Bellying Up To The Bar – Again. Why A “Bar Exam” For Teachers Misses The Point

Harriet Sanford of the NEA Foundation discusses the idea of rounds – like medical students – and more generally at the problem of reform churn.  The idea of rounds and clinical-style training for new teachers has a lot of merit, but more generally it seems everyone wants education to be like medicine – or law.  The “new” idea for a “bar exam” for teachers (Albert Shanker floated the concept in 1985) modeled on how they do it in the legal field is back in the news as the AFT rolls it out as a new initiative.

But a few questions don’t get asked enough.  Perhaps most importantly, what if education isn’t really like law or medicine?  What if it’s more like other professions, say journalism, public policy, or business where credentials are valued but weighed alongside other factors because there isn’t a field-wide core of knowledge or skills all practitioners must have?  It’s a narrow view of “professional” these days that brings you back to just law and medicine.

And what if we don’t know as much as we like to presuppose? We don’t ask enough about the limits today.  In early-childhood reading or special education, there is some professional knowledge that’s established and (sometimes) reflected in credentialing regimes.  What truly makes a great 10th-grade English teacher or 12th grade government teacher?  Outside of content knowledge, that’s less clear.  My colleagues Sara Mead, Rachael Brown, and I recently looked at this issue in the context of teacher evaluations in this paper but, it’s a broader one.

On this “bar exam” proposal in particular two things jump out.  First, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (the AFT wants them to develop the exam) was intended to fill a similar role but as time wore on the board’s leadership evolved from describing National Board certification as a high bar to something more akin to the CPA exam. Now, even economists friendly to the board’s mission say that as a cost-benefit issue the certification process may not be worth it.  There is no reason to believe the same leveling tendency won’t exist here – and it’s worth noting that there isn’t one bar exam, there are many.  For state policymakers how demanding teacher tests are is as much, often more, a labor-market issue  than it is an educational one.

Second, in the Washington Post, AFT President Randi Weingarten made this statement, “A bar exam would “just level the playing field. Maybe all the alternative certified teachers will pass with flying colors. But if only 10 percent of [Teach For America] passed it and 90 percent of the students from Teachers College passed it, that would say something.”

In poker you might call that a “tell.” That’s because the question is hardly unknowable –  we can answer it now.  States like Louisiana, Tennessee, and North Carolina can and do look at how graduates of various preparation programs fare in the classroom. Overall, there are two big takeaways so far.  First, sometimes schools that are not at the tip of everyone’s tongue surprise.   Everyone assumes that the name-brand schools are the best, that’s not always the case based on the data. Second, alternative programs remain a mixed bag – owing to the differences in what constitutes “alternative certification.” But on Teach For America the data from those states (and other independent analyses) is pretty clear, they’re doing fine relative to all other providers.  That’s why school districts clamor for them and is hardly surprising given how TFA approaches selection.

If the game here is to codify one set of pedagogical beliefs in an effort to reassert control over a rapidly decentralizing field then, as is often our way in education, we’re about to have a big debate about something that misses more fundamental problems. The data are quite clear about a key issue: The difference in teacher effectiveness is greater within these various routes (including TFA) than between them. Perhaps that’s inherent or perhaps there are training programs that can dramatically change that, but that’s today’s challenge.

So here’s a crazy idea instead (and one with deep history elsewhere in the union movement): Why not find out whether candidates can actually do what they’re being hired to do? Actual live teaching as part of the teacher hiring process remains stunningly rare.  I’d be a lot more excited if the AFT announced it wanted to pursue more of a guild model and see what we can learn from that approach. Even better if the union wanted to do training and put its brand behind the teachers who carry its label (in some cities AFT chapters do solid professional development). Instead, we’re once again trying to develop a test to address a problem everyone is aware of  but few have the political fortitude to take on: Most of our teacher preparation programs just aren’t very good.  We don’t need a test to tell us that, we need serious reform.

*On this issue disclosures galore: Bellwether works with the NEA Foundation, I’m Vice Chair of the Board of the Curry School of Education at the  University of Virginia and on the Visiting Committee to Oversee the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I was also on the NCATE task force to look at clinical training. My views on TFA – and implications for training – can be found here.  For background and history on some of these issues Kate Walsh, Rick Hess, and I did a book in 2004 about these issues, too much of which is still topical.

Update: Also here’s Checker Finn on the same issue.

7 Responses to “Bellying Up To The Bar – Again. Why A “Bar Exam” For Teachers Misses The Point”

  1. Jeffrey Miller Says:

    The unions are there as labor negotiators and represent teachers in that capacity–I would not want them meddling in teacher preparation. If we are to have a guild model, then better for 6-12 teachers to have the NSTA, NCTM, and the like to offer any exam. What about an MCAT/LSAT type test. Or, just require a Master’s as in Finland? Why, just think of the money-making possibilities of MA schools suddenly appearing out of nowhere. The reform crowd should like that.

  2. Joel Patterson Says:

    I’ll argue against you on this, Mr. Miller. I’m a 12 year veteran of public high schools in Houston, Seattle, and Cambridge, and many of the best lessons & techniques I use were provided to me by more experienced teachers, who were/are union members. The institutional knowledge of how to help children learn is already in the unions. It would be a good thing for unions to adapt and provide channels for the knowledge of more experienced teachers to guide the newbies.

  3. Liz Dunning Says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reflections on the blog posted by Harriet. Teachers, we would argue, have a greater challenge than doctors in many ways: they see many more than one student simultaneously; they must mediate both group and individual learning; and they see students every day for protracted periods. These realities expand exponentially the professionally sound—and high stakes—judgments teachers must make from minute to minute, day to day.

    We refer to the medical clinical approach to preparation as a metaphor to convey the complexity of the knowledge and skills high quality teaching requires. There is consensus on the demonstrated skills and attributes present in high quality instructional practice. In addition to strong pedagogical knowledge, great teachers must also be masters of their individualized content area. Like virtually all other highly effective professionals, great teachers must be able to take what they know and apply it in real-time to ever-changing and often high-stakes situations and relationships.

    The professional rounds model is meant to provide a structure to the observation of a teacher, acknowledging and leveraging what we know about high-quality instruction, and helping to ensure high-quality and actionable feedback. We have seen it used effectively across several different schools and school districts.

    For a helpful guide to anyone wishing to explore further dimensions of effective teaching and the rigor involved in preparing and supporting teachers throughout their careers , we would refer your readership to the 2005 edited volume by Linda Darling-Hammond and James Bransford, “Preparing Teaching for a Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and Be Able to Do.”

    Liz Dunning & Rudy Careaga
    The NEA Foundation

  4. J. D. Salinger Says:

    “If we are to have a guild model, then better for 6-12 teachers to have the NSTA, NCTM, and the like to offer any exam. ”

    NCTM? No, those standards caused more problems than they solved.

  5. Grant Popp Says:

    Minnesota has a series of tests that teachers are required to pass to be licensed. There is a basic skills test, a pedagogy test, and a content area test. I think the pedagogy test could help eliminate a few people who may not be qualified and the content area test definitely ensures that potential teachers know their subject, but it is hard to say that it shows if teachers will be successful in the classroom. I would be confident saying that many of the reasons behind the test are political, especially considering that most applicants taking the basic skills test recently graduated from college and are required to pay to take a high school level test. I think the money would be better spent by having additional mentoring programs. Administrators don’t have the time to do frequent and thorough evaluations, so having another experienced teacher observe an average lesson from time to time can really help improve instruction.

  6. Jeneane Noble Says:

    I enjoyed reading the author’s insight of the induction of yet another exam for teachers. I especially am intrigued by the suggestion of actual teaching as a credential. I think more than a few teachers viewed actually teaching a lesson might be found less than proficient. The question is “Why isn’t this technique commonly used?”. In cosmotology, the candidates must pass a written test as well as a clinical where they perform each practice in front of judges. All professional athletes are viewed playing thier sport before being chosen. Teaching is such a hands on profession, it amazes me we don’t see this more.

  7. Lsully Says:

    I can not help but chuckle at the entire concept here…
    If public school educators, hypothetically, receive training/preparation in line with the rigor of medical doctors and attorneys, will we also receive monetary compensation which matches these professions? ;)

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