Should teachers be required to pass “the bar”?

One of my favorite commentors – an experienced Utah teacher – sent me a link to a Washington Post article entitled “Union proposes ‘bar exam’ for teachers.” His email made it very clear that he thinks this is a terrible idea.

I’m not quite so sure, though I AM sure that it could and probably would be implemented terribly – and in a way that unnecessarily protects the status quo. But for that I have a proposed tweak.

Here’s how the article describes the proposal:

Under the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) plan, prospective teachers who have undergone training at an education school would have to demonstrate knowledge of their subject areas, an understanding of the social and emotional elements of learning, and spend a year in “clinical practice” as a student teacher before passing a rigorous exam.

The plan also calls for universities to grow more selective in accepting students into teacher preparation programs, requiring a minimum of a 3.0 grade point average to enroll and to graduate, among other things.

I like the last part a lot, especially if teaching candidates had to earn a 3.0 before being admitted to ANY education courses. (Education majors have the lowest test scores and highest GPAs of any undergraduate majors. Go figure.)

Here’s my very important tweak. Why limit the test to ed school graduates? Some states allow perspective lawyers to take the bar without attending law school. If they know their stuff, why does it matter how and where prospective teachers learned it? Similarly, let states publish clear guidelines about what teachers are expected to know, and then pen the competition – and the required one-year clinical practice, which I also like – to non-education majors. Several cities and states have already approved non ed-school approaches to teacher training (here’s a link to an earlier blog posting I wrote about a program in New York City.)

One serious and very likely danger, of course, is that the test would be chock full of questions about ideologically-charged and dubious educational theory. I say, live with it. Smart students could get a couple of books and figure this stuff out. With luck they’d also test the theories against the reality of the classroom. (Not all of it is foolish, and some works for some kids some of the time.)

If the subject matter and critical thinking elements of the test were truly rigorous, these students would probably still do very well, and we could get an influx of talented candidates who otherwise balked at the thought of spending their precious college years in education courses. Meanwhile, education majors would know that they had to take rigorous courses and prepare themselves to pass a tough exam, and education schools would face more pressure to improve their curriculum and recruit better students. Sounds like a win-win to me.



  1. Yak_Herder

    We already have professional exams. The proposal is to add yet another one.

    I have taken (and passed) several professional exams. While still in school, I took the Praxis exam for my content area. After a couple of years of teaching, I took another, more general, Praxis exam that all Utah teachers take before moving from a Level I to a Level II certificate, evaluating their understanding of pedagogy. After some additional classwork, I took a third Praxis exam to complete the requirements to teach in a second content area.

    I agree with the idea of letting anyone take the exam. It should not matter whether someone is an Education major/graduate or not. However, it must be acknowledged that placing increased attention of the importance of a “bar exam” would also put additional pressure on colleges and universities to “teach to the test”. If that is the road we choose, it had better be an excellent test and we should eliminate the others at the same time.

    One last comment:
    The road to improving the quality of teachers does not lie in making the process more difficult. What we need to do is to make the profession more attractive, and that means making salaries more competitive with industry. Throwing more money at the problem won’t fix anything in and of itself, but starving the system of the necessary funding will certainly ensure that things won’t improve.

    • Mary McConnell

      As you know, I agree that teacher salaries should be raised . . . though I’m guessing that we’ll have to choose between hiring more teachers and paying them more.

      And I’m actually arguing that rigorous tests might make the process simpler, by allowing some highly qualified candidates to bypass education courses through self-study. We have plenty of barriers to entry in education – just not the ones that make sense. Or at least so it seems to me.

  2. howard beale

    Don’t teachers take a battery of tests already? I think this is another stupid idea to make teachers feel worse than they already do.

    Let’s talk about some serious ideas about helping education…

    • Mary McConnell

      Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers) is suggesting a much, much more rigorous exam than the current PRAXIS tests. In general she’s an advocate of raising the profession’s standards.

      • Goet

        What will we really gain by yet another multiple choice/essay test that cannot and will not effectively measure a teacher’s ability in the classroom?
        We already have content-related exams that cover those areas. They may not be rigorous according to Mr. AFT, but they serve the content-related purpose.
        What we DO need, as mentioned above, is an influx of things (salary, benefits, etc.) that make the career track more desirable. Together with this we would need a much more rigorous evaluation of classroom technique and usage of all that theory learned in school and tested on the PRAXIS. This falls on the heads of administrators, who with rare exception, don’t really do much to weed out the weak within their own schools.

  3. Anonymous

    I honestly don’t see a problem with raising the standards. Both the test and the one year “clinical” sound like fantastic ideas to me. As a practicing engineer, we have to pass a Fundamentals of Engineering exam, then work in engineering for four years before we can even TRY to take the Professional Engineer exam (and then we have to pass it, which takes the average test taker two tries). If we hold some professions to these standards, why not all?

    • Goet

      Simple answer: teachers, at least in this state, already must take multiple tests and undergo yearly evaluations. What is happening is these evaluations are not happening consistently and with much rigor at all.

      Not to mention, engineers most usually are paid way above a teacher’s salary.

      All this proposal will do will be to cut potential candidates to an even smaller pool, i.e. take us in the opposite direction.

  4. howard beale

    Yak Herder:

    You make too much sense up there. Now let me ask again, how does this make teaching any more attractive if in reality more pay and better benefits won’t be part of the process?

    • Mary McConnell

      I’m sure that the Randi Weingarten hopes this will improve teacher pay, by presenting a more persuasive case that the public is getting its money’s worth. Pay and benefits increases are going to be a tough sell in the current economy, and with most states facing a fiscal crisis.

      As you know, I think Utah can and should raise teacher pay. Benefits are a trickier issue, given the parlous state of so many public employee pension funds.

      • Goet

        And my first impression of his statement was that it was political pandering. He sees teacher unions losing ground and is willing to make politically expedient concessions to gain favor, knowing full well that doing so won’t necessarily help the teaching profession.

  5. Howard Beale

    Teachers have to regularly renew their licenses. This means they need to work in the field and do things like take colleges classes, earn advanced degrees, do workshops and professional training etc. A teacher in his/her 30-year career will have to do this several times. Much of this is done on their own dime or without any compensation by the school, district or state.

    Plus there were these praxis tests as earlier mentioned. ENOUGH ALREADY! To change the lyrics of a Pink Floyd song “LEAVE THOSE TEACHERS ALONE!”

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