Union Backs Teacher Bar Exam

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.”

True enough. 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 that “the report’s recommended exit requirements for teacher candidates don’t quite seem to add up to a bar exam.”

Specifically, the requirement that teachers have a “professional philosophy,” and its preferred performance assessment would be three videotaped teaching sessions and a formal observation.

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—but there’s little reason to believe it would. (See, for example, here and here.) 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, 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, “It is time to recognize and reward our best teachers, support those in the middle, and also acknowledge that teaching… is not a job for everyone.”

In too many instances government schools have become taxpayer-subsidized, jobs-placement programs for education school graduates—not places of learning for students.

That situation won’t change until 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.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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