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Do We Need a 'Bar Exam' For Teachers?

Union head Randi Weingarten believes making it tougher to be a teacher will boost the profession's prestige.

Teachers unions ensure teachers have the resources and support they need to educate kids, but given the perception that they primarily protect bad teachers, there’s plenty of pressure on Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, to come up with ideas that’ll prove her union isn’t just about maintaining the status quo. In a conversation with Walter Isaacson at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Weingarten did just that, suggesting that making all prospective teachers take a bar exam will improve the quality and status of America's teachers.

The idea is that just as lawyers must pass state bar exams to practice law, teachers would need to pass a test that proves their knowledge and critical thinking skills to be effective. That would, theoretically, dispel the public's perception that teachers are the college graduates who can't get a job doing anything else. It would also be a step toward emulating the teacher preparation programs of nations like Finland, whose students' high performance on international tests has made the country a darling in the education world.

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 in clinical settings, and pass a rigorous interview. Only about 1 in 10 Finnish applicants are accepted to study to be teachers. As a result, teaching in Finland is seen as a pretty prestigious career.

Of course, America’s teachers already must take and pass, depending on their state, several exams—both general knowledge and content specific—before they can get into the classroom. What’s really missing—which Finland does so well—is that instead of a few weeks of student teaching, over the five years that Finnish teachers must study, up to 25 percent of their time (PDF) is spent observing lessons being taught by outstanding teachers, being observed teaching lessons, and being given extensive feedback on their performance. There’s also no such thing as alternative certification in Finland.

Indeed, Jonathan Kozol, whose books—including his upcoming Fire in the Ashes—have chronicled the schooling experiences of low income children of color, disagrees with Weingarten on the need for such a test. The only way we're going to get the kinds of wonderful teachers we want in the classroom is to judge if they’re qualified to teach, and if they love being with students, "which is what’s at the heart of a good teacher," says Kozol. A single test score doesn’t determine that. "That has to be decided by people who can see them practice teaching," Kozol says, and "watch them not just once in an hour but several times in a semester."

Many of Weingarten's Twitter followers also disagreed with the idea. Teacher Paul Gamboa asked Weingarten, "Did Michelle Rhee start filling in for you in interviews?" prompting her to clarify that she means a clinical test, not just bubbling in more answers on a Scantron form. Whether Weingarten's idea gains traction or support from the educators she's supposed to represent—who feel, as Gamboa put it, that "the tone of this implies" that "teachers are incompetent"—remains to be seen. Ultimately, if teachers aren't given the training and support that their peers in Finland receive along with their tough entrance qualifications, a bar exam will become just another hoop through which to jump.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M

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