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Teacher Specialization and the Growth of a Bureaucratic Profession

by Stephen T. Kerr - 1983

Entitlement legislation, demographic trends, and increased status and control over a student constituency have encouraged teachers to specialize. This trend can lead to bureaucratization and fragmentation of the profession. Specialized professional services should be provided in a way that recognizes client involvement in decision making.

The decade of the 1970s was marked by a rapid increase in the number of specialized educators in American schools. This change in the direction of specialized practice is typical of how occupations seek to enhance their professional status and thereby gain greater control over their work. The shift toward more specialized roles for teachers has been scarcely noted or remarked on within the educational community, but it has important implications for the practice of education. For teaching may change to become not only a more specialized profession but also a more bureaucratized, more isolated one. And given certain organizational and technological changes that are strongly influencing how occupations develop in American society, there are slight prospects that teaching will ever return to its former, nonspecialized condition. These changes in the structure of teaching suggest serious inadequacies in current policymaking for teacher training, school organization, and parent involvement in educational decision making.


Increasingly, teachers are not “classroom teachers,” responsible for the overall educational welfare of a group of children, but specialists of one kind or another. The advent of specialization could be traced to the beginnings of age-grade segregation in the nineteenth century, and to the consequent assignment of teachers to a homogeneous group of students of a particular age. In high schools, there has been a long-standing practice of designating teachers as subject-matter experts in a particular field. Yet neither of these earlier instances of differentiated function could properly be regarded as specialization in the modern sense.

Types of Specialists

The sort of specialization that has grown so dramatically over the past ten years is of a narrower kind than the age and subject divisions that earlier characterized American education. The educational specialists of the 1970s and 1980s are of several sorts but they may be divided generally into two broad classes. There are the special-child educators, those who focus on a particular subgroup of children who are seen to require a different, special type of instruction. Included here are the various teachers commonly identified as special educators-teachers of the mentally retarded, the physically handicapped, the emotionally disturbed, and the learning disabled. Also in this group are reading or mathematics specialists whose work is primarily with children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and bilingual teachers who deal with children from different cultural backgrounds. Teachers of the gifted and early childhood specialists should also be considered in this group, though their numbers are smaller.

The second group of specialists might be called the consultants. These educators are not “teachers” in the traditional sense of the word. Most of them rarely instruct groups of students in a classroom setting. Rather, the consultants deal usually with individual students, and perhaps also with teachers, school administrators, other consultants, parents, or representatives of community organizations concerned with youth (police, mental health clinics, etc.). One group of consultants-the psychologists, counselors, social workers, and sometimes school nurses-provides a range of student services and plays an important role in channeling students to the right specialist and coordinating the whole process of providing special services (an accomplishment not to be underestimated, given the considerable paperwork involved). A more limited kind of technical diagnostic service or treatment is provided by audiologists, and by occupational and physical therapists. A third group of consultants renders services directly to teachers, but sometimes to students as well. Included here are librarians, instructional design and audiovisual media staff, curriculum specialists and supervisors, and demonstration teachers affiliated with special teaching approaches or programs.

Trends in Specialization

Many new educators in the 1970s made an initial decision to start their careers as specialists rather than as general classroom teachers. The National Survey of the Pre-service Preparation of Teachers (Morra 1977; National Center for Education Statistics 1978) provides an indication of this: Among education students in their final year of training, 9 percent said that they intended to specialize in 1972-1973; by 1975-1976, the figure had risen to about 21 percent.

Other data, collected at five-year intervals by the National Education Association, show an increase in the number of secondary special education teachers from .3 percent of all teachers in 1961 to .4 percent in 1966, 1.1 percent in 1971, 3 percent in 1976, and 6 percent in 1980 (National Education Association 1977, 1980). Admittedly, the number is still small when compared with the overall number of teachers, but there is still an increase of 1,000 percent in sixteen years, clearly too much to be accounted for by inflation alone. Also, national studies of unfilled vacancies demonstrate that 35 percent of such positions were in the areas of special education (Goor, Metz, and Ferris 1978).

On the state level, the shift toward special education and consultant services is clear from figures on new certificates granted. New York, for example, witnessed an almost threefold increase in the number of special education certificates issued (from 157 to 440) between 1969 and 1974 (Preparation of educational personnel 1976), while Washington saw those numbers more than double (from 180 to 401) between 1971 and 1976 (Anet 1977). Fields such as counseling experienced more modest gains, with numbers of newly hired counselors rising by more than 16 percent (from 728 to 846) during the 1971-1975 period (Oregon 1976). At the same time, the numbers of new general elementary and secondary teaching certificates issued in all these states remained stable or declined.


Why, then, do teachers specialize? The broad change in patterns of teacher employment described above has its roots in other changes that have occurred in American society and the education system in recent years. Some of these shifts have been widely discussed, but others are less apparent. Three important contributing trends are discussed here: the growth of the notion of entitlement to educational services and consequently of state and federal legislation; changes in the demographics of education; and major changes in how teachers organize and control themselves as an occupational-professional group.

One way of seeing this demand is in the context of growing popular support for “entitlement” social programs of various kinds during the 1960s and 1970s. Parents of children with various physical and mental handicapping conditions formed themselves into political pressure groups much as various other minorities did at about the same time. The Bureau of Education for the Handicapped has played an extensive role in preparing laws and regulations affecting education in this area. State special education legislation also predated that on the federal level by several years.

Massachusetts , Washington , and other states all passed laws essentially equivalent to P.L. 94-142 during the early 1970s. (For a more detailed review, see Sarason and Doris 1979). Entitlement legislation, in the context of a society that relies on bureaucratic mechanisms to provide social service, will generate demand for specialists whose sole job it is to provide the services required. But there are other influences on teachers that encourage those entering the field now to specialize.


There have been significant changes in the composition of the student population over the past ten years. Whereas growth was once an assumed constant in the educational system, recent years have witnessed a declining birth rate and eventual concomitant decreases in the number of students enrolled in schools at all levels. This, in turn, has meant that fewer teachers arc needed to deal with smaller cohorts of pupils in any grade.

Enrollment in American elementary and secondary schools peaked at 51.3 million in 1970; elementary schools saw their largest enrollments (approximately 32 million) several years prior to this, in 1967, while for secondary schools the high point (at 20.3 million) came in 1973 (Frankel l978,18). Since that time, enrollments, mirroring earlier declines in birth rates, have been dropping. In 1978, only 47.6 million students were enrolled in grades K through 12, a decline of 7.2 percent in eight years (Dearman and Plisko 1980, 56). Projections indicate that enrollments will continue to decline until about 1986, when a slight increase in the number of elementary students is forecast; that increase, however, will not be felt in the secondary schools until the 1990s.

The decline in the school-age population by the early 1970s meant that there were fewer openings for classroom teachers-but not as few as one might have expected, given the size of the decline. The number of teachers employed in elementary and secondary education actually rose from 2,288,000 in 1970 to 2,470,000 in 1977 (there was a slight drop in 1978, and further small decreases, to a projected low of 2,357,000 in 1982). As a result of the disparity between enrollment and the number of teachers employed, elementary pupil-teacher ratios fell from 26.3:1 in 1967 to 21.3:1 in 1978; secondary ratios fell from 20.3:1 to 17.2 over the same period (Dearman and Plisko 1980, 70).

While some of this drop in pupil-teacher ratios is attributable to districts’ simply not letting teachers go as rapidly as enrollment declines signaled they might have, some of it is also due to districts’ hiring more specialists to comply with federal and state laws regarding special education. Since most special education programs are mandated by law to use much lower pupil-teacher ratios (the national average for deaf education, for example, is about 10: 1; for mentally retarded students, about 14:1), inclusion of special education teachers and students in national statistics results in much lower ratios overall.

The practical result of these changes has been fewer openings for general classroom teachers and more openings for specialists. While some teachers have upgraded their teaching certificates so as to move from generalist to specialist positions, most of the decline in the number of generalist positions has been dealt with through attrition, while hiring of newly certified specialists has led to growth in those fields. The effect has been to increase the number of educational specialists relative to the number of general classroom teachers within the national population of teachers as a whole.

Increasing Professionalization of Teachers

A third factor leading to increased specialization among teachers is the desire for control. Teachers perceive that to specialize is to claim for themselves a portion of the population of students or of educational functions. Those claims must be supported; that is, a group of would-be specialists must assert or demonstrate that they are uniquely competent by virtue of training or experience to carry out those tasks over which they claim jurisdiction. But, once the claim is made, specialists immediately begin erecting a structure of professional barriers designed to protect their position against encroachment. Specialist status thus guarantees a clientele to the practitioners of the specialty, an attraction that proves strong in times of demographic decline and fiscal instability. This is an important proposition with significant implications; several of these should be explored before moving on.

To seek separate certification or licensure is an initial affirmation of professional identity by a new group of specialists. Separate certification signifies the state’s acceptance of the speciality’s claim to a unique role; it may also bind the state to enforce that claim by forbidding practice in the specialty to anyone who has not satisfied the standards set by the specialty.

A separate professional identity, combined with power (legitimized by the state) over a portion of the educational market, also allows members of a specialty to demand higher compensation for work performed. This claim is often justified by pointing to the extra difficulty of the work (which the state has already implicitly recognized by limiting practice in the specialty to those with the requisite credentials). It may also be supported by pointing to the extra years of expensive training required. In the state of Washington, for example, the 1978-1979 average salary for all specialists was $19,229, while the average for all elementary school teachers was $17,105, and for all secondary school teachers, $17,899 (Superintendent of Public Instruction 1979, c-8, e-8). Specialist status also provides teachers who are professionally ambitious with opportunities to gain control over generalist colleagues. There is evidence, for example, that generalist teachers fear specialists’ power to determine where a child should be placed or what education is appropriate (e.g., National Education Association 1978a, 213). And specialists add to generalists’ concerns by calling for wider roles for the specialist, changes that usually involve usurpation of one or more functions of the generalist. Some specialists see their own professional associations-and not generalist groups such as the National Education Association (NEA) or the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)-as their main reference group, bargaining agent, and center for political action. Interestingly enough, the leaders of generalist professional groups are often themselves specialists (Gilb 1966).

Educators therefore find specialist positions attractive for several reasons: higher pay, a guaranteed clientele, and a sense of control over the content of the work. More important than these immediate reasons, however, may be a deeper realization that specialization is an important tool used by occupations to help win professional status. The emerging character of teaching as a specialized occupation, then, is more significant than the context in which it emerged (growth of entitlement legislation and changes in the demographics of pupil populations) might lead one to believe. For if teachers seek professional identity and control through specialization as other occupations have done, then American education will change in very dramatic ways. Some of these changes are associated with the higher level of specialization itself, whereas others are due to the greater possibilities for bureaucratic control that specialization provides. Because this point is so central to what follows, it makes sense to pause here and examine more closely the ways in which specialization has affected other professionals in this country.


“Trait” Models: What Professions Are

What is it that sets a profession apart among occupations? Sociologists and others who have attempted to answer this question have usually proceeded inductively by asking first which occupations are commonly recognized as professions. Medicine invariably heads the list, usually followed by law.

Other occupations generally (though not invariably) accorded professional status include the clergy, architecture, dentistry, university teaching, and engineering. Working from a list of accepted professions, the analyst extracts those common traits that seem to distinguish a profession from other types of work. The characteristics of a profession that emerge from this sort of analysis will, of course, vary with the predilections of the individual author (see, for example, Goode 1957, 1969;

Greenwood 1957; Etzioni 1969 for representative views). Some of the traits often identified in this way include autonomy (the ability to control entry into the profession unilaterally, set training requirements, and fix standards of professional performance); commitment to public service; involvement in matters centrally important to the community and the individual, and so on.

“Power” Models: How Professions Come to Be

Recently, a number of sociologists have criticized the static picture of occupational life provided by trait models of professionalism. Their argument runs as follows: To accept a definition based on common traits of those occupations currently recognized as professions is to ignore the particular social and economic conditions that allowed one occupational group to achieve professional status while another did not. Occupations aspiring to professional status are therefore judged by their ability to imitate the status quo established by professions already recognized. And a trait model makes it much more difficult to acknowledge the possibility that occupations currently accepted as professions may themselves be changing and thus altering the list of traits and the definition itself.

The anti-traits analysts (e.g., Freidson 1970, 1971; Johnson 1972; Roth 1974; Stevens 1971) find more interesting and productive an examination of how occupations seek to become professions, how they create a market for their services, and how they maintain professional status. One central step in this process is creating a favorable market for a profession’s services. This involves not only establishing a separate knowledge base, but also convincing potential clients that administering that knowledge is a task best left to the professionals themselves. Keeping clients sufficiently removed from access to the profession’s knowledge may be accomplished in several ways; an especially important one is seen in the way practitioners “mystify” the profession’s knowledge by devising a special vocabulary comprehensible only to the initiated.

Origin of Specialties under the Power Model

The defense of specialization usually advanced by members of the profession (and particularly by the affected specialty group) is one of efficiency: Advances in knowledge and public concern for the substance of the speciality require that practitioners be separately organized to provide ready access to services. There is never a suggestion of protectionism in the face the profession presents to the public. It is only when one turns to documents intended primarily for internal consumption-constitutions, newsletters, codes of ethics, reports, conference presentations, and so on-and to studies of a group’s political activity that these concerns clearly emerge.

The development of separate specialties in American medicine is clearly documented by Stevens (1971). Interestingly, the move toward greater specialization in medicine came at a time when physicians were particularly concerned about both an oversupply of generalist practitioners and a low standard of professional preparation in many training institutions. Stevens notes that, in 1910, “many small towns of 200 or less had two or three doctors” (61; see also Pusey [1925a, 1925b] and Simmons [1904] for other comments on supply of and demand for physicians).

While a range of new technological developments did allow new specialties to arise (asepsis and antisepsis in surgery, new instrumentation in otolaryngology, etc.), it was under conditions of real or perceived economic hardship that they flourished: In 1931, only about 17 percent of all doctors identified themselves as full-time specialists; by 1969, however, fully 77 percent of all physicians considered themselves specialists (Stevens 1971, 181). In a recent survey, only about 14 percent of medical graduates of 1960 reported themselves general practitioners (Schwartz and Cantwell 1976).

Surely one could go too far in stressing the roles played by power and client manipulation in the development of American professions. The intent here is not to suggest that specialties consciously conspire to deprive clients of access to knowledge. (Indeed, clients themselves often willingly cooperate not only in abiding by the definitions and rules for obtaining service that specialists establish, but also in actually seeking and supporting separate status for specialists in the first place.)

What seems to be at work, then, is not a covert conspiracy of specialists, but rather a kind of insidious push: As theory and practice develop in a professional field, pressures both internal (e.g., desire for rewards and to control one’s own work) and external (e.g., demands for entitlement legislation on the part of clients) may combine to encourage rapid fragmentation of the profession into a group of specialties. In this process, the specialist often winds up in a superior position and the generalist in an inferior one. All this may happen without either party’s being aware of what is taking place. The logical next question is, To what extent are these processes, typical of the way medical practice developed in the

United States , taking place in American education today?


Information about the relative positions of generalist and specialist educators in

America today is not easy to find. Because professional ethics require the presentation of a “united front” to the public, the tensions between generalists and specialists are not often aired openly. Nonetheless, there arc certain types of information that do shed light on the current situation. Five of these will be examined here: changes in how teacher certification is defined and granted; commentary on the position and role of specialist groups from those groups’ own internal publications; indications of concern about generalist-specialist relations on the part of local and state affiliates of NEA; the emergence of and allocation of powers to state-level professional standards and licensing boards; and, finally, parent opinion regarding how specialist services are provided.

Changes in Teacher Certification

Certification is in effect the state’s grant to an individual teacher of the right to practice in that state. Certification differs from licensure in that under the former, training institutions (schools, colleges, and departments of education) recommend to the state for certification those individuals who have completed and satisfied the requirements of the state-approved program offered by that institution. Licensure, on the other hand, is usually provided through a state-approved board of practitioners in the profession; satisfactory completion by the applicant of an examination or other procedure established by the board itself is the criterion for entry.

Table 1. Teacher Certification, 1967-1981

Number of

States Granting





Specialization by grade level

No formal distinctions

among K-12









Elementary/middle or

junior, senior high





Specialization by role

or subject

Subject matter experts




Early childhood teachers




Special education teachers




Distinctions within

special education





workers (social

workers, audiologists,









Elementary/secondary distinction




School psychologists




Library-media personnel




Elementary/secondary distinction




Additional role

distinctions (librarians, audiovisual








Reading specialists




Vocational teachers




Source: Woellner and Wood 1967; Woellner 1977, 1980; cf. also Whitworth and Hatly 1979.

NOTE. Total within each subsection under “Specialization by grade level” is 51 (includes

District of Columbia ).

Certification may be granted in blanket fashion, allowing a teacher to teach any subject at any grade level, or it may be limited to teaching of particular subjects, grades, or groups of students. The past several years have witnessed dramatic growth in the number of specialized areas in which states grant separate certificates. Some of these changes are evident from data in Table 1, States now increasingly recognize teachers in such areas as special education and early childhood education as distinct professional groups.

Separate certification (or endorsement of certificates) for the teaching of particular subjects has become the rule in a majority of states. The revolution in the provision of special services has led to increases in the number of states certifying such pupil-personnel specialists as social workers, audiologists, and school psychologists. (It may be, however, that some of the increase here has been due to the drop in states’ certifying counselors separately: in these cases, counselor certification may simply have been expanded to include other school service workers.) States also increasingly recognize subspecialties in such fields as special education (where eleven states now make distinctions in certifying teachers to deal with particular problems or handicapping conditions) and the library-media field (where seven states distinguish among librarians, audiovisual specialists, instructional developers, and so on).

That states are granting teachers more restricted privileges to practice does not, of course, mean that local schools always recognize those distinctions in reality. In the hurly-burly of daily school life, principals may make staffing decisions without much care for the propriety of certificates. Nonetheless, data collected by NEA indicate that fewer teachers are working outside of their area of original training now than was the case formerly: In 1966, 12.9 percent of teachers reported that they spent at least some time teaching outside of the field for which they had been prepared; by 1976, that figure had dropped to 6.6 percent (National Education Association 1977, 21).

Specialists, then, appear to have been successful at least in having states recognize their distinct status. The extent to which that status is recognized in practice is another matter.

Specialists’ Views of Their Own Roles

The language specialist groups use in public to describe their position vis-ä-vis generalists may differ markedly from comments intended primarily for consumption within the specialist group. While statements by specialists directed toward the public as a whole have stressed the cooperative nature of the specialist’s work, internal documents may tell another story. The title of one article is instructive: “Whose Child Is He-Yours, Mine, or Ours?” (Maitland 1976). Other statements urge counselors to press for licensure to assure “legal recognition and adequate credentialing” (Counselor licensure ca. 1980). Campaigns urging legislative action in support of particular specialist groups’ interests are also common (“NASW seeks clout” 1980).

Another type of internal communication in specialist groups is the call for redefinition of the specialist’s role. Counselors, for example, have been urged to expand their duties to include discussing general school problems with faculty and doing organizational development in the school (Murray and Schmuck 1972). Media personnel have been encouraged to work as “knowledge linkers” among teachers and administrators (Kerr 1978). And psychologists have been exhorted to deemphasize the technical nature of their work and focus more on “helping approaches” (Maroldo 1972)..Teacher Specialization 639 While some of the changes suggested in these proposals would introduce genuinely new roles into school settings, others would mean a redistribution of existing responsibilities in ways that would enhance the position of particular specialists. While such changes do not occur quickly or easily, specialists’ remarks indicate a strong tendency to try to expand their own roles and make them more centrally important to the conduct of education, frequently at the expense of generalist colleagues.

Generalist-Specialist Relations in the View of Regional Teacher Associations Another arena in which the tensions among generalists and specialists may be studied is that of state and local teacher organizations. An interesting concomitant to the development of separate certification noted above has been the growth of specialist associations and organizations of all sorts: Counselors, special education teachers, library-media personnel, and so on, all have at least one (and frequently more than one) professional group with which they may affiliate. In earlier times these specialist organizations, like organizations of generalist teachers, defined themselves as “professional associations” rather than as unions or collective-bargaining agents. Recently that has changed, and some specialist groups now challenge the position of generalist organizations as the sole representatives of those groups during negotiations.

The experience of one state faced with this problem may be illustrative. In 1978, leadership of the Washington Education Association (WEA; this Washington state affiliate of NEA represents over 89 percent of the state’s teachers in collective bargaining) received complaints from members of several specialist groups (among them counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists) that WEA was not attending sufficiently to specialists’ interests. Many specialists, as it turned out, felt that WEA dealt only with the concerns of its generalist members; the specialists therefore argued that it would only make sense for them to withdraw (either in fact or in spirit; school districts in the state vary with respect to “union shop” rules) and make their own-specialist-organizations the focus of their activities in professional development, lobbying, and collective bargaining.

Faced with the possibility of fragmentation of a “united teaching profession” into a collection of disparate organizations, WEA reacted: A task force, then a commission, was formed to investigate relations between the organization and the various groups of specialists (locally known as Educational Staff Associates, or ESAs). The task force, meeting four times per year, served as a sounding board for specialist concerns and eliminated for the moment the threatened defection of specialists in

Washington state.

The issues raised during sessions of the WEA-ESA Task Force reflect many of the broader themes outlined above. Specialists were concerned: that too many untrained generalists were serving in positions that required specialist credentials (e.g., as counselors); that generalist teachers-in-training were not being properly oriented to the various specialist roles, the distinctions among them, and the proper ways of using specialist services; that state legislators needed to take specialists into account more specifically when making decisions about funding, staffing levels, and so on (Washington Education Association 1978-1979a and 1978-1979b). These concerns are neither unique nor new, but the fact that a state NEA affiliate was forced to take explicit action to deal with them is indicative of the seriousness with which they are seen at the state level.

Professional Standards Boards

Defining the standards teachers must meet for certification is the prerogative of the state. Some twenty-eight states have formed professional standards boards to advise their education departments on criteria for certification; in some eight states, these boards have been given considerable power to set certification standards themselves. Of the twenty-eight states with standards boards, all include generalist classroom teachers (at least implicitly) on the board, while eight also include specialists (National Education Association 1976, 1978b).

Recently, a dispute arose within the California State Commission for Teacher Preparation and Licensing (one of those boards with both specialist representation and full legal authority) regarding criteria for certifying special educators (LoPresti 1979; McDonnell 1977). While this was a comparatively minor skirmish, it may have foretold larger battles to come: A study of board regulation of nonteaching occupations by Rayack (1975) found a distinct relation between economic conditions (unemployment in a given occupation) and restrictions imposed by boards on the numbers of entrants. Rayack also found such boards to be remarkably insensitive to consumer complaints and very hesitant to revoke licenses. As professional standards boards gain more authority in education, it will be important to monitor their activities in such areas as setting entry requirements, determing the scope of generalist-specialist interaction, and handling client complaints regarding the provision of educational services.

Parents’ Views of Specialist Services

It is perhaps most difficult to analyze the position of parents with regard to specialist services. Though the child is the direct recipient of the specialist’s attentions, it is the parent whose interest and support the specialist must enlist. Parents obviously are a diverse group. Many-especially those with children requiring special education have been extremely vocal in their support for specialists and the services they provide. Passage of P.L. 94-142 owed much to this group. On the other hand, there are clearly many parents who are mystified by specialists’ unusual language, different procedures, and sometimes superior manner.

Research conducted by the National Committee for Citizens in Education aptly illustrates these contradictory positions. In a study that focused on provision of special education services, “over two-thirds of responding parents felt adequately informed about the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) [provided for their children] and felt that the IEP generally fit their children’s needs” (Salett 1979, 4). However, that general approval did not extend to all specifics of the plans, for 45 percent of the parents felt that “annual goals set in the IEP did not fully meet the educational needs of their children” (Salett 1979, 6; the difference appears to be between general agreement and complete satisfaction). Some 5 percent refused to approve their children’s IEPs. A number of other problems were reported: Many parents did not participate in the development of IEPs, did not feel competent to participate, and did not receive information on how to appeal evaluations.

These findings parallel those of other investigators who have examined the reaction of parents to increasing specialization of educational services. Weatherley (1979; Weatherley and Lipsky 1977) studied the implementation of a state-mandated special education program and found some cases in which teachers responded inadequately to parents’ needs for information and support. Some students also had significant problems in identifying their “real teacher,” and in making transitions from a regular to a special class. Morra (1979; see also Progress toward a free 1979) found that many parents felt inadequate when they confronted what appeared to them to be specialists’ superior knowledge and ability. Turnbull (1978) also noted that many parent-specialist relationships were marked by “superiority (professional)-inferiority (parent) interaction.”

The coalition of parents and specialist educators is therefore an uneasy one: Most parents support the work specialists do, but many also have feelings of somehow having been left out when specialists make decisions. This sort of client-professional relationship is novel, and its implications are explored in a later section of this article.


Specialists are clearly coming to play an important role in education. As their numbers and functions increase, so too does their interest in protecting their own position, assuring a continued flow of clients, and asserting the unique value of their services. It is natural that such a realignment of educational roles and relationships should occasionally produce the sorts of strain and disagreement discussed above.

What is unusual about the situation, however, is the ironic likelihood that specialists’ moves to control a specific segment of the client market and define their practice in a way that makes it inaccessible to many laypersons will lead not to greater professional autonomy, but to a profession regimented and defined by bureaucrats. Educators have for years emulated medicine as a “model profession,” wishing perhaps for the kind of individual choice that the physician in solo practice seemed to enjoy. But while teachers tried, through specialization and professional development, to emulate an idealized vision of medical work, physicians were in fact moving toward an occupational life very similar to that lived by most teachers: collectively organized, bureaucratically controlled, and closely supervised by a variety of regulator) bodies.

The reason for this is not difficult to see. As the services rendered by individual practitioners became more and more refined through differentiation and specialization, the problem of organizing the delivery of services to clients becomes correspondingly complex. A further complication is the apparent fact that clients will ration their use of professional services more sparingly when they are paying for them directly than when no payment is involved. In medicine, for example, the growth of comprehensive health-carte insurance systems and of health maintenance organizations (HMOs) led to increased demands for services and consequently to the development of large-scale bureaucratic allocation procedures to assure that each eligible client received a just share of available resources-the time and talents of the individual specialist. Standards, norms, and criteria for eligibility thus became the sine qua non for distributing bureaucratically the fruits of the system of professional specialties.

Education, of course, has been a bureaucratically controlled, state-supervised enterprise since the nineteenth century. And although specialization leads to more control over certain segments of work life, it seems likely that the pattern common to other professions will repeat itself here: As differentiation among services increases, the decision about what services are provided, to whom, and under what conditions becomes a bureaucratic rather than a professional function. The speciality gains autonomy to control its internal affairs very much at the expense of a more general freedom to set the conditions under which its work will be done. This phenomenon is already noticeable in many of the specialty areas in education. Special educators routinely assault the lines of bureaucratic procedure established in the name of equitably and efficiently allocating their services, and just as routinely are defeated in their quest (cf. Gottlieb 1981).

Few people like bureaucracy for its own sake; they tolerate it if it provides fairer or readier access to scarce goods or services, or if it helps to promote some benefit to the public that would otherwise not develop. Members of the general public who have reason to use the services of specialized professionals generally seem satisfied with the way access to those services is controlled by the professions. There is growing evidence, however, that some clients arc starting to become impatient with the structure of bureaucratically controlled, specialized professionalism that has emerged in the

United States over the past fifty years. The question of how specialist services should be organized and controlled, and what the role of the client is to be in this process, is therefore of great importance not only for American public education but also for other spheres of professional life.


The dilemma is obvious: when one is in need, one wants the best professional services that current knowledge and practice can provide; if specialists choose to organize themselves in a particular fashion in order to provide those services, we generally do not care as long as what we need is there when we need it. On the other hand, extended enforced contact with bureaucratic procedures that do not themselves contribute to the services sought can lead to intense frustration. How, then, can we both use specialized knowledge and at the same time guard against the sort of bureaucratized dehumanization so often associated with it?

Those who have written on bureaucracy and the professions have most often examined the position of the professional, and have devoted relatively little attention to a definition of the options open to the client seeking services. Yet there are differing approaches the client may take, and a different view of the specialist-client relationship underlies each. Because the client’s role in defining the form and content of specialist services has been generally overlooked, and because assumptions about those relationships will be important in determining how specialists are organized in education in years to come, it makes sense to pause here to examine three common images of specialist-client relationships.

Client as Object

In this type of client-specialist relationship, the specialist assumes the lead role of professional prescriber and dispenser of services, while the client becomes the passive recipient of those services. In the past, such an approach to clients was actively encouraged through professional training in such fields as medicine and law. Developing “professional bearing and manner” in novice practitioners was in large part teaching them to regard clients as objects, and to assure them that the opinion of the professional was the only thing that mattered in diagnosing and prescribing for client problems.

The training of teachers never incorporated these assumptions about professional-client relationships to quite the extent that other, more established professions did. Two factors probably account for this: a long-standing tradition of public participation in the definition of educational services, and the legal and social expectation that the teacher act (and, in essence, only act) in loco parentis, a requirement that emphasizes both the dependent nature of the primary client in education (the child) and the ultimate responsibility for setting the child’s educational course vested in the secondary client (the parent).

Some educational specialists, however, may follow a traditional pattern of professional-client relations. In certain cases, this appears to be the only sensible approach-an educational audiologist whose job it is to test the hearing of a large number of children each day might well argue that the limited nature of the task and the volume of tasks to be performed necessitate a professional relationship in which the client becomes simply a recipient of service. Even among those educational specialists who make a point of trying to involve parents (teachers of special education, for example, who must explain to parents the content of a student’s IEP), the difficulty of explaining the complex treatment alternatives may lead some to put the client in a subordinate role.

Client as Professional

At the opposite end of the spectrum of client-professional relationships is the view that clients should themselves seek to become definers and providers of professional skills and service. Arising out of the consumerist and anti-professional movements of the late 1960s and the 1970s this trend found its strongest expression in the works of Ivan Illich. In Toward a History of Needs (1977), Illich contends that clients must reassert their own right to shape professional services in ways that are humane and conducive to individual development. Few educational consumers were willing to follow in the path scouted by Illich. Although there have been a number of news reports recently stressing the large number of parents who are currently withdrawing their children from schools for education at home, these moves seem more often to have been motivated by ideological differences (i.e., parental unhappiness over busing or curricula) than by dissatisfaction with professional-client relationships. In the vast majority of cases clients, even if perturbed by some aspects of professional behavior, appear to want professionals, themselves to retain a key role in providing services. Most clients, in other words, simply do not want to spend the time that would be necessary to become qualified in a professional field. (This seems to explain, for example, why home kidney dialysis has been less popular than was predicted; Gallagher 1977.)

Client as Co-producer

What most clients appear to be satisfied with is a role as “co-producer” of professional services, a role not in defining professional knowledge or treatment specifics, nor one in making broad policy decisions about how care is to be allocated, but rather a role in determining what services are appropriate in a given context, how and under what conditions those specific treatments will be provided, and what steps the client may take if treatment appears not to be working. This is the sort of role assumed in many state and federal programs mandating client involvement in specialist programs.

A co-producing client becomes an informed, efficient seeker of services. Thus, the client does not waste the professional’s time, does not demand services unnecessarily, learns what services are available, makes preliminary self-diagnoses so as to focus the professional’s efforts, provides information needed by the professional to suggest an appropriate plan for treatment, and monitors treatment so as to be able to suggest variation or alternatives. HMOs, which often run “health consumer education programs,” usually adopt this view of the client. Large health insurance companies, having a stake in making professional services more efficient (and thus less costly), also attempt to turn clients-as-objects into clients-as-co-producers.

A major health-care campaign designed to enable clients to function as co-producers exemplifies this trend. The campaign was based on a successful manual for medical self-diagnosis and self-care. Published in 1976, Take Care of Yourself: A Consumer’s Guide to Medical Care (Vickery and Fries) allows patients to be their own “triage agents.” The authors describe symptoms of various parts of the body, then lead the reader through decision-making algorithms that culminate (depending on the combination of symptoms) in such advice as “See physician now,” “Make appointment with physician,” or “Apply home treatment.” Regional health-care groups (such as Blue Cross,’ Blue Shield) and major corporations immediately began publicizing the book; more than one million copies were distributed at reduced cost or given away. Such programs have been so successful that one of the authors has established the nonprofit Center for Consumer Health Education, which publishes Taking Care, a newsletter based on the format of the original volume and intended for bulk purchase by organizations and health-care systems (Center for Consumer Health Education 1981; Donald M. Vickery, personal communication Dec. 8, 1981; for further information on the concept of co-production, see Kerchner et al. 1981).

But while many secondary clients of the educational system (i.e., parents) might like to become co-producers, current patterns of administrative organization for education and for specialist services make that participation difficult. This dilemma, together with suggestions for overcoming it, is the focus of the concluding discussion below.


The problem is one of balance: How should specialized professional services be provided in an educational system that is bureaucratically organized, but that also takes as fundamental the principle of client involvement? It is a problem made more complex by the fact that few of the actors are aware of the pressures affecting them. Specialists may unconsciously view themselves as an elite among teachers, or as “true” professionals bringing hard, scientific knowledge to bear on educational problems. Administrators may unconsciously use the welter of bureaucratic regulations that surround special-service educational programs as a lever of additional bureaucratic control. Parents may feel torn between desires to participate in determining the content of special educational programs and strong inclinations to simply accept whatever is offered and leave well enough alone.

One scenario that appears unlikely at present is a return to the status quo ante, that world in which all teachers were generalists, parents were easily appraised of their children’s problems and progress, and administrators were concerned about the division of labor in their schools only to the extent that all classrooms were covered by a qualified teacher. The patterns of professional development and the strength of specialized practice, the growing demand for a voice of some sort for parents in making educational decisions regarding specialist services, and the nature of bureaucratic control all make it appear that a critical turning point in the development of education as a specialized profession has already been passed.

Indeed, new technological developments in data storage and retrieval, and associated policy decisions, make it ever more difficult for concerned parents to gain access to critical information affecting their children’s status. Information on individual students, on treatment options, and on educational decisions made comes increasingly to be stored in large data banks that can be tapped only by educational professionals with authorized access codes and the requisite skills in information searching. As these changes proceed, information that was once at least physically present in an educator’s file cabinet or in a library becomes available only electronically and only to one with the authority, equipment, and skills to locate it. Medical information, once there for inspection by the layperson with enough perseverance and knowledge to search it out, will be withdrawn increasingly from public scrutiny into such systems during the coming decade (GTE plans new videotex databases 1981).

Public discussion of the effects of this transfer of information out of the public domain remains muted. Much more attention has been focused on questions of privacy and control of individual data files by clients than on the ways in which professionals remove whole classes of information from the public arena.

The development of automated databases in education is already well under way. While there has never been any concern over public access to such collections of bibliographic material as ERIC, it is an open question whether databases containing more “sensitive” information (e.g., current treatment options for an individual student or group of students, background material on the creation, validation, and use of diagnostic instruments, etc.) would be open for public examination. Policy decisions regarding the creation and use of such databases are being made at present, and clients have little say in shaping those decisions.


How, then, may we provide and use specialized knowledge in such a way that individual human beings are not deprived of their humanity as they seek and receive service? There are two paths we might follow. The first is the one we are most likely to take, for it involves straying only slightly from the present course. For example, educators might expand preservice and in-service training for generalist and specialist teachers to include more exposure to the perspectives of their counterparts; improve the dialogue among generalist and specialist professional groups; encourage those who tend the educational bureaucracy on local, state, and federal levels to take a more creative attitude toward the drafting, implementation, and interpretation of the various regulations that seem now to be imperative for the functioning of a specialized profession. Parents might form groups to monitor the implementation of specialist programs, to seek access to appropriate data, and to discuss how they might work with specialists.

Some of these changes are in fact already taking place, but in a modest way. Even at best, they will allow us to eliminate only some of the more conspicuous problems in the present pattern of teacher specialization and professionalized practice. But these changes are probably not enough. Only more radical shifts can prevent further deterioration of education into a fragmented profession, less concerned than it should be about the quality of service its clients receive, and more concerned with self-serving internal struggles over prestige, rank, and position. While such basic changes will be very difficult, they are also essential if education is to regain public confidence and serve broadly the needs of students.

The second path takes us through a radical reconceptualization of the role of the teacher in a specialized world and toward a model of professional activity quite different from the one we now seem to accept as inevitable. Let us look in more detail at some of the features that mark that second path.

The first step on this path will need to be a basic restructuring of the role of the teacher into that of consummate generalist, a guide whose expertise includes the particular but goes beyond the specifics of subject, grade level, or student characteristics. We must be very careful here not to take the position of educational Luddites, destroying out of zeal and a yearning for bygone stability the new tools that specialization has brought. What is called for is not simply the resurrection of the classroom generalist of yore, but rather the creation of a new type of generalist. This new species must be comfortable in the traditional role of the classroom teacher, but must also be able to use the techniques and approaches of the specialist. The preparation of a teacher equally competent in generalist and specialist areas will probably require additional training, or at least a type of training not now commonly available; there will need to be a great deal of emphasis on flexible thinking, on selection of teaching strategies from a very wide repertoire, as well asempathy training to enable easier communication with students and parents. Such a generalist might well follow groups or individual children through several grade levels, dealing with a variety of student learning problems (though probably every generalist would not deal with every type of problem for every type of student). The need is for a teacher with very high levels of skill in several different areas; recruiting such people as teachers will be an extremely complex problem in and of itself and is beyond the scope of what can be dealt with here.

A second step on this path toward radical reconceptualization of what teaching as a profession is requires us to form a new compact of trust among parents, teachers, and administrators. There must be a drastic restructuring of relationships and styles of interacting, away from an approach based on fractional politics and confrontation, and toward a new set of common understandings centered on a concern for student learning. Trust is easy to demand, more difficult to create. One can trust a professional because there is no alternate source of service, or because one is ignorant; one can also trust because there is an understanding of rights, responsibilities, and contributions among all parties to the relationship. Trust of this latter kind is what is needed, a trust that recognizes educators and parents as co-producers of educational services, with clearly defined and commonly agreed on rights of access to, review of, and creation of information on each side.

Finally, educators must take the step of discarding an image of professionalism based on the model of how medicine achieved and reinforced its professional status, and how specialization helped in that process. Medicine has been criticized increasingly for its reliance on that model of professional practice, and there is no reason education should continue to try to use a model that has been proven to be dysfunctional. The combination of steps described here-radically different training; work with all types of students across boundaries of grade, subject, and student characteristics; contact with parents in more situations, more frequently; new relationships among educators and parents based on trust and shared concerns for learning-could lead to a new model of professionalism, a model distinctive in its concern for clients as active participants in the definition and delivery of educational services. A uniquely professional status for teaching may come only when teachers are able and willing to give up preexisting notions of what a profession is, and how best to get there from where they are.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 84 Number 3, 1983, p. 629-651
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 821, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 6:28:35 PM

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  • Stephen Kerr
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    STEPHEN T. KERR is associate professor in the Department of Communication, Computing, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research has focused on the impact of technological change on roles of educators in schools; the development of instructional technology and related concepts in the developing countries and in the USSR; the ways in which teachers and other untrained designers of instructional materials proceed when generating plans for educational programs or products; and the ways in which textual information can be presented optimally in both print and non-print formats.
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