AFT seeks national ‘bar’ exam for teachers

Teachers’ colleges would set higher standards — at least a 3.0 grade point average — and would-be teachers would have to pass the equivalent of a bar exam, proposes the American Federation of Teachers in Raising the Bar. That includes prospective teachers with alternative certification.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards would develop an “exam measuring content, pedagogy, and practice — based on a cohesive set of teaching standards crafted by practitioners,” reports Stephen Sawchuk on Ed Week‘s Teacher Beat. NBPTS might use the performance assessments that are under development, said CEO Ronald Thorpe. “This is not about reinventing the wheel.”

But the details are unclear. How will teaching competence be measured? Will one style of teaching — let’s say “guide on the side” — be required? What happens if the failure rate is higher for blacks and Latinos than for whites and Asian-Americans?

Everyone wants to professionalize teaching, writes Andrew Rotherham on Eduwonk. But “what if education isn’t really like law or medicine?”  What if “there isn’t a field-wide core of knowledge or skills all practitioners must have?”  We don’t  know what “makes a great 10th-grade English teacher or 12th grade government teacher,” beyond content knowledge, he writes.

A national exam would “level the playing field,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Maybe all the alternative certified teachers will pass with flying colors. But if only 10 percent of [Teach For America] passed it and 90 percent of the students from Teachers College passed it, that would say something.”

Louisiana, Tennessee and North Carolina look at how teachers from various preparation programs do in the classroom, responds Rotherham. Teach for America teachers do well.  The quality of other alternatively certified teachers varies. If Weingarten is trying to “reassert control over a rapidly decentralizing field” by freezing out TFA, that’s a waste of time.

Why not find out whether candidates can actually do what they’re being hired to do? Actual live teaching as part of the teacher hiring process remains stunningly rare.  I’d be a lot more excited if the AFT announced it wanted to pursue more of a guild model and see what we can learn from that approach. Even better if the union wanted to do training and put its brand behind the teachers who carry its label (in some cities AFT chapters do solid professional development). Instead, we’re once again trying to develop a test to address a problem everyone is aware of  but few have the political fortitude to take on: Most of our teacher preparation programs just aren’t very good.  We don’t need a test to tell us that, we need serious reform.

It’s a “serious proposal to raise standards for new teachers as part of a broader effort to strengthen the profession,” writes Fordham’s Checker Finn. But, among other things, he’s worried by the vagueness of AFT’s call for “an in-depth test of subject and pedagogical knowledge.”

There is no hint of what in-depth knowledge might mean for a U.S. history teacher versus a geometry teacher versus an art teacher, nor does it address what sort of testing arrangement might gauge whether an individual possesses enough of it. (We know that the current arrangement—with most states relying heavily on the “Praxis II” test—does not do this well. We also know that some states do not take this issue on at all.)

NBPTS, which board certifies veteran teachers, hasn’t shown “much interest in subject-matter knowledge,” Finn writes. “Pedagogy, yes. Even lesson-planning. But not the causes and consequences of the Civil War or the ways that atoms combine to form molecules.”

Update: Putting the teachers’ union in charge of certifying teachers is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, writes Darren on Right on the Left Coast.

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