Can Teaching Follow Medicine’s Prescription?

Greg Broberg Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, National Board Certification, Professional Development

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Ron Thorpe recently published a provocative piece in Phi Delta Kappan where he outlined key components for a plan to fully professionalize teaching in America. His proposals are highlighted by extended residencies for preservice teachers, and a pathway that leads all educators towards advanced certification. Personally, I believe that he makes a highly convincing case about what is missing in our field. Subsequently, Gallup released a powerful poll that showed overwhelming public sentiment for advanced certification for educators, much like what is found in the medical and legal fields. At nearly 80% support, it’s as close to a mandate as we are likely to see in any public opinion poll.

These days, you’re likely to get a 50/50 split if you ask respondents if wheels should be round.

As someone who believes passionately in the power of teachers, and has witnessed talent and dedication well above a five-figure pay grade, I believe that our failure to fully professionalize the field is what prevents those teachers from what they deserve: true respect, professional support, and fair compensation. Unfortunately, the echoes of some of the social media chatter surrounding the aforementioned articles and polls represent our problem in advancing the field and, if the sentiment is allowed to prevail, will guarantee that teachers continue to be undervalued and underappreciated for yet another generation.

Predictably, counters to the suggestion of residency and advanced certification always include the question, “Does that mean we’re going to get paid like a doctor or a lawyer?”  I am assuming the question to be rhetorical, and it always contains just a hint of sarcasm. However, my response does not.

Well, yes. But, it may depend on what you mean by “we.”

Mr. Thorpe effectively outlines the parallels to the medical field, and although there are certainly  differences in the career paths that are intrinsic to the two professions, one significant constant was the lack of pay and respect that was once afforded to doctors. To point, it was not uncommon for doctors to be part-time physicians and part-time barbers, out of the same office, in order to make ends meet.

But doctors decided to change it.  They didn’t get the respect they wanted by asking for it; they demanded it through the expertise and excellence that they required of themselves. They seized control of their profession by professionalizing it themselves. They raised the bar. They held each other accountable. They decided their professional associations.

After all, it’s pretty basic supply and demand situation. If anybody can do what you’re doing, then you are going to get paid – and treated – like just anybody else. Can anybody be a doctor? I would argue that not anyone can be an outstanding teacher. The problem is that we allow plenty of space in our profession for those that are not. And, we pay for it.

Or, more accurately, we don’t get paid for it.

Doctors voluntarily shunned mediocrity and poor practice, by being sure not anyone could be a doctor. They started performing at a level that not just anyone could attain through rigorous standards created not by outsiders, government officials, or the public, but by themselves. Their current status is largely based upon the public’s response to those efforts.

I’ve evaluated the best of the best and no, not anyone can do it. To be honest, I know some doctors who couldn’t replicate some of the talent, intellect, and skill I’ve seen demonstrated in classrooms.

But, back to the question of whether “we” will get paid more.

This kind of change does take time. “We” may not. Obviously, the parallels between the fields are far more sophisticated than I am portraying in this post, but I believe we can change the course of the profession by drawing on what is congruent. It is often said that MLK felt strongly that he would not witness the results of the Civil Rights Movement. An overwhelming majority of those that struggled for the same cause indeed, did not. He advocated for those who were to come after, in essence dedicating his life for rights he would never receive.

History is rife with examples of great people doing noble and foresighted things for a movement – not necessarily for personal gain – so that someday, someone would get the respect, pay, or treatment he or she deserved. They did it with a sense of moral purpose. Teachers often tell me how they believe in their students, so I propose believing in the ones who are going to follow in our footsteps, the ones who will want to become teachers.

The ones we need to become teachers.

Many of the doctors Mr.Thorpe described never saw six figure salaries, luxuries, or the status enjoyed by physicians today. However, they were rich enough in professional spirit to advance the cause of medicine as a career. They consciously raised the bar on themselves, because they knew that the later iteration of physicians would be the only ones capable of clearing it. In essence, they created a profession where nearly all are elite.

Society responded. It had no choice, because not anyone can be a doctor.

We know what it would take so that not anyone could be a teacher. Are we willing to do it? If not, then settle in for more of the same.

And, believe me when I say that our kids will not thank us for it.


Greg Broberg

Tempe, Arizona

One of my favorite quotes related to teaching is by Socrates: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” It keeps me grounded in two ways. First, it reminds me that teaching should always involve the “search” for knowledge. This may come from a professional development source, colleague or student. Second, it keeps me on guard for new ways to engage students—bringing a fresh perspective on something I may have taught for years.

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Comments 3

  1. Sandy Merz

    This is so timely for a few reasons. What sticks out is that Thorpe is addressing beginning teaching and accomplished teaching. I don’t know if you’ve read the long (and old) Carnegie piece at It’s about medical education in 1914. You could take whole sections and substitute “teacher” for “doctor” and feel like you were reading something from the teaching profession in 2014 (I wrote about this in a blog, titled, When Does 1914 = 2014? at
    Relatedly, I was talking to a physical therapist about the different kinds of certifications our different fields offer. They’re ahead of us, too. But she immediately got the value of teacher residencies.
    And related to that – one way that teacher compensation could raise is for those teachers who would be the resident advisors – taking the candidates on rounds, debriefing them, and the like – but also having a part time teaching position of their own.

  2. Jess Ledbetter

    Really interesting post Mike and great comments Sandy! I completely agree that we must redefine our practice from within. There is a great movement going on Twitter around the hashtag #rebrandteaching and #tobeateacher. Interestingly, there were a few teachers who publicly denounced the idea of redefining the profession. I thought that was really interesting. Personally, I think that rebranding teaching is a necessity today. I wrote more about this at:
    Most importantly, teachers need to settle in for some difficult conversations about educational policy. We have to stop the attrition in this field when teachers give up and leave. As a mentor to early career special education teachers, I tell them “You have to DISBELIEVE that leaving is possible.” We need to recruit and retain colleagues who care about the profession and understand the challenges today. It won’t be easy, but there is strength in numbers. If we don’t band together, it will just be one of us standing alone holding a flag that says “Rebrand for the future: Rebrand for the kids.” I don’t mind waving the flag from time to time, but I don’t want to do it alone :)

  3. John Spencer

    I’m reticent to follow the example of the medicine profession, partly because that system has become bloated in general and many people are still priced out of getting great care. It is largely private and we are mostly public. We are civil servants as much as we are dedicated professionals (both are true).
    I think a part of the issue at hand is gender. Medicine has always enjoyed a level of respect and a level of pay that teaching hasn’t had, due, in part, because of the fact that it is a male dominated profession. As it stands, many teachers have graduate degrees. Many get National Board Certified. Many act as professionals. Many go out and speak and write and develop their own curriculum.
    In other words, we’ve acted like professionals and yet we face a barrage of policies that limit our professional autonomy and keep us from earning a living wage.

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