The system for preparing and licensing teachers in the U.S. is in such disarray that the American Federation of Teachers is proposing a "bar exam" similar to the one lawyers have to pass before they can practice.
Currently, there's a patchwork of different certification requirements that vary state by state. There's no single standard to determine who's fit and who's not fit to teach. It's an archaic system that Randi Weingarten, president of the teachers union, says must be replaced with one question in mind.
"How do you ensure that an individual teacher walking into her classroom the first day is confident and competent?" she asks.
Weingarten, who was a lawyer before she was a classroom teacher, is convinced that something akin to a bar exam for teachers is the answer. It would test a person's knowledge based on the subject he or she was hired to teach, and it would gauge one's understanding of how children learn.
There would also be, Weingarten says, "some residency or actual classroom practice beforehand, some real internship before you walked into teaching."
Weingarten isn't the only one pushing a bar-like exam for teachers. Education Secretary Arne Duncan supports it, as does New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
But there are huge differences in how we attract and select people to become teachers and lawyers and doctors. Law schools and medical schools have really tough admissions standards; education schools don't.
"You have more problems today with ineffective teachers because we've had virtually open admissions into the profession," says Sandra Stotsky, who oversaw the licensing of teachers in Massachusetts. Stotsky says too many people who graduate with a teaching degree can't teach because the standards are so low.
But it's just one of many problems, says Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia University. "At the moment, clinical education and academic programs are entirely disconnected. People in the profession don't even agree on how to prepare people for this field," says Levine.
Maybe, he says, a bar exam for teachers could have a positive impact.
"The effect it could have is that standards in ed schools are really low, [so] it could force them to raise them," says Levine.
If you're going to have something like a bar exam for teachers, Levine says, you need a clear definition of how you become a teacher. You need a higher quality of students and better programs to prepare them. And you need political support to make sure all these things are aligned.
"It's primarily states that have to get onboard," says Levine.
That means there are lots of turf battles out there. The purpose of most state licensure tests after all is first and foremost to protect children from incompetent teachers, not license only the smartest, most competent people.
Weingarten says everyone should be fed up with the disarray in how this country prepares and hires teachers.
"It's demeaning to our profession, it's demeaning to our practice, and no one would ever think that a lawyer who's not prepared should go into a courtroom and try a case without any preparation," she says.
Weingarten says a bar exam for teachers could be ready in five years.
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