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Should teachers be treated as professionals? The question may seem easy enough to answer—most people in education, whether they are union representatives or reformers advocating for more charter schools, say “yes.” Yet the question is in many ways at the heart of the raging debate–currently boiling over in New York–over how to improve struggling schools. How should the education field give power, respect and autonomy to teachers while also ensuring they are accountable for results?

Education reformers argue that teachers have not been seen as professionals in the past, pointing to union rules that limit how many hours a day they can work and other restrictions. The reformers have pushed against the work rules while advocating for a more rigorous evaluation process and tougher consequences for teachers.

Here’s U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaking on the topic last year: “Teachers today need to be treated more as professionals and knowledge workers, and less as interchangeable cogs in an educational factory line out of the last century.”

For the most part, teachers unions have supported reforms advocated by Duncan and others, but worry that taken too far, more intensive classroom evaluations based on detailed rubrics and the use of student test-scores to rate teachers may undermine the very efforts to increase professionalism by reducing educator autonomy and power. In New York City, for example, unions have refused to go along with a new teacher evaluation system that the state is advocating.

“Our schools and our kids deserve a highly trained and professional workforce. But rather than seeing the new system as a tool for professional growth, the city and Department of Education have insisted that it be used as a threat mechanism for both teachers and principals,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, said in a press release last week.

Increasingly, the question of professionalism is also being raised in the early education field, where educators have often complained about a lack of respect for the work they do, but where quality has varied as much or more than in K-12 schools.

I recently discussed the implications of the professionalism debate for teachers of younger students in a conversation with Dr. Stephanie Feeney, Dr. Sue Martin, and Rae Pica of BAM! Radio. Will the field of early education experience the same rifts that have cut through K-12? Are autonomy and respect compatible with intense, top-down accountability? Does including teachers as decision-makers in evaluation systems undermine efforts to create tough consequences for poor performance? Click here to listen.

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Sarah Garland oversees editorial planning and budgeting, edits K-12 stories and manages editorial partnerships with other news outlets. She has worked at Hechinger since 2010, and before that wrote about...

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