Judge teachers on performance, not ‘bar exam’

Teacher Bar Exams Would Be a Huge Mistake, argue Jason Richwine and Lindsey M. Burke in The Atlantic. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) called for a rigorous exam for would-be teachers — like those for fledgling lawyers or doctors — in Raising the Bar.

Barriers to entry will discourage smart people from entering teaching as a first or second career, they write.

 High-ability college students must sacrifice time spent studying math and science in order to take required education courses and bone up on the latest trends in pedagogy.

Furthermore, test scores don’t predict teacher effectiveness. Neither does level of education, licensure or experience beyond the first few years of teaching.

Even raw intellectual ability as measured by IQ tests has only a small positive effect on how much knowledge teachers are able to impart to their students.

Clearly teachers need to be intelligent and knowledgeable, but effective teaching requires a rare blend of patience, empathy, articulation, and motivation — qualities that cannot be easily measured on a bar exam or other standardized test.

. . . a bar exam is not any more likely to put effective teachers in the classroom than existing certification tests are. This is especially true if the bar exam covers faddish pedagogical theories that often lack a scholarly foundation.

Richwine and Burke suggest the opposite approach: Let any plausible candidate try teaching, but be much, much pickier about who stays in the classroom.  “Teachers who show strong performance — as measured by student tests and principal evaluations — should quickly move up the pay scale,” they write. Poor performers should be let go.

Economists Douglas O. Staiger and Jonah Rockoff simulated this system, they write. “In their view, only the top 20 percent or so who performed best during their tryout period should be kept on.”

I wonder who gets the try-out teachers?

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.

A bar exam for teachers?

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called for a bar exam for teachers at the Aspen Ideas Festival, reports Steve Clemons in The Atlantic. Weingarten is an attorney.

She said a bar exam for teachers today should emphasize the instruction of critical thinking.  That could change in the future as needs and expectations change.

Weingarten said that we could do with teacher screening and training what we are doing today with the “common core” — establish a national board that sets a ‘national standard’ and then strongly encourage, nudge, and seduce states to adopt the standard.

How high would the bar be?  Many would-be teachers have trouble passing basic skills tests. And how would teaching ability, as opposed to subject-matter knowledge, be tested?

Bar the bar exam?

Abolish the bar exam or make it optional, writes Ilya Somin on The Volokh Conspiracy.  Let clients decide if they need a lawyer who’s passed the bar or just one who’s completed law school.

If the exam is required, don’t let the state bar association run it, Somin argues. Not unless his modest proposal is adopted:

(State bar officials and bar examiners) should be required to take and pass the bar exam every year by getting the same passing score that they require of ordinary test takers. Any who fail to pass should be immediately dismissed from their positions, and their failure publicly announced (perhaps at a special press conference by the state attorney general).

Few could pass without cramming, he predicts.

. . . (bar exams) test knowledge of thousands of arcane legal rules that only a tiny minority of practicing lawyers ever use. This material isn’t on the exam because you can’t be a competent lawyer if you don’t know it. It’s there so as to make it more difficult to pass, thereby diminishing competition for current bar association members (the people whose representatives, not coincidentally, control the bar exam process in most states – either directly or through their lobbying efforts). Effectively, bar exams screen out potential lawyers who are bad at memorization or who don’t have the time and money to take a bar prep course or spend weeks on exam preparation.

My daughter will take the California bar exam tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday. Fortunately, she’s good at memorization and the law firm that wants to hire her (but not till 2010) paid for a prep course. She’s been studying like a fiend for the last two months. She’s good at taking tests. She was graduated from a challenging law school (University of Chicago). So, she’ll probably do fine. Probably.

One section of the exam asks test takers to apply legal knowledge to a sample case. The rest has nothing to do with practicing law, she says. It’s about memorizing rules you’ll probably never need and can look up if you do.