Does Teaching Need a ‘Bar Exam’?

By Anthony Rebora — November 15, 2012 2 min read
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According to the Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissman, both AFT president Randi Weingarten and former New York City Schools Chancellor and current News Corp. education head Joel Klein—staunch adversaries in many other matters—have recently floated the idea of instituting a “bar exam” for aspiring teachers. To quote Weissman’s summary of the idea, this would be a rigorous, apparently national “exam that tests critical thinking and instruction chops,” designed “to ensure professional standards across the education system.”

Weissman argues that Weingarten’s and Klein’s apparent uniformity on this issue makes sense:

I can see the appeal of the proposal for both sides of the education reform debate. For the unions, as Weingarten said, a bar exam would be a great public relations tool for proving that the teachers they represent are qualified to be in the classroom. It would also inevitably limit the supply of teachers, which might make it easier to bargain for higher wages or prevent competition from charter schools. For reformers like Klein, it might be a step towards attracting a class of talented professionals to teaching who are less likely to want to collectively bargain, and who might be more amenable to ideas like performance-based bonuses.

Interestingly, in its reference to the accreditation schema of another (more highly respected) profession, the idea also echoes the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ plan to broaden its advanced-certification program into something more on par with board certifications in the medical field. The goal of that effort is, in part, to give teachers greater professional standing and influence.

So we may be seeing a kind of convergence of thinking across numerous parts of the teacher-stakeholder community.

But what’s your view? Does the teaching profession need a standard of professional competency that’s stronger and more uniform than what state certification and academic degrees provide? Are there drawbacks?

Update, 6:30 p.m. A number of our Twitter followers have questioned how this so-called “bar exam” would be different from the Praxis tests that teachers in many states already have to take for certification. Good point. Neither Weingarten or Klein (as far as I can see) has gone into much detail on what these teacher bar exams would look like. A cynic might suggest that what they are talking about is nothing more than a rebranding initiative. But it seems fair to assume that in fact they are envisioning a test—or series of tests—that would somehow set a higher bar for entry into teaching and perhaps be more closely or differently aligned to the latest research or thinking on effective instruction. When she first broached the idea, according an earlier Atlantic post, Weingarten specifically emphasized the need for an exam that would assess teachers’ ability to promote critical thinking. So that might offer some clues on what’s she’s getting at.

I also mentioned above that the NBPTS has the somewhat related plan of transforming its certification into a more of a standard designation for expertise in teaching—something that most teachers would be expected to have. From what I understand, the NBPTS’ current certification process is quite a bit different from something like the Praxis. It requires portfolio submissions (including video demonstrations) as well as several content-area assessments or “exercises.” So maybe this bar exam idea would be moving more in that direction. Again, though, this is just speculation. ...

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.