Treating Teachers Like Professionals

Posted by on January 18, 2011

I was very interested to see, in a post by my colleague last month, that elementary school teachers were again voted among the top five most “honest and ethical” occupations in America, by respondents to a November 2010 Gallup Poll

According to Gallup, 67 percent of respondents rated the honesty/ethics of teachers as “high/very high,” 24 percent rated it “average,” and 6 percent rated it as “low/very low” (the error margin is +/- 4 percentage points). Only nurses, military officers, and pharmacists ranked higher (with doctors, who ranked 5th, in a statistical tie with teachers).

I found this interesting because it contradicts a key underlying feature of much of our public education debate. I’ve heard many thousands of teachers speaking out against the market-based reforms that are currently in vogue among opinion leaders, and seen them effectively ignored. I’ve heard everyone from Oprah to big-city superintendents to major television networks tout “Waiting for Superman” — a movie that supposedly focuses on teacher quality as the key to improving education, yet fails to interview even a single teacher. I’ve read hundreds of articles and posts that imply (and sometimes state directly) that teachers who oppose a favored policy do so because they “fear accountability,” or that they are more interested in their compensation and job security than in the children they teach. 

Many teachers call this type of behavior ”teacher hating” or a “war on teachers.” In my view, however, the fundamental issue here is trust. And the public’s continued faith in teachers does not seem to be shared by many of today’s pundits and policymakers. These same people say frequently that they want to “treat teachers like professionals,” but there’s a lot more to that than personnel policies.

To be sure, the opinions of individual teachers towards education policy vary a great deal, as do those among incumbents of any occupation. Nevertheless, teachers generally hold more negative views toward policies such as merit pay and granting tenure based on students’ test scores, compared with the general public. For instance, a 2009 survey of education attitudes, which oversampled teachers, found that 75 percent of teachers “opposed” or “strongly opposed” basing teacher pay on student test scores, compared with about 27 percent of non-teacher respondents.  59 percent of teachers opposed making teachers demonstrate their students’ progress on test score in order to get tenure, while only 20 percent of all respondents voiced opposition (note, however, that these responses might have been different had the questions specified some kind of specific policy configuration – e.g., basing tenure/pay partially on scores, along with other performance measures).

Almost reflexively, many commentators seem to chalk up this opposition to self-interest (usually implicitly). It’s assumed that teachers oppose these policies because they are protecting their pay or benefits or job security. For some teachers, this is no doubt true. But has it ever occurred to people, even for a minute, that teachers might oppose these ideas simply because they think that they’re bad?

One has to wonder why so many smart, generally open-minded people, when they hear that teachers are skeptical about an education policy, seem to default immediately to an explanation of economic self-interest. In other words, teachers are in it for the money. Really? Frankly, anyone who chooses a teaching career for the money would appear to have absolutely no sense of economic self-interest whatsoever.

This tendency to ascribe economic motives to teachers when evaluating their policy opinions is an unfortunate one, because most people would still acknowledge (I hope) that teachers are likely the foremost experts in the nation when it comes to judging what will and will not improve student performance and the quality of instruction. It also overlooks the fact that teachers’ self-interest is inextricably tied to the well-being of their students, the quality of their chosen profession, and the performance of the schools in which they work. This is, for example, evident in their mobility decisions, which are influenced more by working conditions than by monetary considerations.

Sure, teachers care about their salary and benefits, as we all do. But treating teachers, even by implication, as if they care more about compensation or job security than about their students and schools is wrong, and it is certainly not treating them like professionals. The Gallup Poll suggests that the general public understands this. And, in fairness, I think that most political and media figures realize that teachers have much to contribute to policy debates. It is therefore perplexing that their actions and words so often suggest the opposite sentiment.

Whatever the reason, the result is that we may be squandering one of the most precious resources we have when it comes to school reform — the informed opinion of our teachers.


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