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December 3 2012

Peeking Behind the Proposed Teacher Bar Exam

Vicki E. Alger

The American Federation of Teachers has just released a report calling for teachers to pass a bar exam before entering the profession. Similar to lawyers and doctors, AFT President Randi Weingarten says,

It's time to do away with a common rite of passage into the teaching profession—whereby newly minted teachers are tossed the keys to their classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they and their students sink or swim. This is unfair to both students and their teachers, who care so much but who want and need to feel competent and confident to teach from their first day on the job.

Well put. Among the AFT’s recommendation is for schools of education to become more selective in their admissions, and requiring candidates to complete a year of “clinical practice.” These would be welcome improvements; however, as always, the devil’s in the details. The National Council on Teacher Quality, cautions:

While definitely a significant step forward, the report's recommended exit requirements for teacher candidates don't quite seem to add up to a bar exam. …why should developing a "professional philosophy" be considered a prerequisite to becoming a successful teacher? And the report does not go into enough detail about its recommended performance assessment—videotapes of three successful teaching experiences and formal observation by a practitioner-mentor—for us to determine whether it would be truly rigorous.

It’s also worth wondering if the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) is really up to the task of taking the “leading role” in defining a “rigorous entry bar,” as the AFT recommends. (See p. 3 here.) Two statements jumped off the related Washington Post story page.

First, NBPTS head Ron Thorpe dislikes state teaching standards, not because they largely stink (see here and also here for your state’s standards) but because they differ from state to state. We should stop worrying so much about “different” and instead focus on whether they’re good. Having a virtual monopoly over certifying teachers sure would be good for the NBPTS folks, but there’s little evidence that teacher certification (much less passing a bar exam developed by the certifiers) actually makes teachers better.

Second, there’s a telling line from Weingarten. With a bar exam to “just level the playing field…Maybe all the alternative certified teachers will pass with flying colors. But if only 10 percent of TFA [Teach for America] passed it and 90 percent of the students from Teachers College passed it, that would say something.”

It sure would—if that happened—and there’s little reason to believe it would. Perhaps if it didn’t happen it would say that those who dominate American education aren’t the “experts” they claim to be.

Perhaps Weingarten is still smarting from the fact that AFT-sponsored charter schools are not better after all than other charter schools—even though they are filled with certified, unionized teachers. Perhaps she’s trying to improve the unions’ public image after so many years of opposing common-sense teacher quality reforms. Along with the NBPTS, teachers unions oppose using student performance as a component in teacher evaluations. As Common Sense School Reform author Frederick Hess sums up:

Instead, [the NBPTS] has constructed an exhausting, expensive process that wastes time and money while suggesting that the measure of teacher quality is not whether students learn but whether teachers write sufficiently passionate essays about their “commitment” and “reflectiveness.”

Perhaps the certification experts are also smarting from recent remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who told NBPTS members of that “we can no longer pretend that all teachers or all principals are from Lake Woebegone where everyone is above average.” He added:

Too many states and districts have taken the easy way out—and simply shirked their responsibility...It is time to recognize and reward our best teachers, support those in the middle, and also acknowledge that teaching may not be the best career choice for a small minority of teachers who continue to struggle despite support and mentorship. Teaching is not a job for everyone...In the 21st century, we shouldn’t be guessing whether or not a teacher is impacting student learning—we should know...We need to agree that in teaching, as in every skilled profession...quality matters...Yet, too many of our nation’s 1,400 schools of education lack the rigor to attract talented students...too many schools and districts evaluate, recognize, and compensate teachers without respect to their impact on student learning. This is an assembly-line model of pay, based on seniority and educational credentials. This is not how professionals are compensated in this age of innovation... In the field of education, we also need to tell the truth. We all need to say out loud what everyone knows: the field of education must change, grow, improve, and rise to a higher standard of professionalism.

That’s more likely to happen when parents are free to choose their children’s education settings and instructors. Educators who perform well will actually have students enrolled in their classrooms. Those who can’t attract and keep students would have to find a job in another profession.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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