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Raising the Bar for Teaching

A rigorous board exam for teachers could change who is attracted to the profession, develop a more consistent and higher level of skills among teachers, improve student outcomes, and greatly increase public regard for teachers and teaching.

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During a visit to Ontario several years ago, one of the authors asked a young math teacher if becoming a teacher in Canada was really as difficult as policy makers made it out to be. Yes, he said, adding that many of his college friends who wanted to become teachers couldn’t get accepted into a teacher preparation program.

“But,” he added, “there is a loophole.”

What’s that?

“You can go across the border. Everyone knows that anyone can become a teacher over there.”

That’s how the United States looks to the rest of the world.

The past year has seen the emergence of an increasingly broad consensus on raising the standards for entering the teaching profession. The nation’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), have authored reports advancing recommendations for raising the bar for entry. The state education leaders, represented by the Council of Chief State School Officers, have similarly proposed transforming entry into the profession. These high-profile calls share a common thread: the need for a rigorous, performance-based exam—a “bar-like exam,” in AFT president Randi Weingarten’s memorable phrasing—that serves as the gateway into the profession. Such an exam would be modeled after other professions with more rigorous entry requirements and would ensure that all new licensed teachers meet a consistent standard of quality.

This proposal is a potential game changer. If such an exam was sufficiently rigorous, it could change who is drawn into teaching, develop a more consistent, higher level of skill among all teachers, improve student outcomes, and greatly increase public regard for teachers and teaching. These changes could create a self-reinforcing upward spiral, as increased respect for teachers and improved results would lead to increased public confidence, potentially higher pay, and, in the long run, greater desire for talented people to join the profession.

Why an Exam

The idea that teaching needs an exam equivalent to the legal bar or the medical boards is not new. There has long been talk in education circles about whether there could be an educational equivalent to the famous 1910 Flexner report in medicine that significantly raised standards, closed weak medical schools, and provided the basis for the medical profession today. Former AFT president Al Shanker argued in 1985 that creating such an exam would be an important part of professionalizing teaching. Efforts by Shanker and the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession led to the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in 1987, but the National Board has thus far been a mechanism for certifying advanced teachers, not raising the bar for entering the profession.

Increasing awareness of what is happening elsewhere in the world lends renewed momentum to the idea of raising standards for all new teachers. Research on PISA-leading nations suggests that other countries set a much higher bar for who can become a teacher, have many fewer institutions that prepare teachers, and give them more extensive training than their American counterparts. The oft-cited figure from a 2007 McKinsey & Co. study is that top-performing nations draw their teachers from the top-third of their high school and college graduates; in the United States, most teachers come from the bottom 60%.

The reasons for this are complicated and tied to a mixture of interconnected issues around pay, status, gender, and the low reputation of education schools. But U.S. policy choices at the federal and state levels enable this cycle. By setting very low standards for what it takes to become a teacher, our policies do little to enhance the status of the profession, persuade prospective applicants that teaching is serious work, or ensure the public that teachers have met a reasonable floor of quality.

At the same time, a range of indicators suggests the need for increasing the knowledge, skill, and expertise of teachers, particularly given growing aspirations for students in the knowledge-based economy. NAEP results suggest that U.S. students are much stronger with basic tasks than with higher-order ones; PISA results consistently place the United States in the middle of the international pack; and a recent Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Measures of Effective Teaching study finds that only about 20% of their thousands of sampled classrooms are engaged in higher-level tasks. If we want the U.S. education system to meet its ambitions, we need teachers who consistently possess the knowledge and skill to engage all students in the higher-order thinking so essential to our economy and democracy.

The new Common Core standards are one effort to increase expectations for what students should be expected to know and be able to do. Their widespread adoption will create a common language and soon-to-be-common assessments. The obvious and much needed next step is to create an aligned set of expectations for what teachers would need to master in order to teach to these standards.

A board exam—and the changes it would stimulate—provides a different, more promising route to providing consistent teaching quality across classrooms than prevailing approaches. When work is unskilled, standardization of work processes (such as an assembly line) can produce consistent outcomes.

But in skilled work that can’t be standardized, professional training and certification provide the way to ensure quality while retaining the discretion inherent in skilled work. Recent policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have increased the pressure on teachers to produce outcomes by raising the stakes for performance, but most acknowledge that external accountability is a limited lever in absence of an effective strategy to build teacher capacity. A board exam fills this critical gap by professionalizing the training and initial licensure process, thereby increasing the knowledge and skills of entering teachers.

Goals to Accomplish

A rigorous and multi-stage bar for entry into the profession could reshape a number of aspects of the human capital pipeline. For education schools and other teacher preparation providers, a board exam would set a clear threshold for success that could be used to assess the quality of programs as well as to encourage providers to share good practices. Done properly, a board exam would influence what occurs during induction and professional development. A board exam would enable teachers to begin their careers with much greater levels of skill, to see themselves as part of a profession with a shared and expanding knowledge base, and to have a clear badge of pride that comes from entering a selective profession.

In all respects, what we’re proposing would differ substantially from teacher credentialing today. A board exam would be more rigorous in what it expected of teachers, more connected to demonstrated teaching skill, and harder to pass than much of what exists today. We envision exams that would be sufficiently rigorous and grounded in demonstrated evidence of teaching skill so that there would be no question that individuals who passed this exam would be ready to be fully licensed teachers.

Despite the buzz around the idea of a bar exam, medical boards provide a more apt model for teaching. The bar for lawyers is a pencil-and-paper test taken after law school and before an individual can begin practicing law. The bar exam assures that practicing lawyers have a shared knowledge base, but it does nothing to show that they have common skill in actually practicing law. The medical boards are a better comparison because they happen across stages, drawing on and reinforcing lessons learned, in part, through supervised practice. In a similar way, teaching, too, is best learned through experience and supervised practice, suggesting that the best approach would be a phased set of exams taken over time and culminating in a final exam that would certify that teachers are ready to assume full individual responsibility for their classrooms.

Exam Focus Areas

The general focus areas for such an exam are clear—and have been for quite awhile. Shanker outlined some of them in his famous National Press Club speech in 1985, and others have built upon these ideas since then. Such an exam would need to measure two areas of expertise:

Knowledge—Content, pedagogical, and pedagogical content knowledge. Content knowledge is knowledge of subject matter; pedagogical knowledge is general knowledge about how to teach; pedagogical content knowledge is more specific knowledge about how people learn and thus how to teach in a particular discipline or substantive domain. For example, a teacher with strong math pedagogical content knowledge will know the kind of errors that students are likely to make when they first encounter fractions and thus what explanations, questions, or exercises are likely to help students understand the concept.

Skill—The practical ability to use knowledge and professional judgment effectively in classroom settings.

Candidates demonstrating performance that meets rigorous thresholds of quality in each area would compellingly prove their capability to become fully certified members of the teaching profession.

The exam itself would need to incorporate four design features to succeed in measuring these areas of expertise in today’s education sector.

1. To build a reputation for rigor, the exam would need to establish a high standard with moderate pass rates providing face validity of the rigor involved.

2. To holistically assess the candidate’s capabilities, the exam would need to use multiple measures, with each targeted toward the knowledge or skill they are measuring.

3. To connect a teaching candidate’s practice to student outcomes, the exam would need to integrate measures of student growth into the holistic assessment.

4. To prepare early-career teachers for continuous improvement and learning, the exam would need to seamlessly connect to professional learning in later stages of the teaching career continuum.

The most commonly used existing teacher certification assessments today don’t meet these criteria. For example, many states use Praxis to inform state licensure. But Praxis focuses entirely on knowledge; nowhere does it evaluate skill as practiced in real settings. Additionally, the cut scores fall short of what’s needed to meet the first design feature concerned with establishing a high standard.

Newer efforts have done a better job of achieving more of the design features. Stanford University and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education recently developed the edTPA to measure the skills of new teachers. This assessment is focused on applying knowledge in real classrooms, including video footage of classroom teaching, lesson plans, and examples of student work. The edTPA is in the relatively early stages, but appears to be an important piece of the puzzle that would need to be paired with a similarly rigorous assessment of knowledge and assessments of more advanced teaching.

In sum, pieces of the solution exist. What’s missing is a common set of assessments that would unfold in stages and together would define the needed knowledge and skills that teachers need to possess to be consistently effective.

Integrated Set of Boards

The exam we propose would be designed to create a seamless, rigorous, and supportive path to enter teaching. As part of its design, teacher candidates would take aspects of this exam over time rather than all at once. The details are up for debate, but we suggest the following pathway, which includes three critical transition places for assessment.

Step #1. Before beginning any formal instruction, teacher candidates would pass an assessment demonstrating basic core knowledge of content and pedagogy. This exam would focus exclusively on measuring knowledge, leaving practice to later stages. Teacher candidates would not begin significant teaching (i.e. excluding trial teaching as part of early coursework in undergraduate preparation programs) until they had met this initial threshold.

Step #2. Teacher candidates would have one year of site-based clinical practice during which they would be supervised by teacher preparation providers—including undergraduate education programs, master’s programs, alternative certification programs, teacher residency programs, and programs run by schools and districts themselves. At the end of this stage, teacher candidates would take an exam like the edTPA to demonstrate initial competent practice on a performance-based assessment.

Step #3. Teacher candidates would do two additional years and shift from clinical preparation to a more formal early-career apprenticeship. During this time, they would be responsible for a classroom (or to students assigned to them in other ways, for example, in roles such as media specialist or special education) but master teachers would continue to oversee their work. This period is roughly equivalent to residency following medical school, as residents would have many of the responsibilities of professionally licensed teachers, but would still be clearly marked as learners and have only provisional licenses. At the end of this stage, they would take a final round of more advanced assessments, which would include knowledge, skills, and evidence of student learning. Passing that exam would mark the transition from apprentice to full professional status and would qualify the individual for a professional license and position the teacher to become tenured. In this manner, only teachers who have demonstrated competent professional practice would have full professional rights.

Right now, the steps are largely under the auspices of different institutions: Teacher education institutions prepare teachers (the first and second steps) and then schools and districts induct them into teaching (the third step). In the long run, these steps should be vertically integrated and under the auspices of single institutions. These institutions would be analogous to teaching hospitals, with master teachers as instructors and the gradual devolution of responsibility to student-teachers who would become increasingly competent practitioners over three years. Districts would have professional development schools that would be jointly authorized by districts and teacher education institutions. While professional development schools exist today, we would need more, and they would also be much more rigorously guided by professional standards. In addition, they would be newly accountable for producing graduates who could pass the board exam.

Step #4. Drawing on the medical model, teachers could pursue advanced (and likely specialized) certification, which would be an assessment such as National Board certification or its equivalent. (Some of these certifications could be tied to master’s degrees; others could be independent of advanced degrees.) Such a stage would serve two functions. First, advanced certification would enable teachers to voluntarily demonstrate accomplishment in their practice at a level higher than the level required for professional licensure and with a specific focus on their area of teaching expertise. Second, advanced certification would introduce coherence to all of this work: By setting clear standards for what teachers must master, advanced certification would allow the earlier stages to be mapped through a process of backward design.

Presumably, the exams themselves would draw upon a range of the pieces mentioned above, as well as drawing some pieces from other sectors. Law and other professions have fairly well-developed mechanisms for assessing detailed content knowledge. That is presumably the easiest piece and would simply require much higher standards in terms of what we expect prospective teachers to know. Scoring practice objectively is much more difficult, but both National Board certification and edTPA are showing how this might be done. Technological advances also may make it easier to use video technology and remote scoring to measure teachers’ practice. And there is a thriving industry around how and under what conditions one can fairly assess teachers on student achievement gains, which would presumably be incorporated into these exams. In consultation with the research community, we would also want to create a set of feedback loops to see which pieces of knowledge and skill were most tied to improvement in student performance over time, which would enable ongoing improvement of the assessments.

Getting There

How might we get from here to there? Such a proposal would need to be championed by a wide range of powerful stakeholders to change so many aspects of how teachers are prepared and assessed for entry into the profession. Two groups, in particular, will need to form a guiding coalition: the state and the profession. The state includes representatives of the governors, chief state school officers, state professional standards boards, and state school boards; the profession includes the AFT, the NEA, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Sustained commitment from these groups would be necessary to work out thorny issues inherent in such a process. Obvious among them would be the balance between observational methods of gauging teaching and efforts that rely upon student value-added test scores; how the more open-ended and practical nature of such exams would be administered in ways that were indisputably fair to all candidates; and how to create assessments that diverse teacher preparation providers would view as capturing what they were trying to teach.

Two factors seem particularly important in moving this work forward. The first is a frequent connection to and interaction with innovative programs working to bring new teachers into the profession with high levels of knowledge and skill. By selecting and visiting with a variety of programs, the coalition will see what is possible and will learn how challenges in helping teachers meet the new high standards can be overcome. Selected programs should come from across the range of preparation pathways: Cutting-edge traditional programs, path-breaking teacher residency programs, and innovative entrepreneurial education schools could all contribute to this process. Such engagement would also align the coalition with leaders in teacher preparation, who should be essential allies.

By setting a high bar that licensed teachers would need to pass but without specifying who would prepare them or how, such a proposal likely would be given a fair hearing by different actors in the teacher preparation marketplace. Over time, those more successful in preparing teachers to pass the boards would presumably attract more applicants; those with higher failure rates would presumably attract fewer applicants. Essentially, such a scenario would leverage market forces to achieve what would be very difficult to do more directly—reward stronger teacher preparation providers and close weaker ones.

The second factor is building wide and deep political support. The bar exam proposal has drawn support from reformers like Joel Klein as well as leaders of the profession like Linda Darling-Hammond, which suggests that a broad coalition is possible. Building a wider superstructure of allies is important for sustaining the effort and ensuring that what the profession decides is commensurate with the broader public interest. This broader alliance, which might also include university presidents, civic leaders, and leading CEOs, is necessary to provide the crucial political backstop for holding the line against relaxing the requirements. An effort like this could all too easily wither on the vine. Political leaders, faced with the need to find bodies for every classroom, could revert to issuing emergency credentials, lowering standards, and otherwise undermining the push for a higher bar for entering teaching. The profession’s leaders, in response to the antagonistic politics around teachers today, could revert to obstructing policy changes. The presence of a widespread alliance for higher teacher preparation standards would serve as a counterweight to this kind of politics as usual, and maintain ongoing support for the need to raise the bar for entry to teaching.

Making these changes will not be easy, but they have the potential to significantly transform the American teaching profession. Canadians would no longer see us as the easy way into teaching; a carefully staged system like the one described above might even make us the envy of other nations. More important, we would ensure that all students had access to the skilled teaching they deserve.

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