What Professionals See When They Look at Teaching

Last week, the New Yorker published a story looking back at the cheating scandal that plagued the Atlanta Public Schools and first came to light in a 2009 investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  In the story, reporter Rachel Aviv spoke to John Ewing, former executive director of the American Mathematical Society and current president of Math for America.  Ewing, she writes, “is perplexed by educators’ ‘infatuation with data,’ their faith that it is more authoritative than using their own judgment.”

I am not perplexed by this, but I can understand why Ewing would be.  We often speak of teachers as “professionals,” but Ewing’s observation – as the former head of an organization of professional mathematicians – demonstrates the vast chasm between true professionalism and the diminished status endured by teachers in the U.S.  As a mathematician, Ewing had to undergo rigorous professional training at a university (in his case, Brown University, from which he received his Ph.D. in 1971).  Upon being inducted into the profession, he – like other mathematicians – was given wide latitude in how he undertook his work:  what to research, what to teach, what to write.  In exchange for this discretion, he was expected to perform his work at a high level and held to high ethical standards governing his professional conduct.  Notably, as in other professions, the ethical guidelines for mathematicians were authored by mathematicians themselves, and judgments about professional misconduct are often rendered by mathematicians themselves.

In contrast, teachers in the U.S. have very little autonomy.  Teacher training in the U.S. has become increasingly unstandardized, with little agreement on what constitutes core professional knowledge.  Similarly, there is scarce agreement on what constitutes professional ethics in teaching.  Perhaps the closest approximation is the code of ethics adopted by the National Education Association in 1975.  However, this document is hardly common knowledge among practicing teachers.  Teachers abandon the classroom at a high rate, with 40 to 50 percent of teachers leaving within their first five years.

Sadly, unlike mathematicians, teachers in the U.S. are not professionals.  They are labor.  And, as labor, they are being managed.  Managers, in the guise of principals and superintendents and education policy chiefs and politicians, specify outcomes – often naively, like the requirement in 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act that fully 100 percent of American schoolchildren be proficient in reading and math within 12 years – and then hold teachers responsible for achieving these outcomes.  Moreover, precise recipes are given to teachers in the form of curricula and regular assessments, and teachers are told to follow these guides instead of their instincts.  Accompanying these recipes are calls for teachers to collect more data and admonitions that “data-driven instruction” is key to achieving desired outcomes.  In turn, managers use data teachers collect less to help them improve teachers’ practice and instead as evidence in evaluating teachers’ performance.

One of the hallmarks of a profession is that professionals feel a responsibility not just to themselves but to the values of the profession itself, and as such they feel compelled to act in defense of these values when they are threatened.  In 2011, writing in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, John Ewing identified a just such a threat to the integrity of professional mathematicians:  the widespread use of value-added measures (VAM) to evaluate teachers.  Regarding mathematicians’ responsibility, he wrote, “mathematicians need to confront people who misuse their subject to intimidate others into accepting conclusions simply because they are based on mathematics.  Unlike many policy makers, mathematicians are not bamboozled by the theory behind VAM, and they need to speak out forcefully.”

Notably, many teachers have spoken out on the perils of using VAM in high-stakes teacher evaluation.  However, their credibility is too often strained by the semi-professional status of teaching.  Because teachers lack the authority or autonomy to exercise their judgment in their day-to-day work, they are seen as less than authoritative when they speak about the core values and practices of professional teaching (and correspondingly when these values are threatened). 

Damany Lewis, the former middle school teacher featured in Aviv’s New Yorker article, spoke about how he felt compelled to cheat out of responsibility for his students.  Believing his school to be a sanctuary for students and learning that a failure to reach high-stakes targets set by the district could result in the school being closed, Lewis determined that it was his “sole obligation to never let that happen.”  This fierce sense of responsibility to his school and his students blinded Lewis – and others like him – to the larger forces at play. 

Sturdy professional ethics – and the expectation of ethical behavior that comes from having sturdy professional ethics – depend in large part on professionalization.  The “institutional thinking” that accompanies professionalization leads individual professionals like Lewis to feel a greater sense of responsibility to the long view than toward resolving day-to-day dilemmas.  For this reasons, teachers should set their sights higher than winning short-term battles over evaluation schemes and value-added measures, important though they are.  They should lead the way in shaping a professional model of teaching:  higher bars to entry, more consolidated training and induction mechanisms, less time in the classroom and more time collaborating with peers, prestige and compensation to match the effort.

The unprofessionalized teachers of the U.S. should be grateful to professionals like John Ewing for standing up to those who would manage them (and who mismanage them).  But it is not sufficient.  In order to transform teaching, teachers must find their voices.  Rather than being defined by others, they need to define themselves:  what they stand for and what they cannot stand.  They need to see themselves as responsible not only to their students, but also to each other and to the institution of teaching itself.  If teachers do not speak up, they will continue to be spoken for.