With over 3 million teachers working in the US public school system, teaching attracts consider able attention from sociologists. Many issues have been explored. Dominating the field are questions concerning teachers’ roles, quality, professional status, training, gender composition, pay, staffing, and placement. Teachers play multiple roles in the educational process. First, teachers impart academic skills and knowledge (human capital). Second, teachers socialize children in the lifestyles, values, and cultures of society (cultural capital). The importance of the academic, social, and cultural dimensions of this work for children raises one of the foremost questions in research on teachers: Does teacher quality matter? Early research studying the impact of teacher credentials and experience largely indicated that teacher quality did not consistently relate to student achievement. More recent exploration reveals that teacher preparation, particularly subject matter knowledge, does positively impact student achievement.
In addition to debates over teacher quality, the occupation is plagued by questionable professional status. In an effort to assert teacher professionalism, new models of teacher training have emerged. Historically, normal schools assumed responsibility for instruction in teaching theory and pedagogy. As teachers increasingly turned towards colleges and universities for training, substantive knowledge began dominating the curriculum. Today, reforms aimed at affirming teacher professionalism stress initial and ongoing training in subject area knowledge.
The gender composition of the occupation also contributes to its questionable professional status. Teaching in the US began as a male occupation. Around 1850, teaching became a predominantly female occupation and this pat tern persists today. Despite the fact that teaching is a female dominated occupation, men are over represented in administrative positions. This occupational sex segregation reinforces the semi-professional status and low pay of teaching. These factors are held partly responsible for the current staffing problems afflicting the occupation.
Recent research indicates that the US continues to have difficulty staffing classrooms with qualified teachers. Two possible causes of school staffing problems have been investigated: increased enrollments combined with high teacher retirement and teacher turnover. Recent research provides limited support for the notion that staffing problems are the result of increased enrollments and retirements. Rather, the evidence indicates that large numbers of teachers are leaving the occupation in response to problematic working conditions, specifically student discipline problems and insufficient administrative support. One consequence of these school staffing problems is the growing occurrence of out of field teaching. This phenomenon, in which a teacher does not possess a major or minor in their teaching field, is particularly important for understanding teachers’ careers, satisfaction, turnover, and student achievement.
Cross national research on teachers and teaching examine similar issues. Questions of teacher quality pervade educational reform in many national contexts. Recent data indicates that in many countries a large proportion of teachers are working without minimum qualifications. While concern over teacher quality appears in many nations’ reform agendas, little research supports the contention that variation in teacher quality cross nationally explains national differences in student achievement.
Like the US, comparative studies reveal that many countries have trouble recruiting and retaining qualified teachers. This can be partially explained by teacher pay. While the salaries of experienced teachers studied by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development range from less than US$10,000 in Poland and the Slovak Republic to US $45,000 and more in Germany, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, there is agreement among teachers that teaching provides inadequate financial reward. Of those countries that share the US’s staffing problems, the most frequent solutions include out of field teaching and increasing other teachers’ workloads. Interestingly, staffing problems are not universal. Several nations, such as Greece and Korea, actually have an oversupply of teachers, which also introduces policy challenges.
Despite unique contexts, tremendous demands are being placed on teachers in their multiple roles. Debates about teacher quality, professional status, preparation, and placement persist. Continued sociological exploration of teachers and teaching is imperative for understanding these issues.
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