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Do Teachers Need Their Own “Bar Exam”?

Some say the best way to improve American education--and get teachers more respect--is make them take challenging entry exams like doctors and lawyers do.

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Do teachers need to train more like doctors? Photo courtesy of Flickr user WoodleyWonderworks

Question: What’s needed to raise the quality of school teachers in America?

Answer: A bar exam?

So say the head of the country’s most powerful teachers’ union, the governor of New York and the U.S. secretary of education, among others. Their contention is that the only way teachers can truly elevate their profession–and with it the level of public education–is if they follow the lead of doctors, lawyers and engineers and are required to pass a test to prove mastery of their subject matter and how to teach it.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), first floated the idea last summer at the Aspen Ideas Festival when asked what more could be done in training teachers. Then, late last year, her union put out a report, titled “Raising the Bar,” that pushed the idea further, calling for “a rigorous entry bar for beginning teachers.”

The debate has raged on ever since.

Smarten up

Joining those singing the praises of a tough teacher assessment is Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education. Writing on The Atlantic website, he pointed out that pretty much anyone who graduates from college in America today can become a teacher, and that “job security, not teacher excellence, defines the workforce culture.” He also quoted a sobering statistic from McKinsey: The U.S. gets nearly half of its teachers from the bottom third of its college classes.

And just last weekend, in the New York Times, Jal Mehta,an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote that compared to many other fields where quality is maintained by building a body of knowledge and training people in that knowledge, “American education is a failed profession.”

He added:

“We let doctors operate, pilots fly and engineeers build because their fields have developed effective ways of certifying that they can do these things. Teaching, on the whole, lacks this specialized knowledge base; teachers teach based mostly on what they have picked up from experience and from their colleagues.”

So what exactly do the proponents have in mind? For starters, they think any exam would need to focus both on the prospective teacher’s subject and on teaching more generally, particularly the social and emotional aspects of learning. While states would be able to adapt the guidelines, the intent would be to set national certification standards. And, above all, the process would need to be “rigorous.” They say “rigorous” a lot.

AFT’s proposal also recommends that American universities need to get much more selective in accepting students into education programs, that they should require a minimum of a 3.0 grade point average, plus an average score in the top third percentile on college entrance exams. The goal, ultimately, is make teaching a skill to be mastered, and one that requires serious preparation. Said Weingarten: “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.”

Class action

Of course, not everyone thinks this is such a good idea. Some critics have suggested that it’s a ploy by the teacher’s union to sound high-minded, while actually aiming to protect its current members–who likely wouldn’t have to take the exam–and to justify a sizable bump in salary. Or that it’s really a swipe at programs like Teach for America, which offers a different route to becoming a teacher.

Still others think that focusing so much on a test score doesn’t make sense for a profession so dependent on interpersonal and motivational skills. Jonathan Kozol, author of numerous books on education, including “Letters to a Young Teacher,” makes the point that no test, no matter how refined, could adequately measure what he thinks is a good teacher’s greatest quality, that he or she loves being with students. The only way you can gauge that, he says, is watching them teach.

And Jason Richwine and Lindsey Burke, both of the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, argued recently in The Atlantic that having knowledge and being able to impart it are two different things. They wrote:

“A teacher with a doctorate degree, every certification and license available, and 15 years of experience is no more likely to be a high performer than a teacher with a B.A., the minimal certification, and five years of experience.”

Finnish products

In the end, this discussion often ends up in Finland. It’s the Magic Kingdom of Education, the place the experts talk about when they imagine what American teachers could be. Roughly 40 years ago, the Finnish government concluded that the key to the country’s economic future was a first-class public education system. And the key to that was a system that gave teachers the prestige of doctors.

To even be accepted into a Finnish teacher education program, candidates must be at the top of their class, complete exams on pedagogy, be observed often in clinical settings, and pass a challenging interview. Only about 1 in 10 Finnish applicants are accepted to study to be teachers. And while the U.S. has more than 1,200 universities that train teachers, Finland has only eight. In short, teachers need to earn the right to feel special.

So, does that elevated status of teachers there result in better students? Yes, you could say that. In science, in math, in reading, Finnish students rank first in the world.

Teaching moments

Here are other recent innovations in education:

  • Never start by trying to learn Chinese: One of the hot trends in higher education is predictive analysis, which evaluates data to help identify students at risk of dropping out and also which course sequences are more likely keep kids in school and which are more likely to make them choose to drop out.
  • Even tests can be all about you: A new online portal called Smart Sparrow allows teachers to offer material that’s adapted specifically to a student. For instance, quiz questions can be based on how a student answered the previous question. If he got it right, the next question’s harder, if he got it wrong, it’s easier.
  • Do the math: A company called Mango Learning is building a reputation for its mobile apps that teach grade school kids math. They’re interactive games that supposedly can make kids even want to add decimals.

Video bonus: The Young Turks online news show offers its take on what makes Finnish education so special.

More from Smithsonian.com

Educating Americans for the 21st Century


Why Are Finland’s School’s Successful?

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