A “Bar” Exam for Teachers?

With the Common Core, the United States finally has national curriculum standards to define what students should be able to do at each grade level. Should we also have national teaching standards?

The American Federation of Teachers has released a new proposal for national teacher certification, which would require all incoming teachers—including those recruited by Teach for America and other alternative-certification programs—to pass a written test of subject area knowledge, as well as demonstrate real-world pedagogical skill within the classroom, ideally over the course of a full year.

There's a lot to like in the AFT report, which borrows from international best practices for improving the prestige and effectiveness of public school teaching: in short, raise academic standards for prospective teachers, while requiring recruits to spend a significant amount of time observing master teachers at work. That said, despite a statement of support from Arne Duncan, I don't think these ideas are terribly likely to be broadly implemented any time soon. Powerful and influential people believe in tearing down, not building up, the barriers to becoming a teacher. Education budgets are still reeling post-recession, and most of the reform firepower is already committed to implementing the Common Core and overhauling the evaluation of existing teachers. It's still worth the time, however, to dive deeply into this paper, both because its policy ideas are worthwhile and because politically, it indicates how the teachers' union movement is hoping to shift the school reform debate.

The AFT plan calls for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) to lead the process of writing credentialing guidelines to replace current state-by-state credentialing practices. States could then choose to adopt and assess the national standards as they see fit. (Advocates for the Common Core used a similar political strategy to convince 45 states to adopt those shared standards.) On a conference call with reporters, AFT president Randi Weingarten said such a system would be like the one used in the legal profession, in which prospective lawyers must pass state-by-state bar exams that test for knowledge of local law, but that also include questions on federal law and nationally-relevant legal principles.

The new proposal also supports college GPA requirements for teaching hopefuls, building on the AFT's long-held belief that university departments other than education departments should handle future teachers’ subject-area training. A prospective English teacher, for example, should enroll in a rigorous course of study within her college’s English department, not only in education classes on the pedagogy of teaching reading and writing. Such a set of reforms could answer some critics of American public school teaching, who have long complained that teachers who earn poor grades or who major in education are unprepared to introduce students to the academic disciplines.

The requirement for what Weingarten calls “clinical practice” before certification could prove challenging to implement in a rigorous and uniform way. The NBPTS already administers a well-known master teacher certification program in which veteran educators submit two 15-minute videos of their teaching, alongside a self-reflective essay. NBPTS president Ronald Thorpe, who was also on the conference call, suggested a similar, if less advanced, assessment could be used to evaluate prospective teachers. But currently, not all beginner teachers have trained within real-world classrooms, and local standards for student teachers vary widely. Some trainees prepare and teach sample lessons, while others simply observe a more experienced colleague at work.

Politically, there are several interesting stories here:

  • As Weingarten mentioned on the conference call, the national school reform conversation has been “fixated on evaluation” of teachers. The AFT proposal represents, in part, an attempt by the union to shift attention away from the poor performance of some tenured teachers and toward raising standards on the profession’s front end, before teachers are ever in charge of a classroom—and before they ever pay union dues and expect union protection.
  • The AFT report offers a clear challenge to Teach For America. The proposal says it is ideal for all teaching hopefuls to spend a full academic year training in veteran teachers' classrooms before earning the keys to their own classrooms, and Weingarten says it is essential that both traditionally and alternatively-educated teachers be held to the same “bar”-like procedures. TFA recruits currently receive just about five weeks of training and practice teaching, typically during the summer between their senior year of college and first year as full-fledged teachers. The organization has a history of successfully lobbying against efforts to hold its recruits to the same credentialing standards as other teachers, and TFA, along with its many influential donors and political allies, would likely oppose national teaching standards that rendered TFA's own model obsolete. (As an example of a more rigorous alternative certification route, the AFT report approvingly cites the Urban Teacher Residency model, which requires recent college grads and career-changers to work a full year as an “apprentice” within the classroom of a mentor teacher, before committing to three years teaching in high-need districts.) 
  • Would the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards be broadly trusted to lead such an effort? The NBPTS’ master teacher certification program is widely respected within education, but also has some critics. Several researchers have used value-added measurement to question whether Board-certified teachers are actually significantly better than other teachers at raising student achievement.
  • “National” anything is controversial, which explains some of the resentment toward the Common Core shared curriculum standards. Although the Core enjoys bipartisan support, and allows states and local schools considerable flexibility, both the activist right and left have painted it as an example of federal overreach into a realm best managed by local educators and parents. Expect similar opposition to any attempt to create national teaching standards. 

4 thoughts on “A “Bar” Exam for Teachers?

  1. Travis

    I don’t see a problem with the emphasis on improving front-end hiring practices. I need not lay out the litany of issues with attempting to measure “teacher performance” on a truly objective basis given the sheer number of confounding variables in any given set of classes and the fundamental inability to agree on just what yardstick should be used.

    On the other hand, while the skills of newly-minted teachers will certainly vary, it should be much easier to set a fundamental baseline underneath the education programs they graduate from, ensuring that teachers meet a minimum level of content competency and pedagogical ability before being placed in a classroom.

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  2. Bruce William Smith

    I agree with Travis. While it’s hard to object to improving teacher preparation, there are various ways to achieve this. One possibility would be to toughen (not weaken, for example by establishing short-term stopgap solutions to teacher shortages as the equals of full professional licences) the accreditation standards of teacher prep programmes, yanking accreditation from weak providers and refusing to hire teachers from schools accredited by weak accreditors.

    While much in the proposal is praiseworthy, and the development of such an examination might be pursued as a pilot project, I am skeptical that any satisfactory teachers’ bar exam can be produced; the fundamental requirements of teaching are too different from those of law for the analogy to hold well.

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  3. Madeline

    Thinking about your recent tweet about the PRAXIS, I don’t understand the criticism that it only tests high school level math. Why should a high school teacher have to know Galois theory to teach high school level math well? 98% of what I learned in my college math classes was irrelevant to teaching high school math. The best knowledge I obtained while in college came from tutoring lower-level classes as an extracurricular activity. The high school teacher should just know high school level math *really, really* well.

    I was a math major and I took the PRAXIS, and yes, it was absurdly easy. But it seems to me that the cut scores should be raised, rather than introducing additional content that is irrelevant to the job.

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  4. Joseph McCauley

    The removal of barriers to teaching are an attempt to lower the labor costs associated with education. When teaching has become roboticized you will notice a change in the tests students have to pass. They will emphasize things that can be taught well by machines. I have 35 years experience in a public high school, and during the last few years I have had much more exposure to online classes (mainly used for credit recovery). These courses lack almost everything a traditional course provides. They are less costly, however, so they will grow exponentially.

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