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.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.