When the National Commission on Excellence in Education unleashed its blockbuster report, A Nation at Risk, in 1983, teaching was one of its foremost concerns. Slipshod preparation, shortages in key fields, and the inability to attract academically able people were just a few of the issues raised by the report. The commission made several recommendations to address these concerns, including higher teacher standards, performance-based pay, and alternative certification. Yet twenty years later, what started as an effort to improve the teaching profession has turned instead into professionalizing teacher improvement, with little to show in the way of improved school performance.
A Nation at Risk viewed teachers as crucial workers in an underperforming industry—U.S. schools. Almost before the ink was dry, however, Americans were presented with another view from a different report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century. This report said that teachers should shape school improvement, not merely be its instruments, and also shifted from the view that teachers should impart knowledge and skills to their students to the view that they should help children "learn how to learn."
A Nation Prepared was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation, which had powerful allies with great staying power, political clout, and deep pockets. As a result, its teacher professionalization recommendations have gained more traction than the reform strategies policies urged in A Nation at Risk.
Among these professionalizing legacies is an alphabet soup of new groups such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) that dictate how teachers are trained, licensed, and deployed. Nearly every state now has a partnership with NCATE, giving it power to shape and approve certification programs. Half the states and many districts offer salary increases per the recommendations of the NBPTS. And sixteen states have created "professional" teacher standards boards that are insulated from the influence of elected officials and taxpayers.
For all the political and budgetary resources that have gone into professionalizing teaching, however, we have seen few results in the classroom. Pupil performance today is no better than it was twenty years ago. Professionalization has also crippled other worthy education reforms, especially those based on choice and standards.
Resistance to results-free professionalism may be growing. Alternative certification programs, charter schools, and programs such as Teach for America are proving to be popular, effective, and free of the union-dominated cartel arrangements from which the professionalizers draw strength. Skeptics are proliferating, too, now including U.S. education secretary Rod Paige, whose 2002 report on teacher quality explained that raising teacher standards is only part of the solution; states must also tear down the wall that keeps many talented individuals out of the profession.
Such talk alarms the professionalizers, who have grown accustomed to friends (and funds) in Washington. The funny thing is, Secretary Paige's advice is similar to that provided by the National Commission back in 1983. Maybe this time we will heed it and focus on boosting teachers' effectiveness instead of endlessly professionalizing them.