Another bite at “bar exams” for teachers

Education Week has posted a longer article about the American Federation of Teacher’s “bar exam for teachers” proposal. Some of the added details heartened me; most added to my misgivings.

The higher standards for education program entrants, it turns out, include test scores as well as grades:

the report released this weekend recommends that teacher-preparation programs raise their entry standards to attract academically capable students. The programs should require candidates at both the elementary and secondary level to have a cumulative GPA of 3.0 and get a minimum grade on college- or graduate-school-entry exams, such as a 24 on the ACT.

This last requirement might encourage teacher candidates to take tougher courses, especially higher level math. It might also serve as a slight corrective to rampant grade inflation.

I was far less encouraged by the description of elements that might appear on the “bar exam” itself.

Candidates should be assessed again midway through the program on such topics as whether they can diagnose learning problems, align units to state standards, and use formative assessments to tailor instruction, the report says.

And it calls on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to oversee a process of developing a rigorous exam measuring content, pedagogy, and practice—based on a cohesive set of teaching standards crafted by practitioners—that teachers would pass in order to show they’re ready for the profession.

Content gets listed before pedagogy and practice – that’s good news, I suppose. But I’m skeptical that  lessons in “aligning curriculum” will better prepare would-be teachers than content-rich courses. I’m all for helping new teachers learn how to construct curriculum and develop meaningful assessments. I just think these lessons are better taught in the post-graduate clinic experience that the earlier article on this proposal mentioned.

The article also suggests that the proposed test could be intended as a potential barrier to teachers who pursue alternative routes to certification – and not as a potential means to attract  smart students reluctant to pursue an undergraduate education major. According to Education Week:

The report is probably best thought of as the AFT’s entry into the teacher-preparation reform conversation, which has been gathering momentum over the past few years. The U.S. Department of Education, national accreditors, and the NEA all have unveiled reports outlining suggested reforms in recent months. And the Education Department’s new regulations governing the teacher-preparation provisions of the Higher Education Act are due out by early next year. Finally, the alternative-certification wars continue, and the NCTQ’s review of every preparation program will be unveiled next spring.

There are some telling hints in the report about where AFT stands on those initiatives. For example, the union says that its view of improving teacher preparation “is neither to create an endless array of externally driven requirements by government and accrediting agencies, nor to create endless alternative-certification models designed to save the system.



  1. Western Sib

    I like the idea of a “bar” exam for teachers. Certainly there would need to be some type of grandfathering-in for those who already took the Praxis or whatever test their particular state requires and have a current valid certification.
    I also like the fact that this exam could potentially be taken by people without the education-school background; if you can pass the bar (in certain states), you can practice law. Why shouldn’t it be the same for teaching? As a teacher who worked in the private sector for several years and let her certification lapse, I find the current system positively archaic in its similarity to a medieval guild system, the point of which was to erect barriers to entry and limit competition (not to mention fix prices…hmmm, step/lane grid anyone?).

    Of course, there is the possibility that the test would be a rubber stamp for current educational theory and practice that may in fact be rubbish; as Mary stated earlier, smart people will figure this out, and likely just read up on current events in the education world.

    As to the fact that teachers aren’t paid like lawyers…that is a little tricky. I think it would help if the ATF and NEA quit posing as “professional organizations” if they (or there local affiliates) continue to engage in collective bargaining. You want to be treated as a professional? Then don’t ask to be paid like a factory worker. We are not interchangeable parts, and shouldn’t ask to be paid as such.

  2. Jeffrey Hosten

    I’m surprised that no one has talked about barriers to entry here.

    Economics teaches that if you can reduce supply, you’ll raise the price–and that’s true in labor markets as well as goods or services. If you can find a way to keep people out of a profession (by creating professional licensure exams, for example, or requiring a certain degree for employment) the resulting decrease in employment will mean an increase in wages. This is called a barrier to entry. As Mary has noted, we can hire more teachers, or we can pay our teachers more. We likely will not be able to choose both without increasing funding.

    Unions will want to call it “raising the bar,” but it’s just one way to improve wages. But there’s a problem with barriers to entry: for one thing, the test takes valuable time and resources away from teaching. Second, if wages go up, they will go up uniformly. The problem with teacher pay right now is not “too much!” or “too little!” but “too much the same!” Teachers are paid as a monolith. They should be paid as individuals. It’s a lot scarier, but it means that good teachers can be rewarded and retained.

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