The Political Nature of Teacher Professionalism : on the Professional Projects of Sweden's Teacher Unions

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The Political Nature of Teacher Professionalism : on the Professional Projects of Sweden's Teacher Unions

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Publication Conference Paper, peer reviewed
Title The Political Nature of Teacher Professionalism : on the Professional Projects of Sweden's Teacher Unions
Author(s) Lilja, Peter
Date 2014
English abstract
A central aspect of contemporary international education policy debates concern the need for improving the quality of teachers as one of the primary ways of increasing student results in international tests and evaluations. Such reforms, aimed at increasing the effectiveness or status of teachers in general, are often framed as being geared towards processes of teacher professionalization. However, the concept of professionalism, and consequently the desired outcomes of processes of professionalization, is not easily defined, opening room for political struggles over the meaning ascribed to it in different contexts. It is the overall intention of this paper to critically examine such political struggles over definitions of these concepts in the context of contemporary Swedish education policy making. Even if the paper draws on the case of Sweden, the discussion has wider implications as the political and institutional arrangements affecting the way education policies are currently framed are becoming increasing similar between countries, due to the fundamental influence of intergovernmental organizations such as the European Union (EU) or the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on national policy making in the area of education. The introduction of ‘professional’ terminology in relation to teachers in Sweden was not introduced by teachers themselves or their organizations, but was imposed upon them as an integral part of the political process of educational decentralization and deregulation. However, as the traditional bureaucratic hierarchies of the welfare system were dismantled the possibility of adopting professional terminology became available to occupations, and occupational organizations, not normally considered full-fledged professions. This led to an expansion of the use of professional terminology on behalf of a number of public service occupations (e.g. teachers, nurses, social worker) previously referred to as semi-professional. This transformation of the system of welfare provision constitutes a precondition for the Swedish Teacher Unions to adopt and use a professional discourse as a strategy for trying to improve the conditions of their members in different ways. This paper summarizes the results of a Ph.D-project aimed at analyzing how Sweden’s two Teacher Unions construct their own versions of teacher professionalism in relation to two recent Swedish education reforms, intended to increase the professionalism of teachers. Using theories from the sociology of professions coupled with an institutional approach to the study of organizations the paper analyzes how the Teacher Unions construct professional projects in relation to each other as well as in relation to the reforms of the current Ministry of Education. Viewing professionalism as an institutional logic, it investigates the different strategies employed by the two Unions and considers their effects on the overall professional ambitions of Swedish teachers. By doing so it highlights the complexities facing occupational organizations – such as unions – as they engage in political struggles over how the meaning ascribed to concepts like professionalism is to be decided. In this sense, the Unions are considered as a kind of institutional actors using the idea of professionalism in order to promote their own ideas of how the future development of the teaching profession may best serve the interests of their members. The unions’ focus on processes of professionalization is also considered as a kind of identity-work aimed at providing Swedish teachers with a clearly defined occupational identity within the framework of a transformed welfare system. Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used The study is based on analyses of public union documents, as they are considered the best way to access the "public voice" of the two organizations. The primary material consist of referrals in which the Unions are responding to the suggestions of governmentally appointed public commissions suggesting how certain political initiatives are to be realized. These commission reports are, after the referrals have been taken into account, transformed into green papers to be decided by parliament. In addition to these formal statements, debate articles by (primarily) the Union chairs are also included into the analyses in order to provide a kind of narrative sense of how the Unions place their policies in relation to the overall education policy debates of Sweden. The textual analyses draws on the ideas of "policy sociology" as sociological concepts are used to interpret and understand the policies of the Unions. It is not an analysis for policy, in the sense that it is aimed to provide the Unions with strategies for how the are best to accomplish their policy objectives, but rather a critical analysis of the policies they employ and how they can be understood in the context where they arise. In this sense the study is critical in its ambition to problematize the Unions' use of professional terminology. The analysis is guided by an abductive approach as the interpretations have been developed in a continuous process where theory has provided new insights in relation to the empirical material at the same time as that same material has required new theoretical tools to be put in use in order to provide reasonable explanations. Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings The overall conclusion to be drawn from the study is that the idea of teacher professionalization in the context of Swedish education policy making is a decidedly political process, somewhat removed or de-coupled from the everyday practice of Swedish teachers.  A central argument of the study is that the fact that Swedish teachers are organized in two different unions are complicating the formulation of a common professional project on behalf of Swedish teachers in general. This is because the two unions, though united in their wish to turn teaching into a "proper" profession, are constructing their professional projects from very opposing points of departure, resulting in a process of intraprofessional boundary-work dependent upon the historical tension between different teacher categories. As a result of the internal struggles between the two Teacher Unions the position of Swedish teachers in general becomes weak in relation to national education policy makers. As the unions are forced to compete for political influence in order to gain support for their own policies, the professional projects of Swedish teachers are becoming very dependent upon the political system in general. As a result the autonomy of Swedish teachers, as an occupational group, is restricted, seriously limiting the prospects for teachers to become "professionals" in any traditional understanding of the term.
Publisher EERA
Pages 1-10
Language eng (iso)
Subject(s) Professionalism
Teacher Professionalism
Teacher Unions
Boundary Work
Symbolic Polittics
Professional Projects
Education Reforms
Humanities/Social Sciences
Research Subject Categories::SOCIAL SCIENCES
Note ECER, European Conference on Educational Research "The Past, Present and Future of Educational Research in Europe", University of Porto, Porto, Portugal, 1-5 September 2014
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