R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Professionalism is Just a Seven-Letter Word

The task of improving American education has long been on the to-do list of historians, sociologists, policy pundits, lawmakers, corporate executives, philanthropists, educators, and parents.  That crew includes David Tyack and Larry Cuban, whose 1997 book, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public Education Reform, offers up some “psychological distance on issues obscured by the passions of the present.” Here’s their take on early care and education:

Generation after generation of Americans have discovered that working mothers need help in caring for their children, but they have tended to make patchwork day-care arrangements, assuming that the problem of minding the children would wither away when the family regained its rightful status.  Once people recognize that the need for day care is not a new or temporary problem, they might conclude that its permanence is best understood as the results of long-term trends in families and public institutions.

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In exchange for some historic perspective, I can almost forgive them their scientific distance, and the use of the archaic terms “day care” and “minding,” each of which sets my teeth on edge. (Neuroscience was just beginning to send forth its gold nuggets at the time they were writing their book.) Needless to say, we’re still waiting for the family to regain its rightful status.

One of our foremost “passions of the present,” is professionalism—or the lack thereof—among  the teacher corps.  It’s become a “rallying cry,” as recently noted by the New America Foundation’s Conor Williams, in the vociferous battles about standards, accountability, and what exactly we need to do to support the preparation and ongoing professional development of educators.   Jal Mehta, heir to Tyack and Cuban,  and author of The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling,  as well as a recent piece in Foreign Affairs adapted from same, has joined the chorus.  He laments the absence of a “thoroughgoing and systematic approach to educational improvement” pointing to other countries—including top PISA-scoring nations like Canada, Finland, and Singapore—which, he notes, “choose their teachers from among their most talented graduates, train them extensively, create opportunities for them to collaborate with their peers…and underwrite all these efforts with a strong welfare state.”

Of course, Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, a great champion of the profession and author of The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, has been driving home all of the above for decades–in the United States, where social welfare is decidedly less popular.  The take-away: Other countries  do a much better job of  nurturing human capital, developing knowledge, and supporting teachers’ growth.

As noted here, there and everywhere, the issue of preparation and ongoing professional development for the early nurturers of human capital is hardly academic.  While K-12 talks about high-quality training and evaluation, licensure, credentialing, and tenure, the virtues and downside of merit pay, and other “buzzwords” of the day, ECE is still marginalized, stuck on the basics, with preparation and ongoing professional development works in progress.  More than a decade ago, the National Academies of Science released From Neurons to Neighborhoods, which took this bull by the horns, declaring the time “long overdue for society to recognize the significance of out-of-home relationships for young children, to esteem those who care for them…and to compensate them adequately, as a means of supporting stability, and quality in these relationships.”

When the NAS recently went back to the drawing board, alas, the findings were not encouraging.  Here’s their assessment—at a glance—of the ECE workforce today, from The Early Childhood Care and Education Workforce: Challenges and Opportunities:

…most teachers and caregivers continue to receive low wages and to have low status, and are often described as “babysitters” or as “watching” children.  Teachers in publicly funded preschool settings have fared somewhat better, but even these positions are viewed as low-status roles compared with elementary and secondary educators.  The results of these circumstances include high turnover and few career opportunities.

The NAS workshop, from which this report issued, was convened to define and describe the workforce, examine the characteristics that inform children’s development, and offer strategies for building the workforce and the profession.  As for practical considerations, such as the ability to support a family, you might want to check out the story of one preschool teacher, who resorted to selling chili by the side of the road.

Tinkering towards Utopia is a tough job, and policymaking excruciatingly incremental, but someone’s got to do it.  We need to look beyond the noise of the debate—and certainly beyond polls—and take an honest look at ourselves, and the limited value we assign, both to children, our human capital, and to those who nurture their potential.

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