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What’s “the definition of a professional career”?

Last month I expressed disagreement the following statement from New Republic columnist Jonathan Chait, who wrote:

The old liberal slogan always demanded that we “treat teachers like professionals.” That entails some measure of accountability—we can debate the metrics—which allows both that very bad teachers be fired and that very good ones can obtain greater pay and recognition. That’s the definition of a professional career track . . .

I was surprised to find the option of being fired as part of the definition of professionalism, and I conjectured that journalists, who currently have little job security could feel resentful toward teachers and other workers who have the expectation of jobs for life. (As Mark Palko notes, “we’re talking about reneging on assurances of job security that were contractual agreed upon and came after a period of proven performance.”)

In an update (link from Palko), Chait writes:

Being a professional, to most people, means having the opportunity to gain higher pay and recognition with greater success. Such a system also, almost inevitably, entails the possibility of having some consequences for failure. Teaching is very different than most career paths open to college graduates in that it protects its members from firing even in the case of gross incompetence, and it largely denies them the possibility to rise quickly if they demonstrate superior performance.

Obviously the realistic possibility of being fired for gross incompetence would not in and of itself do much to attract more highly qualified teachers, but the opportunity to receive performance-differentiated pay would.

I see Chait’s point but I still don’t see being fired, or pay differentiation, as central to professionalism. Is it really so unprofessional to negotiate a contract in which you have job security? The pattern Chait describing, where you can rise quickly or get fired, seems more like a description of corporate management jobs. I don’t think there’s anything particularly professional about living on the edge. If anything, my impression is that a lot of people go into professional careers specifically because of the job security!

If you think that it would be better for teacher salaries to be more unequal, that’s a position to take–but I don’t think that either salary inequality or lack of protection from firing are at all essential to the idea of a professional career.


  1. Calum says:

    I was always taught that the definition of a professional was one whose work involved an element of responsibility towards the public interest. Lawyers must be scrupulously honest in their dealings, as there is a public interest in the function of the justice system. Accountants have a duty to act when their employer is falsely booking revenue, as there is a public interest in honest accounts (Enron investors). And so on.

  2. I think that increased potential for firings and pay differentiation correlates with professionalism, but does not in and of itself promote professionalism. When I think of professional careers: doctors (both PhD and MD), lawyers, nursing (all levels), medical technology – all have significant consequences for gross negligence, and all provide opportunity for pay differentiation. However, what they ultimately have in common is a standard for ongoing training and certification that makes it easy for non-experts to evaluate competence. That is, the med tech is certified in one or more testing areas. The PhD demonstrates competence thru peer-reviewed publications and competitive grants funded. A lawyer must pass the bar and win cases. Even the business executive can get certifications in Project Management or Six Sigma.

    For teaching to be truly professional career, the expectation must be for initial certification and meaningful ongoing training. There is some movement for professionalism via organizations such as NBPTS, but the standard for continuing education by state licensing commissions varies from state to state. So it is possible for teachers in one state to have different (not necessarily better, just different) standards than others. The one common strain is that such certification is a minimum standard and not an evaluation of quality (just completion). As a non-expert in the field of teaching, it is hard to evaluate competence if the standards vary and scoring is simply pass/fail.

  3. Dave says:

    “That’s the definition of a professional career track . . .”

    I think he means, “That’s the definition of using incentives to encourage better performance . . .”

    And if you know anyone who is talented, intelligent, and motivated who works in a public school or the government, you’d probably agree that a better incentive structure is desirable. The stories of incompetence without repercussions are unreal…

  4. zbicyclist says:

    Are you making your living at something that requires a specific skill? (as opposed to unskilled labor?) That’s a professional job.

    Do you try to improve your skills over time? That’s a professional attitude.

    That’s a pretty broad definition, and by that definition truck drivers driving semis are professionals. But when I see a big truck behind me when I’m on my bicycle, I am happy to grant a good truck driver professional status.

    Ability to be fired has nothing to do with it. Day laborers are at the highest risk of being fired. But accountability does, and I think that was Chait’s point.

  5. derek says:

    My understanding of “professional” is that it requires certification, which gains you membership of a small number of people legally allowed to practise a particular area of work (what they’d call a union if it was auto workers). You can lose the status through gross misconduct (doctor, lawyer, clergyman, accountant) but not merely for being a bit underperforming. You can be the laziest doctor in the world, and not lose your right to practise medicine.

    Now since the “problem” that the critics of teachers are claiming needs solving is that they don’t work hard enough and they want too much money, I don’t think the professional body model is one they ought to be using if they were honest. It’s not a model that does what they say they want doing.

  6. Eric Rauchway says:

    The original professions were the law, the ministry, and medicine. What they had in common was that they set standards for their members and admitted them to practice. This may have meant they had some sense of a higher interest they, as a group, were serving; it certainly meant they had a sense of the interest of the group in the competence of its members.

    Certainly other groups now fit this definition of profession as a self-regulating group of competent (by their own definition) practitioners – accountants and academics being obvious examples.

    Clearly too, this is different from Chait’s definition.

  7. anon says:

    I believe nowadays, “professional” just means “backed by some very well-entrenched institution”. It’s a corrupted notion. The exact opposite of “responsible”. The perfect example would be doctors, who are mostly degenerated into a protectionist racket. See also lawyers.

  8. clew says:

    More on Rauchway’s point: the name is from “profess” meaning “vow”. The professions weren’t unusual in having duties to the common good (so did millers) but specifically because outsiders couldn’t judge performance (unlike checking for contamination and fair weight). Therefore professions have to be self-regulating, and required a vow of good intent from anyone joining.

    Obviously this system easily fails into a rent-capturing guild. I don’t know how to use the cultural cachet of “professional” meaning rich safe job into the original sense of duty (which may never have actually worked).

  9. In the early years of cricket the players had two separate dressing rooms; “players” and “gentlemen”. The “players” being paid for playing and the “gentlemen” being amateurs (usually toffs). To me the word professional simply means they give you money for doing it.
    I teach in the UK and it is difficult to get a teacher sacked for anything outside sex with the students or embezzlement. Mere incompetence is usually insufficient grounds but it can happen; a teacher identified as failing is expected to retrain, accept monitoring but if they don’t improve the can get the push. It isn’t common.

  10. Tom says:

    There is no question that the public sector and not-for-profits in general are moving towards a corporate style of management. All employees in the corporate sector are there “at will,” i.e., at the will and whim of management. Management wants the power to hire and fire at will and unions, in particular teacher’s unions with jobs guaranteed by state law (at least in NY), represent an atavistic throwback to this new and emerging view. Just as there is nothing inherently “professional” in being fired, so there’s nothing inherently professional in having job security or tenure for life. They are two sides of the same coin and should be independent of the definition. At its core we can see this new, “at will” view as a swing of the pendulum…the pendulum being anti-union and pro-management, a trend that seems to be happening nationwide.

  11. I think garunteed minimum income and benefits as part of citizenship solves a lot of problems (like distortions in career choices).
    I do think firing goes hand in hand with an occupation with professional standards. But a world of financial insecurity that resembles the USA a lot more than Sweden -I think, has more to do with our inability to coordinate out of petty ways to harm each other. There I think there’s some truth to the journalist spiteful at the teacher because of their security in income and benefits.

  12. numeric says:

    I can see how a tenured academic would find something disquieting about the notion that professionalism involves the ability of the hiring organization to terminate “at will” This is what I think Chait was getting at–professionals that work for organizations can always be fired at will, and that includes lawyers working for a corporation or doctors working for a medical group. Naturally enough, academics would not like this, but it is interesting to speculate how much more productive universities would be if they awarded 5-year contracts rather than lifetime tenure (see the reviews of the University of Texas by Perry’s evaluating committee on the proportion of work done by different parts of the faculty). In particular, if economists were untenured, their attitude towards high levels of unemployment during recessions would be quite different.

    • Andrew says:


      Professionals who work for organizations can be fired at will, except for the ones who can’t. I like having a contract in which I can’t get fired. A few years ago my department chair tried to get rid of me. Even if I didn’t have a lifetime contract I don’t think he would’ve succeeded, but then I probably would’ve had to waste a lot of time on office politics to prevent it from happening. I don’t like office politics and I prefer to work in an environment in which it has a minimal role.

      • numeric says:

        There’s a lot in your comment and I can only touch a few points. First, I think you’re providing a valuable service through this blog and your general outreach to the benighted sciences (political science in particular). If my vote counted (it doesn’t) I’d vote to keep you. Second, you sure make a lot of enemies! First Berkeley, then this attempt at Columbia. “We love him for the enemies he has made”–General Bragg on Grover Cleveland.

        The main point is evaluation. Academic professions get so inbred that the biggest threat to academic freedom is not rogue administrators but rather collegiums forming and suppressing useful research (example abound in the social sciences but look at the effort required to show that ulcers were caused by bacteria). Five-year contracts (rather than lifetime–what other institution in American has a lifetime contract–the judiciary and teachers) for academics would make more sense and allow ideas to circulate more freely (or be heard at all). The question is how to do the evaluation–depending on the considered opinions of others in the field works best when there is an empirical reality to appeal to.

  13. Shubha Bala says:

    I’m surprised nobody’s pointed out that being fired, and getting pay increases for good performance applies to a lot of unskilled (and I would imagine not typically professional) jobs. If you worked retail, for example, you can definitely get fired and you can increase your salary by a huge percentage if you work really well by becoming a store manager or district manager. I think the same would be true for say, a security guard.

  14. Acilius says:

    J. Chait says:

    “accountability—we can debate the metrics” and “Obviously the realistic possibility of being fired for gross incompetence would not in and of itself do much to attract more highly qualified teachers, but the opportunity to receive performance-differentiated pay would.”

    Andrew Gelman says “my impression is that a lot of people go into professional careers specifically because of the job security!”

    To dismiss the question of what “accountability” means by an airy remark that “we can debate the metrics” does rather call Chait’s seriousness into question. An educational system in which rewards are distributed according to a set of rational and legitimate metrics might well attract more highly qualified teachers than one in which those rewards are distributed solely by seniority. On the other hand, if the metrics that are actually used to evaluate teachers all have to do with the whims of people higher up in the organization, or with the self-interested demands of powerful clients, or with unpredictable fads that seize the voting public from time to time, then we would expect the system to attract fewer highly qualified teachers.

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