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Will A “Bar” Exam for Teachers Improve Student Performance?

Under criticism for low student performance, organizations like the AFT are now campaigning for higher standards for teacher certification.

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A growing nationwide push for more rigorous teacher-licensing standards sweeping state houses from New York to Washington has reformers on sometimes opposing political sides looking at what was once considered nearly unthinkable: a bar-like exam for educators.

Even the American Federation of Teachers, the powerful union, has taken the old adage that the best defense is a good offense and begun to campaign for such exams as teachers are increasingly blamed for low student achievement. The AFT has also been campaigning for higher standards both for prospective teachers and for teacher-preparation programs.

In so doing, the AFT has found common cause with a number of education reformers with whom it normally doesn’t agree. A new AFT report, “ Raising the Bar: Aligning and Elevating Teacher Preparation and the Teaching Profession” has won praise from many quarters, including Arne Duncan. And Joel Klein, the former New York City Schools Chancellor who now heads News Corp.’s education business, floated a similar proposal last November.

New York is among the states  moving toward tougher requirements for entry into teacher-preparation programs — currently, New York has no such minimum requirements — as well as a bar-like exam for graduates. After a panel that he created said it concurred with the AFT’s report recommending a bar-like exam, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said in his State of the State address on Wednesday that “every teacher” should take such a test and pass it “before we put them in a classroom.”

The New NY Education Reform Commission, convened by Cuomo in April 2012, recommended in a preliminary report that prospective teachers have a minimum 3.0 GPA, as well as an assessment, such as the GRE for graduate programs, or the SAT/ACT for undergraduate programs, but, notably, doesn’t specify a minimum score that candidates must achieve. The report, which points out that the state’s current certification exam has a 99 percent pass rate, also calls for “adopting a ‘bar’ like exam that will test new teachers on how well they are prepared to lead classroom instruction.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT and a member of Cuomo’s education commission, said the world’s most lauded education programs in countries like Singapore and Finland also have teacher-education programs with high degrees of quality control.

“Preparation really matters,” she says. “We talk a good game in this country about the importance of teachers, but no place in this chain do we actually treat it as important.”

The AFT report is largely a critique of the nation’s teacher-education system — a hodge-podge of traditional university based education programs, alternative certifications, and online programs—that the report says is “at best confusing and at worst a fragmented and bureaucratic tangle.” The AFT says it wants to develop national consensus on a “mechanism for ensuring high standards,” in large part by improving the connection between teacher-preparation programs and on-the-ground teaching.     

The bar-exam proposal coincides with two competing trends in K-12 education: on the one hand, the proliferation of alternative certifications that aim to attract young people from elite schools and are generally much shorter — and, critics say, more superficial — than many university based programs; and, on the other hand, a growing call for educational rigor in both teacher preparation and licensure requirements.

The proposal also follows a devastating 2006 critique, Educating School Teachers by Arthur Levine, the former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, which took aim at both alternative certifications for doing away with “quality ceilings and floors” and the majority of traditional university based programs, which are “characterized by curricular confusion, a faculty disconnected from practice, low admission and graduation standards…and weak quality control enforcement.”