Prestige in Our Profession: the Competent Expert vs. the Skilled Adventurer

In the midst of a really good read, I noted in Amanda Ripley’s the smartest kids in the world, and how they got that way, the following quote:

We [Americans] were trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis . . . If we wanted to get serious about education, at long last, we needed to start at the beginning. Following Finland’s example, education colleges should only be allowed to admit students with SAT scores in the top third of the national distribution or lose government funding and accreditation.”

Part of a masterful evaluation of student experiences in education from select countries, Ms. Ripley drew the conclusion that American educators want the prestige that Finland teachers enjoy, but are unwilling to do what the Finnish have done, which is to raise the standards for teaching competence and expertise. Why is it that we don’t “really believe that our teachers need to be highly educated and unusually accomplished”?

With a bit of reflection, my personal teaching education experiences reflect the values in her findings. I chose not to pursue an undergraduate degree in education due to the lack of rigor and challenge. I remember responding the the question of why I had switch majors by saying “I can play the recorder well enough on my own”, an incredibly simplified version of my total feelings, but the essence of my complaints nonetheless. My master’s degree in education felt rigorous, meaningful and effective, and yet, there was never the feeling that anyone in my cohort would be in danger of not succeeding at accomplishing our goal of becoming a teacher. I left with my degree having accomplished “putting my nose to the grindstone”, not having accomplished anything unusually significant. We had all scored at or above a certain standard on qualifying tests just to be there, but was that enough? I had certainly gained a wealth of knowledge in my subject area, but what had I brought to the table? Did my GPA reflect a possession of the unique qualities that would prove me an accomplished educator, or just my work ethic?

While most would agree that the teaching profession, and jobs in education in general, should be more highly valued in our society, there is a variety of criteria by which one might judge that value.  In most professions, I tend to think of prestige coinciding with expertise. But most casual conversations about the teaching profession reveal a different focus; When we talk about the jobs that educators do, we seem to be valuing their daring over their competency. We tend to hear “I can’t believe that you would choose to do such a difficult job. I could never do that.”, over “You must be really good at that.” or “I could never learn all of that.” I have never heard anyone say to a teacher “You must know everything about _____”. I have heard this many times, and in fact assumed it myself in the presence of a doctor or lawyer, both professions that carry considerable prestige. Classroom teachers, it feels, are viewed more akin to skilled adventurers than to competent experts, the focus being on what they do, not on what they know. I’d love to have more than my own observations on this, so if I find any supporting data and analysis, I’ll certainly share!

There seems to be a shift in academia when we consider education professionals as professors wherein the prestige seems to increase along with the assumption that this kind of professional will be an expert in their field. While this would seem a natural step, I doubt that the the actual cause of the shift is based in measures of job requirements and more on the American public’s perception of the requirements. No doubt, someone has done some work on evaluating the major professions in our county by their various skill requirements and competency requirements, which would no doubt shed some light here. When I find this, I will certainly pass it along.

To examine this from a different angle, we might want to consider the difference between “competent” and “skilled”. When you are skilled, you have the tools to perform; when you are competent, you have used those skills to perform to your job’s required standards.

Let’s evaluate these statements, shall we?

TO BE A TEACHER, ONE NEEDS TO BE SKILLED. I predict that most would agree.

TO BE A TEACHER, ONE NEEDS TO BE COMPETENT. I predict that this would be less certain. With any profession, one could argue that there is a scale of competence, typically with more competent professionals being the most sought out and thus the most successful. This would be true in the teaching profession as well. However, unique to the teaching profession is this: competence is typically not measured thoroughly until one has already become a teaching professional.

The teaching profession in particular has competencies that are difficult to measure, hence the “dazzlingly complex” measures currently in place. But what if we were to stop all of the tortuous measuring once in the profession in favor of proving ourselves worthy first? But, herein lies one of the challenges of the Teaching University: how do we prove our preparing teaching professionals, not just skilled, but competent, before we certify them as teaching professionals? Do we raise the test score standards? Do we go further? I think that Finland certainly has some great advantages in place, such as the year-long residency in their target school placement including tough lesson critiques by panels of current teachers. Can we change the perception that teaching is a profession for those who truly care about helping kids succeed, and the rest is just details? Can we do this without shocking our system into reactionary backpedaling and/or without losing an large chunk of gifted aspiring educators because they can’t make the grade?

These are the ideas that Ripley explores with multi-faceted and respectful treatment, and I can’t wait to see what other conclusions she draws. In the meantime, it seems that I, as a member of teaching academia, have some soul searching to do.


2 thoughts on “Prestige in Our Profession: the Competent Expert vs. the Skilled Adventurer

  1. Katy, such food for thought. We certainly know that NC’s current teacher evaluation is highly subjective and vague, and further, it cannot effectively measure teachers who teach anything other than general ed. I am sad but thankful that you are going on to higher learning. If anyone can research and then advocate for better ways and opportunities to measure teacher performance, it is you!


    1. Thanks Krista! I am going to be depending on you to keep me grounded in the reality of current teaching, and I can think of no one who could give me a clearer picture! Thanks for always backing me up!


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