The original version of this paper was presented at the American Educational Studies Association Fall Conference, November, 1986, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

School Reform via Teacher Professionalization: Is it Cost-effective?
Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D. & Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

edited 3/13/10

A Past Blizzard of Proposals

The 1980's saw a multitude of reports on the nation's schools and related proposals for reform. The most startling, A Nation At Risk (1) was released twenty-seven years ago by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The report warned that America risked losing the economic competition between nations because of the poor quality of its schools. Indeed, the Commission claimed that the nation's schools were so inadequate that if they had been forced upon us by a foreign power they would be a cause for war.

Six months earlier a committee of twenty-one educators headed by Mortimer Adler had published another manifesto. This Paideia Proposal (2) presumed that every child was open to learning subject matter emphasizing humanities and the liberal arts. It called for a standardized K-12 curriculum that was concerned with the acquisition of organized knowledge, the development of intellectual skills and the enlarged understanding of ideas and values through traditional studies.

In that same year the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching issued High School (3) which was based on observations of pre-selected schools across the country. It called for the reaffirmation of our national committment to public schooling, the minimalization of the educational bureaucracy, and eight similar goals.

Clustered to either side of these reports were others: The Educational Quality Project of the College Board issued Academic Preparation for College (4); the Twentieth Century Fund published Making the Grade (5); the National Science Foundation reported on Educating Americans for the 21st Century (6); Theodore Sizer released Horace's Compromise (7) the first of three planned volumes derived from a study of high school education; the Education Commission for the States released Action for Excellence (8) and so forth and so on.

In this seemingly unending cascade, an even later release rivaled the considerable impact of A Nation at Risk. The report (May, 1986) by the 14-member Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession was titled, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century. Unlike most of the others, the Carnegie study argued that school reform was impossible without a fundamental restructuring of teaching and teacher preparation. It stated that meaningful educational reform required nothing less than the professionalization of teaching.

A Nation Prepared ; and, an Unaddressed Issue

The Carnegie Task Force report, endorsed by the presidents of America's two major teacher organizations, was radical in its scope. It called for creating a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. It endorsed revamping the school bureaucracy to permit a professional level of autonomy and responsibility for teachers. It advocated restructuring the teaching force and introduced a new category of "lead teachers". It maintained that a bachelors degree in arts and sciences should be a prerequisite for the study of teaching. It endorsed the development of a new professional curriculum in graduate schools of education leading to a Master in Teaching degree. And it stated flatly that teachers' salaries and career opportunities must be competitive with those of other professions.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching was no stranger to the professionalization of occupations. In 1910 it sponsored Abraham Flexner's famous report on American medicine. This "Flexner Report" (9) is thought by many to have initiated the professionalization of American medical practice. Whether this report initiated, as some argue, or merely anticipated professionalization, it was the implementation of its recommendations for improvements in medical education which seem chiefly responsible for the occupation's transformation and related improvements in health care. The Foundation, thus, in now aimed to professionalize teaching through similar modifications in the belief that this would improve the Nation's schools.

This paper rexamines to some extent teaching as a profession -- an issue given detailed treatment over fifty years ago by Myron Lieberman in Education as a Profession (10). However, our intention here is not to review or revise the complex of characteristics which Lieberman claimed made an occupation a profession. Rather, we will examine an issue which has been gnawing at the edges of educational reform since long before the reports of even a generation ago. It is the sort of issue that one intuitively senses to be at the bottom of things, an "elephant in the room," that is seldom discussed because of the fear, perhaps, that there may be little or no consensus about how the questions it raises -- new "cans of worms" -- might be dealt with.

The Issue? Is the professionalization of teaching cost-effective?

One raises questions of cost-effectiveness at the risk of sounding excessively materialistic. Educators routinely defend against such questions by invoking the intrinsic values their efforts purportedly serve and by insinuating that questions of effectiveness are secondary at best. While this maneuver shields against the perception that pedagogical skill is generally inversely related to status within the teaching ranks, it also obfuscates very basic issues.

The politically astute recognize quite early on that to question cost-effectiveness threatens to gore the oxen of too many supportive constituencies. Thus they settle for vague formulations that serve, not the increase of learning, but their own ease of mind. For example, the very big business of textbook publishing, as well as those enterprises which supply myriad materials of varying utility, cannot, we imagine, sanguinely face the prospect of teachers exercising control over which materials are bought. Similarly, state governments, school administrators, school boards, teachers' organizations and the like would be faced with potentially destabilizing issues if cost-effectiveness became the focal point of inquiries into the wisdom of reform proposals.

Let us recast the question somewhat: As teaching becomes more professionalized, will it become more cost-effective?

The vagueness of this question should not precipitate its dismissal. Clearly what we have here is a legitimate concern formulated in an incomplete manner.

What is teaching? What is professionalization? Can teaching be professionalized? And if it can what will be the results? Are these results desirable? By whom? And why? And who will bear the costs of such changes?

These seem to be the questions that underlie the formulation about cost-effectiveness. But we would add that it is not our intent to determine -- in some absolute sense -- answers to them. We will not be concerned with what teaching or professionalization "really" is. Rather we will argue that if by "teaching" is intended to be understood, say, "activities typical of appointed school system classroom employees", then certain things can be said vis-a-vis "professionalization," if by this is meant, say, "increase of decision-making power in the workplace," or whatever. After all, there is no fixed meaning to any of these terms; they are slippery and evasive for good practical reason. As opposed to the ethereal universe of discourse in which this paper exists, in the real world no one's purposes are served by pressing too tightly on these concepts. We are all pretty much in the same overloaded lifeboat and do not relish the prospect of rocking it too vigorously. But let's rock it just a bit. Not only because it's entertaining, but because some of the dead weight might just go overboard.

Discussions of educational reform are permeated with a kind of invidious consensualism. We indulge ourselves the language of commonweal to exorcise the Hobbesian demon of universal conflict, the war of each against all. But with the demon goes its familiars, the questions, "What does it cost?", "Who pays?", "Who benefits'?"

Reform proposals, typically, speak in terms of altruistic motives. To be sure, all of us, as advocates, are in the habit of speaking about our goals as the goals of schooling. We apotheosize our personal agendas into abstract "desirables." Private motives are utterly obscured. Now, for sake of analysis we will turn this on its head. We will assume that behind every educational reform suggestion is nothing more than self-interest. We will forego the customary rhetoric of objectives and goals and focus instead on whose objectives and whose goals they are and on who is really being served by them.

Dodging the Issue: Some Proposed Reforms. Cui Bono?

Let us first turn to a fairly obvious case. Faced with a teacher shortage in fields such as mathematics and chemistry, many states deinstitutionalized teacher education by opening up alternative routes to certification. They made it possible for unemployed chemists, college educated housewives, retired business people and the like to become teachers by simply passing a subject matter test and possibly completing some very primitive pre-induction survival training. This and some preliminary supervision were supposed to qualify them for a life time of teaching.

These "reforms" were accompanied by the usual rhetoric about how such plans would open up teaching to a lot of bright, idealistic people who could be attracted to teaching if, in the words of Texas millionaire industrialist and erstwhile educator H. Ross Perot, "We don't put them through that Chinese fire drill called teacher education."(11)         

After all, went the argument, it is not as if dropping professional education courses is all that important. Colorado Governor Dick Lamm, who led a fight to open up alternative routes to a teaching career in his home state, made that clear when he observed, "List the ten most somnalent courses in the University, and nine of them will be education courses. "(12)

On the surface such an approach makes a certain amount of sense. Who can argue against educated housewives or retired chemists getting a chance to teach? Why should they have to take courses in pedagogy in order to gain access to the classroom?

But when we turn the matter on its head, assuming that these "reforms" are motivated by nothing more lofty than self-interest we get a very different sense of things. Viewed from that angle, states are circumventing rather than reforming and revitalizing teacher education simply because it creates a plentiful supply of cheap and compliant help on the quick.

If H. Ross Perot was correct in claiming that, "Of the sixty-five education colleges in Texas, maybe ten are worth anything"(13) one must stop and wonder if it would not have been wiser to exercise state prerogatives and make the other fifty five just as worthwhile. After all, it should not have been all that difficult to determine what it was that made these programs effective if Perot had really wanted to know.

The crux of the matter is that as the changed status of women has freed them from the necessity of serving as vassals in our schools, we are really in a quandry as to how we find anything but warm bodies to man our schools. All the rhetoric about opening things up and developing alternatives is simply a smokescreen covering a lowering of certification requirements because we lack the consensus to raise the incentives to a level competitive with jobs in the remainder of the economy.

Proponents of such alternative route reforms are quick to point up the benefits that college professors of education derive from increased certification requirements. They carefully avoid similar insights into their own motives. Of course, it is true that professors of education tend to disguise their self-interest when touting the benefits of more professional knowledge for teachers. They speak to us of the sacredness of the trust placed in those who touch the lives of children; they speak to us of recognition of individual differences or the maximization of human potential. They speak to us of the need for society to maintain and renew itself through education. But, they never speak of the effect that an increase in the professional requirements for certification would have on their careers or bank accounts.

This particular disingenuousness should not overly engage one's moral indignation, however, because it is a virtually universal stratagem in public discourse. Would Albert Shanker have ever considered a definition of professionalism that would have reduced the power of the A.F.T.? Would a notion of professionalism which seriously threatens the distinction between administrators and teachers be accepted by the American Association of Secondary School Principals? Would the National Association of School Boards relinquish control to their increasingly "professional" staff?

The concept of teaching as a profession clearly expands, shrinks or metamorphizes according to the interests served by it. Related concepts can be expected to be similarly malleable. (For example, in the 1980's Philadelphia school administrators, in struggle with their superintendent, joined the Teamsters Union raising the expectation in some quarters that future Hoffa-like disappearances would be treated as cases of "administrative transfer.")

One might object that our approach presumes psychological egoism, a vacuous theory, because any behavior can be reduced to a selfish motive. This is not the case. We concede that individuals might have altruistic motives. However, we are not impressed by claims that they often do. (It should not only be business people who are permitted the luxury of confessing their pursuit of individual gain.)

The rhetoric of pious altruism that has evolved out of education's being publicly financed has effectively obscured the issue of who besides school people benefit from school taxes. More importantly, it has obscured a hard-headed look at who else might benefit from the professionalization of teaching once we go beyond those with immediate self-interest. Our concern that we may lack the consensus needed to effect control of needed resources presses us to obscure our differences for the sake of an essentially impotent "agreement."

What will happen with professionalization, given that there are problems of political feasibility that clarity about cost-effectiveness exacerbates? We might look at a similar reform issue to find a parallel.

Who Pays For the Justice of Affirmative Action?

Traditionally women have suffered job discrimination in many markets. Consider Academia. In the name of justice, equitable treatment has been attempted. A good, sound moral idea. But it is politically unfeasible to reallocate retributive costs upon those who have benefitted most from prior discrimination, in general, senior, tenured white male academics.  So Affirmative Action tacitly redefines the "guilty" group so that politically impotent non-beneficiaries are included, e.g. younger, white male competitors for new positions. It is from these alone that the major costs of Affirmative Action are exacted, while the rhetoric of justice salves the consciences of those who still pretend to moral interest.

As with affirmative action, professionalization as reform will bestow benefits of substance upon those organized enough to extract them. The costs will likely be hidden by defining all outcomes obtained as benefits and by invoking "society" or a similar reified entity as a beneficiary. Those with the insight to see what is happening may attribute it to "irrationality" rather than intelligent greed in a Hobbesian state of nature. Thus we preserve our sense of community. Thus we will keep our lifeboat stable.

There may well be "communal" benefits obtained serendipitously through the professionalization of teachers, just as they have through affirmative action or the professionaliation of doctors, veterinarians, podiatrist and lawyers. (By "communal benefits" we mean those enjoyed every now and then by people too weak to extort them.) There may even be cause for hope that the professionalization reform holds more promise of general benefits than most reforms. After all, the Carnegie Commission, its most powerful advocate, has no discernible direct advantage in such an outcome. Perhaps they are well aware of teacher's vested interests, but see broader interests being served as well.

Returning to our life boat metaphor, it is possible that the Commission calculates that putting teachers at the educational tiller is more likely to keep us all afloat. In other words, money spent on professionalizing teaching in the manner they prescribe may be the most cost-effective way of making meaningful reforms regardless of the fact that teachers will also benefit most in the process.

The question remains to be answered: Is professionalization cost-effective? It would seem that the answer is: "It all depends on who pays, who benefits and on what exactly is meant by 'professionalization'." Can we get beyond the obvious to something useful?

A Veil of Ignorance Approach

Suppose we were totally ignorant of the costs and benefits we might personally suffer or enjoy and just had to formulate rules of caution about the value of proposed reforms. What might we be cautious about?

Our cautions might be the following:

a. If the reform benefits big organizations rather than small ones, it is suspect. "Economies of scale" are mostly mythological.

b. Distrust, initially, the claims of the advocates of reform.

c. Distrust, initially, anyone who argues against reform.

d. Distrust, initially, those who are disinterested in reform.

e. Don't indulge yourself in euphoria; every option costs somebody something.

Our distrust should be maintained until reasonable argument, evidence and consideration of all affected by the proposed change warrant its withdrawal.

Through our veil of ignorance we come close to reiterating Murphy's Law or its correlates. But in the final analysis it is clear that we do not operate behind a veil of ignorance. And because we do know something about the general situation and our particular circumstances, we can reasonably hope to figure out which group's benefits are most likely linked with our own. But avoiding the cost-effectiveness issue is not a step in the direction of reason.


(1)   National Commission on Excellence in Education, (1983), A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

(2)   Adler, MJ. (1982) The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. New York: MacMillan.)

(3)   Boyer, EL. (1983) High School: A Report On Secondary Education In America. New York: Harper and Row.

(4)   Academic Preparation For College: What Students Need To Know And Be Able To Do. New York, The College Board. 1983.

(5)   Making The Grade: Report Of The Twentieth Century Fund Task Force On Federal Elementary And Secondary Education Policy. NewYork: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1983.

(6)   Educating Americans For The 21st Century: A plan of action for improving mathematics, science and technological education for all American elementary and secondary school students so that their achievement is the best in the world by 1995. Washington, DC.: National Science Board Commission on Precollegiate Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology, National Science Foundation. 1983.

(7)    Sizer., T.R. (1984)., Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma Of The American High School, Boston, Houghton Mifflin.

(8)    Action For Excellence: A Comprehensive Plan To Improve Our Nation's Schools. Washington, Dc: Task Force On Education For Economic Growth, Education Commission for the States, 1983.

(9)     Flexner., A. (1910), Medical Education In The United States And Canada: A Report To The Carnegie Foundation For The Advancement Of Teaching. New York., Arno Press.

(10) Lieberman, M. (1956). Education As A Profession. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Prentice -- Hall.

(11) Wire service report confirmed by H.. Ross Perot's Personal Secretary, June 1985.

(12) Wire service report confirmed by Governor Lamm's Press Secretary, June 1985

(13)   Perot, Ibid.