Education professionals, education institutions

Reading: Sarangi and Roberts (1999). Talk, work, and institutional order: Discourse in medical, mediation, and management settings.


I follow Parents Across America on Twitter to keep my righteous indignation going about the corporate education reform movement. The other day they posted a link to this old article of Yong Zhao’s, which started me thinking about the idea that teachers are “undervalued.” Zhao cites “a career and technical education teacher” who “complained the profession is undervalued” — and this sort of complaint comes from teachers of all content areas. Teachers who specialize in reading and math are undervalued because their “effectiveness” is boiled down to test score increases; other teachers are undervalued because what they teach doesn’t even show up on the tests.

So this article was a good read, it got my blood boiling a little, but then I put it down and went about my business. And then I started reading Sarangi and Roberts. Among researchers who have worked on institutional discourse, S&R say, there has been a failure to distinguish what is “institutional” (e.g., the concerns of hospitals) from what is “professional” (the concerns of doctors and nurses). And this is a key distinction to make:

The casting of professional concerns in terms of what is allowable within the institution is characteristic of the institutional order. (18)

Medical cases … are in effect, demedicalized so that they can be processed by the institution. (35)

What counts as professional knowledge is not only the overt display of learned facts or accumulated experience. It is the result of delimiting the boundaries of appropriate knowledge and contextualizing professional knowledge as working within constraints that put pressure on authority. (36)

This is a distinction that I wasn’t familiar with, so I started trying to think it through in the education context. What would be a professional and an institutional way of addressing the same problem?

Well, up above where I talked about “effectiveness” — that’s a term that presupposes an institutional orientation. Schools, administrators, and policymakers are interested in measuring teacher effectiveness. When I was teaching, I was interested in improving my own classroom practice, not measuring its quality quantitatively or in competition with others.

The classification of students to qualify them for services (ESL, special education, talented/gifted, etc.) refer to “what is allowable within the institution.” The related “professional concerns” are similar, but different, and I would argue play out on a more individual basis. That is, when you have twenty or thirty kids that you’re responsible for, you want to know what educational practices, in your classroom or elsewhere, will help each student. When you’re responsible for hundreds or thousands, you need to classify them to figure out how to help each category. Sarangi & Roberts, mutatis mutandis: educational cases are de-educationalized so that they can be processed by the institution.

My concern about the teaching profession and the educational institution is not that such a distinction exists; it seems to be inevitable in any institution. The problem is that, if my impressions are accurate, the institutional perspective is being promoted at the expense of the professional. We talk about effectiveness more than classroom practice, classification more than differentiated instruction, and the biggest growth industry in education is the most institutional of all: large-scale assessment. For what it’s worth, when I google “deprofessionalize,” I get two links to definitions of the word followed by an article entitled Don’t de-professionalize the teaching profession.

As passionate as I am about this, I’m having a hard time coming up with a research program that will address it. Participant observation in faculty meetings? Critical discourse analysis of mass media? Is there even any literature on administrator-teacher interaction?

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Posted in Institutional discourse

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