Teaching Profession

AFT Calls for Teacher ‘Bar Exam'; National Board to Oversee

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 03, 2012 6 min read
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The American Federation of Teachers has unveiled an ambitious new initiative to raise entry standards for teacher-preparation programs—and to create a “universal assessment,” analogous to the bar exam in law, that teachers should have to pass to show they are ready to take on their own classrooms.

The product of months of discussion by an AFT task force, the report released this weekend recommends that teacher-preparation programs raise their entry standards to attract academically capable students. The programs should require candidates at both the elementary and secondary level to have a cumulative GPA of 3.0 and get a minimum grade on college- or graduate-school-entry exams, such as a 24 on the ACT.

Candidates should be assessed again midway through the program on such topics as whether they can diagnose learning problems, align units to state standards, and use formative assessments to tailor instruction, the report says.

And it calls on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to oversee a process of developing a rigorous exam measuring content, pedagogy, and practice—based on a cohesive set of teaching standards crafted by practitioners—that teachers would pass in order to show they’re ready for the profession.

Overall, the effort is meant to create systemic improvements in how teachers are prepared.

“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. This is unfair to both students and their teachers, who care so much but who want and need to feel competent and confident to teach from their first day on the job,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

Weingarten had hinted at the idea of a bar exam several months ago, and the union has also proposed similar ideas several times in the past: As far back as the mid-1980s, then-AFT President Al Shanker suggested the concept of a teacher bar exam, and a 2000 report also by AFT called for more-rigorous exit examinations for teachers.

Meanwhile, efforts to raise entry criteria for teacher preparation have been in the air of late. The idea, which has groups like the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality behind it, is based on the selective practices of some other countries.

The report is probably best thought of as the AFT’s entry into the teacher-preparation reform conversation, which has been gathering momentum over the past few years. The U.S. Department of Education, national accreditors, and the NEA all have unveiled reports outlining suggested reforms in recent months. And the Education Department’s new regulations governing the teacher-preparation provisions of the Higher Education Act are due out by early next year. Finally, the alternative-certification wars continue, and the NCTQ’s review of every preparation program will be unveiled next spring.

There are some telling hints in the report about where AFT stands on those initiatives. For example, the union says that its view of improving teacher preparation “is neither to create an endless array of externally driven requirements by government and accrediting agencies, nor to create endless alternative-certification models designed to save the system.”

The quote clearly shows the union’s continuing uneasiness with alternative certification and with the Education Department’s teacher-training plans. (This is an important distinction between AFT and the NEA, which did endorse the federal plan.)

In a press conference, Weingarten underscored those sentiments, saying of the proposed exam: “If it’s adopted for teachers who come out of [traditional teacher preparation], it has to be adopted for teachers who are alternatively certified as well. One has to level the playing field for all.”

National Board’s Role

The AFT, like the NEA, has long been an important financial supporter of the voluntary accreditation process, and its members sit on any number of state certification panels and the like. But teachers’ unions are not primarily responsible for teacher certification, licensure, or preparation-program approval. Instead, it appears that the NBPTS will take the lead in moving the ball forward, and in drumming up support among the higher education community and policymakers.

“It is very important that the profession buy into this, that it’s not just the AFT and the national board,” Weingarten said.

The first step for the board is to establish a commission to create a cohesive set of standards for what beginning teachers should know. The president and CEO of the NBPTS, Ronald Thorpe, said he will move to create that commission within 90 days.

Whatever exam the commission crafts wouldn’t compete with state licensing, and would be voluntary, he said: States would determine whether to adopt it.

“It’s an opportunity for the profession to step back and say these are our expectations based on what the profession sees as important to have when you step foot in the classroom on the first day,” Thorpe said. “We’ll put our stamp behind this person who has all the credentials that a first-year teacher needs and has the greatest chance for succeeding.”

The assessment process seems likely to dovetail with the edTPA, a performance-based licensing assessment 25 states have helped to pilot. “I think we’ll see how willing people are to merge the current properties into a single entity,” Thorpe said. “This is not about reinventing the wheel.”

Jane West, the vice president of government relations for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, a partner in the creation of the edTPA, acknowledged that it isn’t entirely clear how the efforts would coordinate, but they seem to be “moving in the same direction,” she said. “I don’t envision them creating from scratch one test everyone would have to take.”

Challenges Ahead

That said, even the process of creating new beginning-teacher standards could pose challenges. Many such sets of standards already exist, such as the inTASC standards crafted by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the standards states use for accreditation and certification, and subject-specific standards created by professional associations. Moreover, one could legitimately argue that part of the movement toward creating teacher-evaluation systems that are based on performance frameworks is essentially another effort at introducing standards into the profession.

While there are some basic areas of agreement in the different sets of standards, there is not a lot of agreement about granularity, i.e., what a teacher should actually have to do to show he or she embodies those qualities.

The concept of a state bar exam for teaching raises other questions, too. As Education Week recently reported, the cut scores on teacher-licensing exams are generally so low that they’re set far below the average score of test-takers. That phenomenon bears the fingerprints of institutional pressure as well as concerns (especially in rural and other hard-to-serve locals) about restricting the labor market too much. Just as with the edTPA and the common-core exams, a common cutoff score is a very big policy challenge.

And traditional teacher-preparation programs have been hotly debating the idea of raising their entry standards.

Still, Thorpe said he feels the time is ripe to begin the process. “I think we’re definitely more ready for this than ever before,” he said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.