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Teaching as a Profession

Professionalization has long been a source of both hope and frustration for teachers. Since the early 20th century, educators have sought to promote the view that elementary and secondary teaching is a highly complex kind of work, requiring specialized knowledge and skill and deserving of the same status and standing as established professions such as law and medicine. Research and reform on professionalizing teaching has, however, been marked by both confusion and contention, much of which centers on what constitutes a profession and what it means to “professionalize” a particular kind of work. To some, the essence of a profession lies in advanced training. For others, it involves the attitudes individual practitioners hold toward their work. For still others, the focus is on the organizational conditions under which teachers work. Hence, efforts to professionalize an occupation might vary, depending on one’s definition of a profession.

To ground the debate, Professor Ingersoll drew upon sociological theory and an array of data to identify a set of characteristics associated with professions and professionals (for instance, a high degree of specialization, higher compensation relative to other occupations, greater authority and control, and high prestige). He then used these indicators to assess the professionalization of teaching in the United States and the extent to which teaching does, or does not, exhibit the characteristics of a profession. He concluded that teaching remained, at best, a “semi-profession.”

Professor Ingersoll published his findings in the late 1990s as two reports released by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Later he summarized and updated this work in a chapter (co-authored with doctoral students David Perda, Lisa Merrill, and Greg Collins) titled “The Status of Teaching as a Profession,” published in successive editions (up to 2018) of a popular textbook, Schools and Society: A Sociological Approach to Education. These publications have been cited more than 800 times and downloaded more than 42,600 times from the University of Pennsylvania’s Scholarly Commons website.


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