Fighting for Equity in Education

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The De-Professionalization of Teaching

Saturday January 9, 2016

Competition and choice policies in education are leading to the de-professionalization of teaching. A policy brief published by the US National Education Policy Centre titled Reversing the Deprofessionalization of Teaching says that it is being driven by fast-track teacher preparation, teacher evaluation based on student test scores and the use of scripted, narrow curricula.

Previous US Federal legislation included a “highly qualified” teacher provision, mandating full state certification or licensure. However, over the past 15 years, Congress and the two past Presidents have allowed “interim” teachers to be considered highly qualified, which opened the door for Teach For America members and similar alternative approaches for entering the classroom. According to the brief, about 15 percent of those who completed teacher education programs did so through an alternative route.

Deregulation and free-market ideology have driven this shift toward alternative routes into the classroom. When a job is treated as a profession, employment is grounded in a deep body of knowledge and set of skills. There are no alternative routes to medicine, and such routes to law are almost non-existent. [p.2]

Increasingly in the US, statistical methods are being used to evaluate teachers by measuring each teacher’s effect on student test scores. Teachers can be dismissed on the basis of these measures in many states.

The brief notes that a host of problems have arisen from this approach to teacher evaluation:
• tests measure only a slice of what students learn;
• a student’s learning often depends on more than one teacher;
• a student’s learning always depends on factors not included in the statistical equations, such as peer effects and learning opportunities at home;
• factors included in the equations are often poor proxies for what they intend to measure; and
• practices such as teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, and even outright cheating result in distorted data.

Research studies show that the estimates of learning growth yielded by these approaches are only weakly related to other effectiveness measures such as classroom observations and teacher surveys. The American Statistical Association has stated that “Ranking teachers by their test scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.”

Extensively prescribed curricula are the norm in the United States. The test-based standards and accountability movement attempts to align curriculum and performance standards with classroom curriculum and assessment. As test results can result in sanctions for teachers and schools, curricula tend to be scripted down to the minutia and teachers have limited discretion to wander from the script. Teaching and learning tends to be reduced a rote set of repeated exercises. The brief says that this handcuffs and demoralises teachers who are expert professionals.

The brief makes several policy recommendations to reverse the de-professionalization of teaching and undo the damage of current policies:
• Teacher education programs should be strengthened, with increased focus on developing the pedagogical content knowledge and expertise that should be demanded of professionals.
• State education agencies should not recognize or approve teacher education programs or accreditation agencies that fail to provide a full teacher preparation program. Furthermore, they should not license teachers who have not successfully completed such a program and an appropriate field experience.
• Teacher evaluations should also be strengthened, making use of established approaches that create the supports and incentives to improve teaching and learning, such as peer assistance and review.
• A moratorium should be placed on value-added teacher assessment because they are prone to misclassification and do not validly measure the range of skills necessary for effective teaching.
• A broadening of the curriculum is needed. This can only be accomplished by a partial or complete decoupling of test scores from the high-stakes consequences that compel a narrowed curriculum.

Trevor Cobbold

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