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Nation Ponders a ‘Bar Exam’ for Teachers to Enter Profession

Randi Weingarten with the president

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo used his State of the State address to call for a “bar exam” that teachers in New York must pass to enter the profession, he was part of the growing clamor in educational and political circles to “professionalize” teaching and thus improve student performance by attracting more talented teachers.

The American Federation of Teachers, led by President Randi Weingarten, made a similar call last month, seeking a tough entrance exam. When a national teachers union representing 1.5 million members is calling for such dramatic education reform, change is in the air.

“When it comes to education, I say two words: more and better,” Cuomo said.

In addition to a tough written test, Weingarten’s proposal also called for stricter entrance requirements for teacher training programs, such as a minimum grade point average.

“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,” Weingarten said, calling that system unfair to students and teachers alike.

In a piece in The Atlantic, former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein detailed the reasons students in the U.S. perform poorly, and the ways the U.S. school system could be reformed to make it more like Finland’s, the world’s top school system, where teachers are treated as respected professionals on par with doctors.

Klein writes that a study by the consulting firm McKinsey concluded that “the U.S. attracts most of its teachers from the bottom two-thirds of college classes, with nearly half coming from the bottom third.” Klein says more than a third of math teachers in the U.S. don’t have an undergraduate degree in math, let alone a master’s degree.

“Yet, even with this remarkably low threshold for entry, once someone becomes a teacher in the U.S., it’s virtually impossible to remove him or her for poor performance,” he writes.

Klein refers to a 1986 paper written by former iconic teachers union president Albert Shanker, where he warned that unless the U.S. drastically improved the professionalization of teachers, America would fall behind the rest of the world —a prediction that turned out to be right on target.

What did Shanker recommend as a first step in turning the U.S. system around? A national teacher exam, “along the lines of the bar exam for lawyers or the national medical exam for doctors,” according to Klein.

Shanker’s proposed examination process would have three parts: a stiff test of subject matter knowledge, followed by a second test on “pedagogy,” which means a knowledge of teaching and learning techniques and how to apply them. For those who passed both tests, he recommended a “supervised internship program of from one to three years in which teachers would actually be evaluated on the basis of how well they worked with students and with their colleagues,” according to Klein.

In the end, Klein writes, “American public education won’t succeed unless teaching becomes a truly ‘professionalized’ career, one in which all of our teachers are deservedly thought of as learned men and women — as they are not only in Finland but in Japan, where school teachers, along with professors, doctors and lawyers, are called ‘Sensei,’ a title that connotes earned respect. This way forward also holds the potential of unifying the now-discordant voices in the education reform debate. After all, both sides want us to perform like Finland. But only our teachers can get us there.”

Weingarten has called on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to develop the “bar exam.” The board’s president, Ron Thorpe, said his group could do so over five years.


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