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The ERIC/OSEP Special Project

OSEP, Ideas that Work

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Development funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs


Is Teaching a Profession?

What makes an occupation a profession? Are educators stalled at the stage of skilled occupation or semi-profession or still moving toward full professional standing?

In The Development of Teaching as a Profession, Vince Connelly and Michael S. Rosenberg address issues concerning the status of teaching as a profession in comparison to the development of four other fields: medicine, law, engineering, and social work. The historical analysis shows how issues in the development of these fields were resolved over time and how these issues are similar to those facing education today.

For example, in medicine, doctors' preparation programs went through wide variations in program requirements and candidate qualifications before the American Medical Association (AMA) began to exercise control over admissions to educational programs, program content, and school accreditation. The issues facing medical preparation programs included difficulty in distinguishing qualified from unqualified candidates, separating legitimate programs from those that were shoddy and entrepreneurial, and sorting out programs that taught fads and alternative therapies from those based in science.

The difficulties that historically faced medical preparation programs bring to mind some of the questions currently being asked in education: What are adequate qualifications for teacher candidates, how to separate qualified from unqualified teacher candidates, what constitutes acceptable teacher quality, and what constitutes a quality teacher education program? These questions surface in debates about the adequacy of teacher preparation, alternative certification, and state definitions of licensure.

In the field of law, state governments insisted that the only acceptable method of preparing for the bar exam was law school training, and while the states did not prescribe curricula, they exercised control of the quantity and quality of lawyers by requiring the bar exam. In education, we are still debating the qualifications and competencies a teacher must have before entering the classroom.

Engineering developed into a publicly directed, market-driven profession providing an independent, contractual type of service. Teaching is beginning to encounter a push toward a market approach, as evidenced by debates about charter schools, school choice, and school vouchers.

The history of social work reflects a continual conflict between a focus on changing individuals and the goal of societal reform. Like teachers, social workers are positioned between serving individuals and serving the system. Whether teachers will be perceived as independent professionals in the future or as domesticated government workers remains a critical issue for the profession.

The authors of this paper conclude that teaching is not yet a profession, but it may be on a developmental trajectory toward becoming one. It shares characteristics with earlier debates in the development of medicine, law, and engineering; it reflects the conflict about whether a professional is an elitist or an expert; and it includes locus-of-control issues, with control of the field ranging between free-market forces and government control. In the process of conducting this analysis, the authors pose some stimulating questions about education, questions that provoke thought about how we as educators will address some of the issues that we face.

This paper is one of 20 synthesis papers being developed by the Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education (COPSSE). COPSSE has developed a research program based on four guiding questions:

  • What characterizes efficient and effective practice in initial preparation as measured by beginning teacher quality and retention?
  • How do school and district context influence beginning teacher quality and retention?
  • How does state policy context affect the shortage of qualified special education teachers?
  • How does policy context affect the content and process of teacher education?

Directed by Paul Sindelar and Mary Brownell, COPSSE is supported by a cooperative agreement between the U. S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the University of Florida (Grant # H325Q000002). For more information, see the project web site at http://www.copsse.org

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Last updated: September 16, 2003

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