KEATING: Restoring Professionalism to Education

May 21, 2012


Steve Jobs, the computer pioneer, warned Barack Obama that there can be no effective educational reform unless teachers are treated as professionals, not like workers in an assembly line (“Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson). James Buchanan, the Nobel Laureate in Economics, noted that education is a unique activity: Those who consume it do not purchase it; those who produce it do not sell it; and those who finance it do not control it.

What did Mr. Jobs mean in saying that teachers must be treated like professionals? Wikipedia says that a professional is a person, paid to undertake a specialized set of tasks and to complete them for a fee. Although the term is currently applied to many, the term professional traditionally referred to doctors, lawyers, clergy and commissioned military officers.

The word differentiates amateur sport players from paid players, and refers as well to the quality of workmanship or service. At times, professional is used to define groups of well-educated individuals with considerable work autonomy but who, nevertheless, are subject to strict codes of conduct.

Professional behavior is not universally admired. Professionals are sometimes criticized as being less creative and diverse due to to the subtle indoctrination and filtering which accompanies professional training (“Disciplined Minds” by Jeff Schmidt). Certainly, though, Steve Jobs, developer of the Mac, iPod, etc., did not intend that education become less creative.

Could it be that the professionalism that Mr. Jobs desired has to do with the relationship between student and teacher? The professional operates in trust with his or her client, often in confidentiality. Neither professional nor client can be perfectly certain that the subject material can be learned, the body healed, or the case ruled in the client’s favor. The client is assured only of the process and the professional’s intention to do no harm. At times, a professional is expected to place the interest of a client ahead of his or her own interest, as fire and police professionals did on 9/11.

Jobs would probably acknowledge two cases in which instructors were permitted to act as professionals: Annie Sullivan and Jaime Escalante portrayed respectively in the movies “The Miracle Worker” and “Stand and Deliver.” There is, on the other hand, a pervasive perception in American society that professionals need to be taken down a notch, as was Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In coaching, however, if not in the classroom, professional intensity continues to be accepted and respected. At home in Indiana and across the country, the movie, “Hoosiers,” is an American classic.

Some believe that professionalism transcends monetary considerations with a duty not to abandon clients’ inability to pay. Recall the attorney, Atticus, in “To Kill a Mockingbird” accepting payment in kind. In addition to respect and some degree of autonomy, professionals need payment for services rendered. Sigmund Freud insisted that therapy would never be considered a profession without the ability to charge for service. The fee is important, even when it does not fully compensate for services received, because it clearly indicates to whom the professional has fiduciary responsibility.

Has the sheer complexity of modern life rendered professions obsolete? The explosion of knowledge and accessibility to the lay person appear to diminish the expertise of any individual professional. In medicine, for example, every square inch of the body has been assigned to distinct specialties. Elementary teachers, as well, are certified in reading, language arts or math. Specialization, along with third-party payments, accounts for some of the weakening in professional-client relationships.

Apart from technological considerations and dislike of hierarchies, something more sinister has affected our perception of professionals. The abuse of children and other professional malfeasance has put us on guard and lowered trust. “Professional” associations do not censor member wrongdoings or appear concerned with advancing knowledge and good practices. Rather, they act as interest groups enhancing the power and income of their membership.

Was it ever the case that providers acted unselfishly in the best interest of clients and were given respect for doing so? Has the time come to grow up and come to terms with the concept of Santa Claus? And, yet, it may still be possible to somehow redefine the fiduciary responsibilities of those delivering critical services. If Mr. Jobs is correct in saying that education, and perhaps other services, cannot be effectively reformed without treating providers as “professionals,” then we must somehow restore trust.

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation living in South Bend, is co-author of Microeconomics for Public Managers, Wiley/Blackwell, 2009.


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