August 24, 2006

Why teaching isn't like law or medicine

The teacher certification debate at edspresso this week is interesting, and Ed Sector staffer Kevin Carey lays out the best of the anti-certification arguments. Then out pops this:

The fact that teacher certification is regulated by the government also makes it unduly subject to political pressures—one reason, I suspect, that the standards for entering the teaching profession are much lower than standards for law and medicine, two professions to which education is often compared, but whose standards are set by professional, not governmental, organizations.

As I've written elsewhere, there are a host of reasons why comparing teachers to lawyers and doctors is inapt, but regulation by the government isn't one of them.


Last I knew, I could go to jail practicing law or medicine without a license. There's no such thing as a temporarily-certified or emergency-certified doctor who can start operating on patients while taking classes. And have any of you ever heard of a sub doctor? EMTs, military medics, nurses, and physician assistants don't count: They're regulated too (if in the military by the DOD, not states).

The debate over certification this week thus far has glossed over the fact that there is in fact no mandatory certification in any state. There is revolving-door emergency or poorly-paid substitute labor. That's the side of teacher prep that few people talk about side-by-side with the regulations.

The real reasons why standards for entering teaching are lower than law and medicine?

  • Most teachers are paid publicly, and pay depends on politics.
  • Teaching is a feminized occupation. Because most teachers are women, and because we're talking about children, politics values teachers less than other occupations.
  • The quantity and quality of teachers represent a limited-resource problem: if you want a certain number of teachers and can only pay a certain amount in a labor market, ... well, you can fill in the reasoning here. (Incidentally, this logic holds regardless of the class size. Yes, you could dramatically increase standards and have class sizes of 60 or 70.  Does anyone really want that?)
  • Teachers did not represent the education occupation that used the Progressive Era to professionalize; administrators did. Teachers' occupational status is closer to that of nurses (another feminized occupation) than to doctors.

In addition, anyone who truly thinks doctors and lawyers are somehow at the top of their status needs to look in the nearby yellow pages to see how many solo practices vs. group practices exist and then need to ask doctors what they think of insurance pressures on their decision-making.

One challenge Carey made yesterday was about evidence and certification. I'm fairly sure a number of states require follow-up data gathering, but I also suspect those who do have never invested any money in the analysis of that data. In Florida, for example, it would be a (relatively) simple thing to link teachers to in-state schools and certification status (if some of the definition issues are changed for new teachers, but that's a complex database question). My college had to present data to the state on what happened to graduates. But someone needs to invest the money.

No, I'm not volunteering to be the principal investigator if someone wants to shovel me (or my college) cash for it. I'm just pointing out why the studies Carey wants (and would be fascinating!) currently don't exist. (Incidentally, such studies may well exist from the distant past, but this isn't my area of expertise, so I don't know the literature well.)

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Posted in Education policy on August 24, 2006 8:05 PM |