Career ladders and all that…in teaching!

Several years ago, I had a long conversation with a colleague about career ladders.  I had just read Dan C. Lortie’s “Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study.” Lortie had argued that teaching was an un-staged career.  That is to say, it lacked a progression of stages through which a teacher could expect to advance.  Teachers’ responsibilities did not change much from the beginning to the ends of their careers.  The nature of rewards in the teaching was more intrinsic.  This instrinsic-ness was defined in terms of seeing a student grow and succeed rather than in terms of professional milestones crossed.

The conversation with my colleague that I am talking about in this post happened in the context of structure of teaching profession in Pakistan.  I wrote:

An appropriate incentive regime is crucial for motivating professionals to do their work.  Unlike medicine, engineering, and lawyering, primary school teaching, however, is an un-staged profession (Dan C. Lortie, The schoolteacher).  Given this, the issue might be how to take the un-staged nature of teaching as given and still be able to find an incentive regime.  That is, we might ask  “What can we do to turn teaching into a career without assuming staging (Career Ladder)?” instead of asking, “What must we do to find the right career ladder for teachers in Pakistan?”.  In other words, “What alternative incentive regimes [along with accountability systems] might exist to motivate the teachers to get to their classroom regularly and teach?”

My friend asked me to elaborate what I meant by “un-staged.” I explained:

Contrast teaching with other established professions.  Medicine, engineering etc. have vertical progressions formalised in their practice, and supported by an [expanding and scientific] knowledge base.

Our conversation went on and on.  When my friend advocated the need for teacher career ladders, he grounded his argument in a neat comparison of incentive structures in teaching with those in other professions.  He drew my attention to the presence of those career advancement incentives in other professions and their absence in school teaching.  My arguments were grounded in Lortie’s work, which claimed that the nature of incentives in teaching were inherently different from those in other professions.

I was reminded of this conversation when I stumbled on a post by a teacher on Education Week blog.  Here a quote form the post:

I have taught hundreds of students, received numerous awards for my teaching, completed an advanced degree, and have only just begun to master the craft of teaching. As a result of my successes I have been offered countless “opportunities to grow” in this field. Those are the facts. However, it must be clarified that these “opportunities to grow” have all included me leaving the classroom. Whether it is as a curriculum specialist, school or district based coach, or principal, none of those are the path I feel that I must take as a classroom teacher. Currently, there is little room for growth socially or financially for me to stay in the classroom. In fact, the opposite is the norm…the only way for me to advance is to leave the classroom, the very place where I feel I can make the greatest impact on students.

So while there may be differences between the civilisations as late Mr. Huntington would have liked us to believe, it is heartening to know that some problems of teaching cut across those civilisational differences.  Do read Zak Champagne’s post here.

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

3 Responses to “Career ladders and all that…in teaching!”

  1. Even from a sociological perspective though, we have to account for differences in cultural and socio-economic contexts when comparing a teacher from Pakistan to a teacher in Jacksonville, Florida. In countries that have more developed education systems than Pakistan’s, it is relatively safe to assume that a teacher’s basic needs are taken care of and therefore the teacher is relatively free to pursue higher order needs (if one were to adopt Abraham Maslow’s lingo to explain this). Moreover, doesn’t Lortie’s thesis of teachers needing intrinsic satisfaction more than extrinsic incentive regimes, assume that all the teachers who are teaching are doing it out of deeply felt passion for their profession rather than pursuing it as a fall-back option which is the case with a lot of Pakistani teachers?
    I agree with your idea of having an unstaged career ladder for teachers though. Isnt that what Zak Champagne proposes in his post as well, when he advocates a classroom teacher career ladder i.e. encourage teachers to progress financially and socially but without taking them out of the classroom.

  2. What I did not mention about Zak’s post was its context: the proposals for merit pay reforms that promote financial rewards for effective teachers. Notice that Zak argues against the Unions as being impediment to the sort of career ladder within the classroom that he would have liked to see for himself and for other teachers. But the moment everybody agrees with the idea of merit pay for effective teachers, bingo!, it gets out of the hands of Zak too. It is not his self perception as being a good teacher that counts. Someone else assumes the right to measure teachers’ effectiveness in terms of some ‘objective’ measures. And it is very difficult to agree on those measures. I drew attention to a teachers’ suicide in one of my last posts, who thought of himself as a great teacher but who was declared ineffective by the system. The problem of objectifying teachers’ effectiveness/performance is not just a technical but also a political one. And there are no simple answers to the questions it raises.

    The unions, by mediating the contracts between the teachers and districts, guaranteed job protection, which also protected ‘bad teachers.’ But more than that, the protection was also against using measures of effectiveness, such as student scores on standardised tests, to either reward or punish teachers. The downside is reflected in Zak’s frustration in not rewarded enough for being in the classroom. The upside was that it was almost impossible to fire Zak out of service.

    Recently the District of Columbia had to negotiate a deal with the DC teacher union to allow for the merit pay, a deal that has proponents and detractors throughout the U.S. For more details, visit the NPR’s page on it here .

    So if we think about the politics of Zak’s post, it is certainly for the merit pay. Viewed as such, it becomes part of a movement brewing these days in the United States to reward good teachers financially and punish bad teachers. This is an interesting debate to follow.

    One of things that I hoped this blog could do was to just highlight the debates happening at one place and draw attention to their potential relevance to the issues in other places, and raise some questions that follow from such comparisons.

    The point of departure [as well as the motivation] for attempting to make such connections was the idea of ‘travelling reforms.’ Merit may, it is possible, will be presented as a best practice to be adopted by a developing country through a loan or a grant. But possibly forgotten will be the debates around it and even the fact that given the existence of such debates it is a politically volatile, instead of a scientifically established best practice.

    You do hear the [as yet faint] echoes of merit pay in Punjab, don’t you?

  3. Interesting debate, thanks for highlighting it here. Reminds me of a documentary I watched recently ” Waiting for Superman”, it’s a good watch, if you haven’t seen it already.
    More to the point though, if merit based pay raises such volatile reactions in the US, can you imagine the repercussions of introducing a similar system in Pakistan? I had heard of a similar incentives scheme in Punjab where teachers (or headteachers?) of high performing schools were to receive cash awards, but I don’t think that has come to fruition yet. It’s a complex debate, isn’t it? Even if our indicator for judging a teacher’s effectiveness is something as basic as the performance of students on standardised tests, it doesn’t take into account the fact that the resources and conditions needed to teach effectively are not evenly distributed across an entire country, state, city etc.Teachers who teach in trying conditions and put in their best effort would still end up getting the shorter end of the stick. I suppose this is what happens when we try to translate theoretical ideas into practical/quantifiable terms. I haven’t read enough about merit pay to have an opinion on it yet, but if one were to accept this line of reasoning, the logical next step should be to oust “bad teachers” from the classrooms. What good is a teacher if she isn’t effective? Why have her teach at all?

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