Even the liberal New Republic . . .

by Andrew Gelman on August 7, 2011 · 10 comments

in Education

Mark Palko catches this one from New Republic columnist Jonathan Chait:

The old liberal slogan always demanded that we “treat teachers like professionals.” That entails some measure of accountability—we can debate the metrics—which allows both that very bad teachers be fired and that very good ones can obtain greater pay and recognition. That’s the definition of a professional career track . . .

As Palko writes, it’s a bit odd that Chait is listing being easy to fire as part of the definition of being a professional. For one thing, many professionals are self-employed, and many others have a pretty narrow salary range. Here’s Wikipedia:

A professional is a member of a vocation founded upon specialized educational training. Examples of professions include: medicine, law, engineering and social work. The word professional traditionally means a person who has obtained a degree in a professional field. The term is used more generally to denote a white collar worker, or a person who performs commercially in a field typically reserved for hobbyists or amateurs. In western nations, such as the United States, the term commonly describes highly educated, mostly salaried workers, who enjoy considerable work autonomy, a comfortable salary, and are commonly engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work. . . . Because of the personal and confidential nature of many professional services and thus the necessity to place a great deal of trust in them, most professionals are held up to strict ethical and moral regulations.

I don’t see anything there about getting fired.

I can understand how Chait, working in an uncertain field such as journalism, can feel some impatience with teachers and other workers who have the expectation of jobs for life. If I had no job security, I might be annoyed with people who expect it in their lives. Maybe it’s a good idea to fire some people—Chait is talking only about the very bad teachers, he’s not recommending that 80% of teachers be fired or anything so extreme as all that. But I don’t think that being vulnerable to being fired is part of “the definition of a professional career track.”


Adam Hughes August 7, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Good point. To expand the wiki-definition: in Bureaucracy (1989), James Q. Wilson argues that the professional is defined by adherence to “the standards of the external reference group,” that is, “organized groups of fellow practitioners located outside the agency [school, in this case]” (60). And according to Steven Brint (1994), “the essential characteristics of professions as a form of organization, therefore, have nothing to do with public service, ethical standards, or collegial control, however often these ideals and practices may grow up in support of the profession’s claims to distinction” (23).

Luis August 7, 2011 at 7:14 pm

Being vulnerable to being fired is part of pretty much *every* career track other than self-employment these days, and for most career tracks it has been that way for decades. And of course, even when you’re self-employed, your clients can (and do) fire you for incompetence. That’s not the same as a full firing-for-cause, of course, but depending on the client it can be just as financially destabilizing and emotionally demoralizing.

So you’ll forgive those of us who are professionals and don’t have tenure from finding this post more pedantic than informative. :/

A more Monkey Cage-y post would perhaps have some research data on what percentage of US employees have tenure or tenure-like employment protections? Or perhaps survey data on what Americans as a whole think of tenure, either generally or for school teachers in specific? At least some of that data must be out there, and I suspect that the numbers on the second point bode very poorly for teachers and teachers’ unions. (My own personal sense is that tenure is so unpopular that it should be a huge bargaining chip for teachers – offer to trade that for more money, reduced class sizes, etc., and it’d be a good way to separate those who are anti-teacher/anti-union from those who are actively pro-student.)

Andrew Gelman August 7, 2011 at 7:17 pm


I realize that many workers are vulnerable to being fired, and I understand people’s resenting those who have job security. And if Chait had said what you said, that most Americans don’t have job security and so he doesn’t think teachers should either, then that would be fine. I wouldn’t agree with him, but it would be a reasonable argument. But this has nothing to do with “a professional career track.” Chait was saying that if teachers want to be treated like professionals, they should accept a greater risk of being fired, as if that’s part of what being a professional is. I don’t see where that is coming from at all.

GonzoLaw August 7, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Meh. It’s code… a way to talk about teachers being unionized.

Scott Monje August 7, 2011 at 8:15 pm

“Chait is talking only about the very bad teachers, he’s not recommending that 80% of teachers be fired or anything so extreme as all that.”

Isn’t that a bargaining tactic? Once the rules are changed, is someone going to hold administrators to that?

Joel August 7, 2011 at 8:34 pm

I’m sure there are empirical studies that could indicate whether or Chait is working with a definition of professional that corresponds to reality. At the top of the comments, Adam supplies the most important piece of missing information in Wikipedia’s conventional definition: the agency that upholds those “strict ethical and moral regulations.” Historically, professions have defined those regulations for themselves, using the state as an adjunct to their professional authority. Under those circumstances, “treating teachers like professionals” would mean the exact opposite of what Chait suggests it means. “We” (I assume this means the public) wouldn’t be debating the metrics at all; if we treated them as professionals, teachers would debate and define the metrics. As the title of this post hints, there was a time that the editors of The New Republic thought unions should be treated more like professional associations than a bunch of reprobates.

Mark Palko August 7, 2011 at 9:09 pm

We should also add that the subject was tenured teachers so we’re talking about reneging on assurances of job security that were contractual agreed upon and came after a period of proven performance.

And It’s worth noting that not all plans for getting rid of underperforming teachers are automatically rejected by the unions.

From Dana Goldtein’s indispensable education blog (http://www.danagoldstein.net/dana_goldstein/2011/06/a-glut-of-new-reports-raise-doubts-about-obamas-teacher-agenda.html):

All that is true in the case of MSLA, although we also know peer-review has also worked in some large American school districts, most notably Columbus and Toledo Ohio, both of which weeded out a significant number of poor-performing teachers using such systems. Now the New York Times’ Michael Winerip profiles PAR, the teacher peer-review plan in Montgomery County, Maryland, which has fired 200 poor-performing teachers and encouraged another 300 to quit since its inception 11 years ago.

‘Unfortunately, federal dollars from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program are not going where Dr. Weast and the PAR program need to go. Montgomery County schools were entitled to $12 million from Race to the Top, but Dr. Weast said he would not take the money because the grant required districts to include students’ state test results as a measure of teacher quality. “We don’t believe the tests are reliable,” he said. “You don’t want to turn your system into a test factory.”’

Weast, Montgomery’s superintendent, is a visionary guy who speaks frequently about the need to build relationships of trust between communities, school administrators, and teachers–and actually follows up on the rhetoric with great policy-making. I’ll give him the last word, from an April interview with the Washington Post:

You have close relations with labor.

I have close relations with people who work in the school business. They happen to be unionized, and I find that good, because it’s easier to actually visit with them because they have an organized structure. We have 22,000 employees. It’s just hard to have a sit-down conversation with all 22,000 of them.

Is there a downside to working with unions?


Edwin Perello August 7, 2011 at 9:28 pm

I’m sorry but, what? Perhaps Chait should revisit accountability in the field of journalism. Jennifer Rubin from the Washignton Post is constantly incorrect and spreading misinformation and obfuscating things whenever she isn’t doing that. When is she going to get fired?

Barry August 8, 2011 at 4:08 pm

H*ll, Chait’s record on the Iraq War would be a professional embarrassment, if it weren’t actually proof that he met the ‘professional standard’ for the MSM during that time.

Andrew: “I can understand how Chait, working in an uncertain field such as journalism, can feel some impatience with teachers and other workers who have the expectation of jobs for life. ”

Take the most secure, retired-in-place pundit, and they’ll have the same attitude – and not just towards teachers, but towards anybody with job security, save themselves.

It’s the party line of the elites – they get bailed out, subsidized and protected; the rest of us are always eligible for organ donation and entering the Soylent Green program.

Andrew Gelman August 8, 2011 at 5:09 pm


Even the most secure pundit is aware of the changes in the news media and the possibility that their platforms will disappear. Look at Mickey Kaus, who moved from Even the Liberal New Republic to State to Newsweek and is now at the Daily Caller. He can’t go much lower than that, now that the News of the World has shut down! My point is that everyone in journalism has friends who are being reorganized out of a job. They don’t have job security and might well resent people who do have it.

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