Teaching as a Profession Research Paper

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This research paper initially outlines the contested nature of the concept profession. There then follows an examination of how professionalization has been a key project of teaching as an organized occupation and the implications of this project for status and power. From the mid-1970s, teaching as a profession began to undergo fundamental changes and these are viewed from the perspectives of proletarianization and deprofessionalization. Finally, the worldwide ‘educational reform movement’ is shown as predicated on conceptualizations of the new professionalism.

1. Profession

Profession is a much-disputed sociological concept, and the existence of criteria which allegedly distinguish professions from other occupations has been strongly contested. Yet the concept has not fallen into desuetude and continues to constitute the focus of lively debate (see Freidson 1986, for a discussion of the concept profession). The critique of the idea of profession was initially a reaction to a functionalist perspective which dominated much of the earlier theorizing. This depicted professionals as exercising knowledge-based skills as autonomous practitioners in nonroutine contexts according to a client-focused ethic guaranteed by a self-regulative professional body. From this theory were derived sets of distinguishing criteria which Millerson (1964) showed to be highly diverse. However, despite this diversity, some criteria were common to most lists. These core criteria were exemplified in the list proposed by Lieberman (1956) in his early study of teaching as a profession: the provision of an essential social service, intellectual techniques, lengthy specialized training, practitioner and group autonomy, personal responsibility for judgments, an emphasis on service, and a self-governing body.

Critics of the functionalist perspective argue that the idea of a profession, and the alleged distinguishing characteristics, is less an analysis of practice than the theorization of a self-interested ideology developed historically by a small group of elite occupations characterized by independent practitioners (e.g. lawyers, doctors) offering a service for fee. An alternative power perspective presents these occupations as having succeeded over time in gaining control over a market for a service, achieving responsibility for bestowing the license to practice through a self-regulating body, strengthening the occupational boundary through credentialism and social closure and using increments of power to enhance levels of status and remuneration.

Despite the power critique that demonstrates the ideological nature of the idea of a profession and of the alleged criteria, profession retains a heuristic potential in the exploration of issues of autonomy, control, knowledge, practice, etc. This heuristic deployment entails treating profession as a particularistic phenomenon the social construction of which varies over time and space (see Ginsburg 1997 for a wide-ranging review). In this connection it can be noted that many of the key issues addressed in the sociology of the professions are different in the Anglophone countries than in continental Europe where the state is more involved in training and employment, and where status is derived more from the institutions of higher education which practitioners attended than from market position. The heuristic deployment of profession also entails an emphasis on professionals—their work relations and practices, their lives and careers (see the study of school teaching as a profession by Lortie 1975). In this research paper professionalization provides the major organizing theme.

2. Meanings Of Professionalization

Professionalization is a process whereby occupations have become, or seek to become, publicly recognized as professions according to the degree to which they meet the alleged criteria. Professionalization can be seen as having two strands. One strand is concerned with the improvement of status. The other strand is concerned with the improvement of the capacity of members to enhance the quality of service which is provided. It is generally assumed that these two elements proceed pari passu but this need not be the case. The terminology in relation to this distinction is confusing, however, recent usage distinguishes between professionalization as the pursuit of status and professionalism as the improvement of skills and hence service. The latter terminology will therefore be used here.

One can perhaps refer to ‘early’ professionalization as the process whereby the elite professions established their position and ‘late’ professionalization as the period beginning in the late nineteenth century when with ‘the rise of professional society’ (Perkin 1989) a large number of occupations, including teaching, began their quest for professional status by taking measures to meet the alleged criteria. In these terms, it can be said that teaching was in the process of professionalization from the mid-1870s to the mid-1970s, increasingly so after World War II. The length of the period of teacher education was extended. An increasingly higher proportion of teachers were graduates. Teacher training institutions became integrated into the universities. The knowledge base of teaching became more extensive. Teachers enjoyed a high degree of pedagogical autonomy within a loosely coupled school structure. Teachers’ organizations increased their influence with government. And in some systems, e.g. Malta, teaching achieved the legal status of a profession. However within this general process of professionalization are acute gender differences (Gitlin and Labaree 1996).

3. Professionalization And The Occupational Status Of Teachers

Status is multidimensional, and the success of the professionalization project varies across these dimensions. If occupational status denotes the degree to which an occupation meets the alleged criteria of a profession, then the status of teaching in most countries has been increasing. However, this has not been reflected in any obvious improvement in the occupational prestige of teaching, defined here as the relative position of an occupation in a hierarchy of occupations as ranked by samples of members of the public. Teaching is in most countries ranked in the upper quartile of such hierarchies, but below the major professions of medicine, law, etc., the status group of aspiration for teachers who thereby experience a degree of relative deprivation.

International comparisons of occupational prestige (Treiman 1977) show some differences in the relative ranking of the single occupational title of schoolteacher across societies but the data are too sparse to allow generalization and no obvious patterns suggest themselves. Perhaps of greater significance are the quite marked intra-occupational differences in rank, according to age of the students taught and the social and academic character of types of school. Comparative data show that hierarchies of occupational prestige have a high degree of stability—rank correlations over time and space almost invariably exceeding 0.9, which suggests that there is relatively little scope for an established occupation to enhance its prestige to any substantial degree.

It has been suggested that some inherent characteristics of teaching as an occupation are likely to have an inhibiting effect on enhanced prestige. Leggatt (1970) grouped these into three categories, i.e. characteristics of the practitioner group (e.g. size, social class, background of entrants), characteristics of clients and client relations (e.g. children as clients, compulsory and protracted relationships), and characteristics of work performance (e.g. unclear expertise, performance hard to evaluate).

Perhaps of more significance, because potentially more achievable, is the esteem in which teachers are held, defined here as the noncomparative evaluation of an occupation on the basis of such factors as quality of service, client-orientated values and practitioner commitment. Esteem is relatively independent of both status and prestige. In many countries, especially in Asia and Africa, the teacher—as ‘guru’—enjoys high esteem but this is not reflected in the hierarchy of occupational prestige. However, esteem is an amorphous phenomenon shaped by various factors, for example, personal experience, image as conveyed by media representation, etc., and is currently underresearched.

4. Professionalization And Power

The professionalization project of teachers in Anglophone countries emerged in the late nineteenth century, coinciding with the growth of mass public education and the formal training of teachers. It was shaped by teachers in the public sector whose salaries were ultimately paid from public funds. Teachers were thus de facto public employees, though the condition of their employment varied between countries. Their collective power was therefore shaped by their relationship with their employer. Two main strategies of professionalization were open to teachers: a professional body strategy, which focused on improving status on the assumption that this would extend to an enhancement in salaries and conditions, and a trade union strategy which put a priority on improving salaries and conditions and thence status. In most systems the trade unionism emerged as the major strategy though this was also accompanied by a ‘professional’ rhetoric. In the USA this tension is revealed in the contrasting strategies of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

A full discussion of teacher unionism is beyond the scope of this research paper. However, attention can be drawn to a group of studies which have explored the state– profession relationship in the UK in socio–historical detail (Ozga and Lawn 1981). These studies show that teacher professionalization was the function of a fluid exchange relationship between teacher unions and the state whereby the state conceded a ‘legitimated teacher professionalism’ in exchange for teachers’ acceptance that their legitimate sphere of professional activity was the classroom and not the political arena.

5. Critics Of Professionalization

The central criticism of professionalization is that it is a project for self-aggrandisement at the expense of client interests. Critics are to be found across the political spectrum, though their analyses are differently nuanced and they propose competing prescriptions. The targets of all critics tend to be the same, namely the ‘criteria’ which constitute the quest of professionalization. Just two of these will be considered: practitioner autonomy and theoretical knowledge.

One line of criticism is that teachers’ protection of their autonomy is a barrier to collaboration between teachers and their immediate clients: students, their families and the community. Ginsburg (1997) has contrasted a ‘professionalization’ project, which leads to teachers remaining aloof from their immediate clients, with a ‘political’ project, whereby teachers collaborate with their communities in order to pursue an equitable educational system. Hargreaves (1999) has envisioned a future whereby the teaching profession in partnership with the public becomes ‘a vigorous social movement of acting subjects rather than frogmarched individuals’ (p. 71). Another form of critique sees teachers’ autonomy as a mechanism for avoiding legitimate accountability to a variety of stakeholders, not least the state. The policies which follow from this view entail teachers accepting a managerially led collective accountability for their professional activities. A third form of the critique is that autonomy is a barrier to the increased professionalism of teachers as defined above. Lortie (1975) drew attention to the strong strain of individualism in the culture of teaching and a strong norm of noninterference which he saw as inhibiting teachers from building a strong technical culture.

The knowledge base of teaching has two components: knowledge of subject matter and knowledge of pedagogical, curricular and educational theory. It is the second of these which has been the focus of much criticism, not least from within the profession, as generations of teachers have questioned the relevance of theory. But there is an ambivalence here as teachers’ organizations see a strong knowledge base as facilitating a link with the academy which is seen as a source of prestige. However, the likelihood of the full academic acceptance of educational theory has been doubted. The thrust for building a body of educational theory came largely from teacher educators. These criticisms of autonomy and knowledge—and criticisms directed at codes of ethics, self-government, etc.—have, over the past 20 years, fuelled a political reconceptualization of teaching.

6. Deprofessionalization Or ‘The New Professionalism?’

The decline in professional society began in the mid-1970s as politicians in many countries began to question the perceived monopolistic position, producerism and the weak accountability of the professions, together with rising costs of professional services. In education this contributed to a worldwide ‘reform movement.’ The patterning of this movement varied across countries but some of the main characteristics are as follows: the decentralization of school management and the creation of local markets; the centralization of policies relating to the curriculum, its delivery, its objectives and its measured outcomes; the introduction of a range of accountability procedures nationally and locally; and an increased expectation of the services which the school would deliver.

Three major perspectives on these changes can be identified and discussed: proletarianization, deprofessionalization and ‘the new professionalism.’

Proletarianization focuses particularly on the intensification of teachers’ work as they are increasingly required to fulfill a wider range of functions, as much managerial as pedagogical. This process is seen as entailing the deskilling of teachers as their range of knowledge and skill is reduced and routinized and a loss of control over their work. The proletarianization position is a component of a social class perspective which is an alternative to the status perspective which dominates much of the literature on the professions (see Robertson 2000, for a post-Fordist analysis of teachers’ work, and Smyth et al. 2000, for a theoretical account and illustrative case study of the labor process approach to teachers’ work). The proletarianization perspective is also critical of professionalization as an attempt to enhance teacher autonomy as this is seen as inimical to the interests of students and their families.

The deprofessionalization perspective focuses on the degree to which teaching has regressed from the levels achieved in meeting the traditional criteria. The knowledge base of teaching is seen as being eroded with a move towards competency-based training and school-based professional development. Teacher autonomy is seen as undermined as curricular content and learning objectives become more highly specified. And the impact of teachers’ organizations on policy is seen as having been greatly reduced.

‘The new professionalism’ is an emerging concept and is not readily defined. Essentially it marks a move away from the idea of a profession and the ‘status’ dimension of professionalization. It implicitly shifts the emphasis to professionalism with its emphasis on skills and service. In political and administrative discourse it marks a growing emphasis on professional rather than profession and can be over-simply summarized as follows: to be ‘professional’ is to have acquired a set of skills through competency-based training which enables one to deliver efficiently, according to contract, a consumer-led service in compliance with accountability procedures collaboratively implemented and managerially assured.

In educational discourse ‘the new professionalism’ embraces a number of perspectives which accept, to a greater or lesser degree, the emphasis on professionalism defined as ‘commitment to the improvement of service.’ Writers who have delineated ‘the new professionalism’ include Caldwell and Spinks (1998) from the perspective of school management and Hargreaves (1994) from the perspective of teachers’ professional development.

7. Conclusion

The increasing worldwide political salience of education has led over the past 25 years to changes in the conceptualization of teaching as a profession. In the terminology adopted in this research paper, the shift has been from a focus on professionalization to a focus on deprofessionalization and, latterly, to professionalism, i.e. from a concern with status to a concern with the quality of service—without accepting uncritically political and managerial conceptions of quality. In fact, professionalism may entail a resistance to official policies in giving priority to the perceived needs of immediate clients.

The focus of enquiry has also changed. Of growing significance are studies of the teacher’s work (e.g. Little and McLaughlin 1993, Helsby 1999) and of teachers’ lives and careers (e.g. Day et al. 2000), which are open to the complexities of the situations. An example of this is an openness to the different meanings and practices conceptualized as collaboration or collegiality. These recent studies explore how collegiality can be professionally constraining or liberating, depending on the forms which it takes. It is the exploration of this complexity in local as well as national contexts, and of the relationship between ‘the new professionalism’ and ‘the new managerialism,’ that is beginning to characterize the study of teaching as a profession.


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