Education Opinion

About Those Bar Exams for Teachers...

By Nancy Flanagan — February 01, 2013 4 min read
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I’m going to step out on a limb here and declare that I kind of like the idea of a bar exam for teachers. Depending, of course, on what the exam looks like.

A targeted content examination? A test of communication skills? Performance assessments in instructional skills? Demonstrated ability to analyze and improve a lesson? Bring ‘em on.

There shouldn’t be anyone entering the field who can’t show mastery of content and the ability to write coherently, speak clearly, devise multiple ways of explaining something, and present themselves as intelligent adults.

Becoming a master teacher takes more time, but after a few years, teachers ought to have developed a bagful of useful instructional strategies and techniques--and understand how to deal effectively with a range of learners. They should be able to explain why they make certain choices in the classroom: how they make a concept interesting, how they engage kids, how they apply and embed new learning, how they assess, how they salvage lessons that flop. The really excellent ones are thinking about the big picture in education--how to transform it, beginning with their classroom.

Those are skills that can be learned and demonstrated--they’re not airy-fairy “artistry” or innate “grit.”

So is that what the AFT and Arne Duncan are calling a “bar exam?” If so, count me a supporter. Maybe a two-phase process--an entry check, then benchmarked mastery levels that teachers would be expected to hit after a few years, which could be accompanied by leadership roles?

It’s probably better to avoid the “b” word, though. I used to describe National Board Certification as “similar to the bar exam or medical certification boards"--a set of measurable standards for accomplished practice including a review of specialized disciplinary content. People, especially teachers, found the idea of a “bar exam” extremely off-putting, however. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps it has something to do with the imposition of another Big Test, a high-stakes roadblock to doing something they want very much to do: teach.

A legal bar exam, says Susan Weston, presumes a baseline measure of quality, to protect clients, after which one develops a genuine career, adding skills and knowledge through practice and interaction with colleagues. If we’re using that model--making teaching a true profession--then a formal gateway is probably a good idea.

I know the all the arguments against using standardized tests to separate wheat from chaff in the occupation of teaching. Many of those are predicated on using SAT/ACT scores before admission or Praxis-type tests later. I know how that would skew the composition of the teaching force. I’d be much more interested in screening actual live performance (the aforementioned applied content expertise and communication ability) of teacher candidates than their College Board scores, which would not pick up nascent talent in teaching, or on-the-job commitment to learning and growth.

That kind of initial screening would have to come during the preparation phase. This presumes all kinds of things people are less willing to pay for: richer and more intensive coursework, longer and better monitored field experience, formative assessment in teaching practice. You know-- genuine investment in the (ahem) human capital necessary for excellent teaching.

Those opposed to a bar exam for teachers routinely underestimate the complexity of teaching. Look at Jason Richwine and Lindsey Burke’s imaginary career-switcher, Engineer Bill:

The most straightforward option for Bill is to get a master's degree in teaching, which includes semester-length courses of questionable value or relevance to STEM education -- adolescent development, lesson planning, and contemporary issues in education. This will set him back about $30,000 after two years of full-time study, which seems like an awfully time-consuming and expensive commitment for someone who is already an expert in his field.

Why should we “force” Engineer Bill to become adept at explaining things to adolescents, measuring what they’ve learned, or crafting effective lessons? He may be an expert in engineering, but he’s not an expert in teaching. Pedagogy is a real thing.

The real worry for the anti-bar folks is that “expensive commitment.” If would-be teachers are going to dedicate years and considerable financial resources into preparing themselves, then take and pass a bar exam, they’re going to expect professional salaries and respect. They’re going to want control over their own work. And that’s a scary thing to “reformers.”

I’m anticipating a barrage of “it’ll never happen” feedback. Two points, in response:

• If you had told teachers 10 years ago that they’d soon be looking at common national standards, aligned national tests and an online curriculum, most of them would have said: not in my lifetime.

• There are plenty of teachers who voluntarily challenge themselves and re-invent their teaching annually. Over 100,000 have become National Board Certified. I read a portfolio entry for a terrific National Board candidate yesterday--a man eager to hear what a virtual colleague thinks about what he’s doing in the classroom. It was inspiring stuff--the goals he set for his (very diverse and challenging) class, the questions he used to push their learning, the missed opportunities he identified, the evidence that his students had wrestled with rigorous content and learned something.

Teachers who strive to practice professionally should be encouraged to do so--and traditional markers of professionalism could only improve teaching.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.