Monday, December 10, 2012
AFT Recommends an Entry 'Bar' Exam for Teachers
To become a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln was required by Illinois law only to "obtain a certificate procured from the court of an Illinois county certifying to the applicant's good moral character." That 19th-century standard, along with Lincoln's self-taught legal training, was sufficient for our extraordinary 16th president. Over the years, however, the legal profession saw the need to include formal training and establish a high standard for entry into its ranks, as did the medical profession.
Every profession worth its salt goes through such periods of self-examination. That time has come for the teaching profession.
We must do away with the common rite of passage whereby new teachers are thrown into classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they (and their students) sink or swim. Such a haphazard approach to the complex and crucial enterprise of educating children is wholly inadequate. It's unfair to both students and teachers, who want and need to be well-prepared to teach from their first day on the job.
Success in today's economy requires ingenuity and the ability to apply knowledge. Yet America's testing fixation stifles creativity and critical thinking, something that the rich, rigorous Common Core State Standards (which most states have adopted) can change. Raising the bar for students raises it for their teachers as well. To help teachers meet this challenge, the American Federation of Teachers has developed a proposal for an unprecedented leap in elevating the quality of the teaching profession.
Instead of the current hodgepodge approach to teacher certification and licensing, we propose that all prospective teachers in the United States take a rigorous bar exam that gauges mastery of subject-matter knowledge and demonstrates competency in how to teach it. The process could be modeled after the bar exam for lawyers or the board certification of medical doctors.
Teacher preparation is a high national priority in the countries that consistently top international academic rankings. It is past time for the U.S. to follow a similar path. Practicing teachers in K-12 and higher education should own responsibility for setting and enforcing the teaching profession's standards.
The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards could lead in establishing common professional standards, aligning teacher-preparation with those standards, and assuring that candidates meet them. The way to do that is through a teachers' bar process.
I have worked as both a teacher and a lawyer. I was utterly petrified the first day I taught my own high-school students, whereas I was quite confident the first time I represented a client in a courtroom. My legal training included three years of formal study, clinical experience with established lawyers on real-world cases, and passing a grueling bar exam that the legal profession had deemed demonstrated the knowledge and ability to serve successfully as a new lawyer.
As an alternatively certified teacher, my preparation consisted of condensed coursework and valuable but limited student teaching—far less than I needed. Surveys of teachers show that many who go through traditional teacher-preparation programs feel they aren't adequately prepared to manage and teach students early in their career. Alternatively certified teachers feel even less prepared. Yet teachers assume an enormous responsibility from day one. And when they struggle, the response is too often the threat of termination, not an offer of assistance.
Setting a bar for entry into the teaching profession requires strengthening and aligning many components. Standards for admission to and completion of teacher-preparation programs should be appropriately high. Curricula should address the specific knowledge and skills that competent beginning teachers need. Preparation must include extensive experience in actual classrooms working with accomplished teachers. Mastery should be demonstrated not just through a written exam but also through demonstrations of a candidate's ability to teach. High standards for entry into the profession should apply to all prospective teachers, whether they pursue traditional or alternative certification.
The teaching profession is full of dedicated, talented teachers, but much of their expertise is developed only once they're on the job. Better preparing teachers for entry into the profession will dramatically reduce the loss of new teachers—nearly half of whom leave after fewer than five years—and the loss of knowledge that goes with it. As widespread teacher retirements sweep across the nation's schools (1.6 million in the next decade alone), our proposal will help create a constant supply of well-prepared educators ready from day one to help children achieve at high levels.
Ms. Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.