with another is counterproductive. Progressives need to look for better solutions to advance, and they need to work with our current teachers and administrators in developing those better solutions.

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