Written by: Jorge Mahecha
Neither medicine, nor engineering, nor law came into being with a professional status. The same clearly holds true for teaching. These modern elite professions acquired their status during the 20th Century, and in a few cases even earlier. Through their rise, these former occupations became professions, not in the narrow dictionary meaning of the word, but in a fuller sociological sense. This fuller sense includes a number of elements that are important for understanding the teaching profession.
A degree, usually at the college level, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a high-status profession. You cannot practice as a physician without a degree of doctor of medicine, and the same holds true with lawyers and engineers. But teaching is an exception, and requirements for holding a degree vary across Latin America. In Brazil, it is necessary to study pedagogy to become a teacher. In Colombia, the case is nearly reversed: It is unconstitutional to demand training in education as a qualification for teaching. In fact, many elite private bilingual schools give preference to hiring teachers without teaching degrees. So here, while one would assume a degree to be a necessary requirement, this is not the case.
Another characteristic of professions in addition to a degree―and closely linked with it―is accreditation. The issue of accreditation basically has to do with the process through which a person becomes a member of a profession. In order to become a doctor, engineer or lawyer, it is necessary to undertake highly selective undergraduate studies. In the case of teaching, this is not a requirement, as I described in another paper . In fact, a recent study in Colombia indicates that a student with low test scores on national exams is five times more likely to end up as a teacher than a student with high scores. I also noted in that same paper that not only are entrance requirements low for courses of study in teaching, but also that the quality of teacher training programs is poor. In Colombia in 2010, 94 percent these programs were not accredited.
Sophisticated professions such as medicine and engineering have developed characteristic social organizations: professional associations. These organizations play a dual role: They admit as well as accredit members to the professional society. But perhaps their most important function is to define and monitor compliance with the profession’s performance standards. For this reason, governments use professional engineering associations to determine, for example, issues of legal liability in the case of a defective infrastructure work. Or one can go a medical association to learn if there are grounds for medical malpractice in the care of a patient and if this malpractice resulted health consequences for a patient. There is no such thing in teaching: There is no professional association that considers complaints about a child’s poor educational outcomes. Nor to determine a child’s ability to master reading and critical thinking at an acceptable level. Who can explain to the bewildered parents of a child who had always done so well in high school why the child is having such a hard time in the university? Were the student’s earlier grades an undeserved gift?
The existence of such complaints would apparently demand the establishment of professional teaching standards. But this does not seem to be an issue for teachers, who are more interested in union demands, not professional concerns. Their demands take the form of angry claims to a natural right. This brings to mind a quote from a study on teacher professionalism:
“… As can be seen from a review of literature on professionalization, the status of an occupation is not a gift from the outside world, given by an appreciative audience, and in recognition of its invaluable contributions to society. Instead, professional status is eagerly sought by those in the field, fought for everyday contexts and in the political scene, and fiercely protected once obtained.”( Crowe, 2008 )
Academic degree, accreditation, and professional association. Of these and others, the only one available in many Latin American countries is academic degrees, and this is the least essential and the least selective. There are no suitable qualifications and certification processes that guarantee the creation of a body of qualified professionals. There are no professional standards for teaching. Nor are there professional teacher associations. What can be done?
As Crowe stated, professional status is something that is built, not something that is demanded. Building a professional status takes decades, and elevating this status takes decades more. Instead of continuing to demand this recognition by society―a recognition that society will only grant condescendingly and in empty phrases, I propose that we who really want to improve teaching do something concrete: Let’s form professional teachers’ associations. Let’s talk about standards of professionalism and professional standards in teaching.