February 08, 2010 21:33 Age: 8 yrs

"So when are you going to start a *real* profession like law or medicine?" "But teaching *is* a real profession." OR, How Achievement First Develops *Professional* Teachers

Category: Home, Chi Tschang
By: Chi Tschang

I. My Stepmom's Question

After my fourth year of teaching, I returned home to California and my stepmom took me out to Yoshino Japanese restaurant for lunch. The pleasantries soon subsided and then the obligatory question came up: "So when are you going to start a *real* profession like law or medicine?" I immediately recoiled and went on the defensive. "But teaching *is* a real profession." I bumbled through a few more explanations: "I wear a tie everyday and come to work on time and besides, what we do is important!" In the end, however, I could not adequately address her underlying question: how is teaching a profession? In sports, for example, there is an easy answer. If you get paid to play, you're a professional; if not, you're an amateur. So does that apply to teachers as well? Does our monthly check qualify us to be professionals?

According to James Stigler, a UCLA psychology professor and MacArthur "genius grant" recipient, the answer is no. A profession is not about the money, the dress code or the norms. In one word, a profession is about knowledge. Here's Stigler on this topic:

"A profession has a knowledge base that serves as a way for the field to improve its own practices. The knowledge base is a body of specialized knowledge that is generated both by researchers and practitioners in the field. People contribute to it, it grows over time, and new practitioners draw on it to define the standard practices in the field. That's what makes it a profession." (1)

A profession is thus defined specifically by the accumulation of knowledge, the development of a shared vocabulary, and the public dissemination of new ideas and skills.

So take, for instance, medicine. What makes medicine a profession is not the prestige, the pay or even the blue hospital smocks. Rather, Stigler argues that in medicine, there is a "knowledge base where improved techniques are shared among members of the medical community." If a heart surgeon invents a new incision technique, he or she is able to layer that skill on to a pre-existing knowledge base that is shared with other surgeons. This explains why surgical practices have dramatically improved over the past century. Without this knowledge base, claims Stigler, there would be "one very clever surgeon, but surgery wouldn’t be a profession."

II. A Brief History of American Farming in the 20th Century

A century ago, agriculture in America was in a state of crisis. In 1900, the average American family spent over 40 percent of its income on food. Farming was extremely labor-intensive, employing about one in every two workers. Low agricultural productivity meant that families were spending far too much on food and too little on goods in other sectors. And since farming was highly labor-intensive, much of the population was not free to enter other non-farming occupations. This explains in part why America was still a relatively poor country.

Today, that society appears an unfamiliar time and place. The America we know is a land of agricultural aplenty. Food accounts for only eight percent of our household income. Only two percent of the labor force is in agriculture; chances are you don't have a friend who farms for a living. Furthermore, our food is produced on the same amount of land as was allotted for it a hundred years ago, and still we’ve been able to produce a greater variety of it than ever before. So what happened?

In a recent New Yorker article, Atul Gawande traces the change to 1903, when a pioneering bureaucrat named Seaman Knapp got a job at the United State Department of Agriculture as an "agricultural explorer."(2) Over the next two decades, the U.S.D.A. set up a network of "extension agents" to spread best farming practices around the country. By 1920, there were over 7,000 federal extension agents in every county in America. When new technologies arrived - new farm machinery, fertilizer types or hybrid seeds - these agents gave out technical assistance so that farmers were able to implement them. The agents also helped improve weather forecasting; 117 radio stations broadcasted crop reports. Finally, agents created systems for comparing effectiveness across regions. For example, that A through C grading system that you see on poultry packages and egg cartons? It was started by the U.S.D.A. in the 1930s to raise the bar for food quality.

By 1930, the American farm system had changed dramatically. Food productivity doubled and prices were cut in half. According to Gawande, the catalyst was the U.S.D.A.: "The government shaped a feedback loop of experiment and learning and encouragement for farmers across the country. The results were beyond what anyone could have imagined. Productivity went way up, outpacing that of other Western countries. By 1930, food absorbed just twenty-four per cent of family spending and twenty per cent of the workforce." He continues, "The U.S.D.A.'s scientific capabilities grew into the world’s greatest biological-discovery machine of the time."

Now, if you drive through Kansas and Iowa, you may see official-looking signs next to a cornfield. Look closer and odds are the field is a test site for a particular strain of corn. After a few batches of corn are grown, they are then tested and the results fed into a huge database. Next, extension agents sift through that data, analyze and index it. They then publicly disseminate the data to other farmers interested in improving yields. These repeated observations and analyses of crop yields are part of a public, shared knowledge base that has turned the agricultural industry in America into one of the most productive in the world.

III. How Achievement First Develops *Professional* Teachers

Although teaching children may be more complex than growing corn, our public education system now finds itself where agriculture was a century ago. As Stigler asserts, "teaching in this country has not been based on a knowledge base." Historically, teachers have not continuously improved their practice by accumulating and sharing relevant information. Instead, teachers too often work as isolated islands. Or to put it this way: when a fifth-grade teacher in Nebraska develops an ingenious new method for teaching fraction theory, there is no mechanism for sharing that concept with other teachers (and improving practice in the field as a whole).

At Achievement First, though, we see our job as helping our teachers access a deep, existing knowledge base about great teaching and learning. There are two main pieces to this. The first step is *accumulating knowledge*. Recently, for example, I've been working with a team to develop a resource that captures the latest thinking from both researchers and practitioners about what great instruction looks like. It includes hyperlinks to resources such as The Skillful Teacher and Doug Lemov's Taxonomy. Our hope is that as teachers contribute to it, it will grow over time and develop into a *lingua franca* for our network of schools.

The second step is *disseminating that knowledge*. Stigler argues that "for knowledge to be public it must be represented in such a way that it can be communicated among colleagues." At Achievement First, we've chosen to share knowledge to our 17 schools through multiple avenues. There is a "shared server" chock full of resources (including a video library) that every AF teacher can access. Every month, there are workshops for different cohorts; next month, all AF teachers will gather in Brooklyn for a day of workshops. As part of a network with a Team and Family ethos, AF teachers always contact each other directly to suggest or request ideas.

At Achievement First, we view teachers as true professionals. So to go back to my stepmom's question from a few years back: "How is teaching a profession?" Here's our response: we work relentlessly to contribute to and share a knowledge base about great teaching and learning.

(1) http://www.heartland.org/policybot/results/15709/Finding_Effective_Lessons_for_Teachers_An_Exclusive_Interview_with_James_W_Stigler.html

(2) http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/12/14/091214fa_fact_gawande?currentPage=all#ixzz0eWyYAouv