Raising the Bar: The case for higher standards for teachers

The American Federation of Teachers, which together with the National Educational Association organizes and speaks for the vast majority of public school teachers, is determined to confront the accusation of mediocrity. Modeled on the training of doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers, a proposed A.F.T. program will require every teacher to pass a “bar examination” before joining the profession. The main instigation was not so much the problems listed above as the results of an international study by the Program for International Student Assessment, which ranks schools in places like Singapore, Shanghai and Finland at the top and the United States far down the list.

This proposal, which deserves broad and deep support as it works its way through 50 state departments of education, could significantly improve public education in the United States. A task force assembled by Randi Weingarten, president of the A.F.T., has spent a year preparing a plan for certification that sets a high standard from the start. College students, including those who major in education, must graduate with at least a B average. As the challenge mounts, word will spread that to be a teacher, you really have to be above average.


With every state setting its own norms, the current U.S. system, said Ms. Weingarten, is a “patchwork lacking consistency” that must be replaced by a systematic, consistent approach that sets high standards and provides monitoring along the way. Ms. Weingarten admits that some teacher training schools do not measure up. But if the A.F.T can set norms for what the teacher needs to know on the first day of teaching, it will force colleges to reset their curriculum and also examine whether they have a reputation for grade inflation.

The A.F.T. wants the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to develop a bar exam to be administered in several parts, consistent with the goals set by the Common Core State Standards, which supply the intellectual backbone for the reform, as well as to test the new teacher’s skills in conducting a class. The national survey of new teachers, conducted by the task force of 14 experienced teachers, also highlighted some needs. First-year teachers constitute nearly 10 percent of the workforce; nearly half of these will leave within five years. Among all new teachers, 21 percent say they may leave because of lack of support, low pay and not enough respect for the profession. While satisfied with the academic content in their training, a significant number felt unprepared for that first day in the classroom.

Because it requires the cooperation of 50 states, the reform will take several years, and the public will have to be patient as well as attentive. Here are some suggestions—most of them implicit in the task force report—that should strengthen it. Since learning is a community experience, teachers should know how to create a sense of belonging and cooperation in the class. Just as teacher evaluations should include standardized test scores, student surveys and class visitations, the bar exam should not predominantly be a multiple-choice test but should require class observation and extensive written essays. No one who cannot write well enough to teach basic writing should be a teacher. The exam should be based at least partly on a reading list of classic books that every teacher should have read, including both world literature and “how to” books on teaching.

Just as the basic core areas in the great majority of states include literature, mathematics, science and social sciences, the undergraduate education of teachers should emphasize the liberal arts, especially literature and American history because of the schools’ special obligation to produce a literate and informed citizenry. No one should teach at any level without a bachelor’s degree nor receive tenure without a master’s. The bar exam should include a final hour-long oral exam, independent of the year in “clinical practice,” in which the examiners can assess the character and motivation, as well as intellectual stamina, of the man or woman to whom society entrusts its children. It follows that having met these standards, teachers’ salaries should rise substantially. The community owes this to teachers and to itself.

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Robert O'Connell
7 years 4 months ago
One concern I have with this "bar exam" idea is who oversees the process. Lawyers ultimately answer to the Supreme Court of their state (or each of the different states in which they are "licensed"). For that reason, I wonder whether each state or a federal entity would govern the proposed teacher exam. In addition, many lawyers are not employees; instead they are "partners" or other kinds of people in business for themselves. Very few are members of unions. Why not have teachers market their services similarly? I say this because the idea that teachers' salaries should rise substantially does not seem to me to automatically "follow" from a bar exam. What amazes me is that "society" claims affection and concern over its children but we pay so little to our teachers; yes, part of the reason is that we do not have unlimited funds but we seem to easily afford cell phone, sodas, McDonalds and a federal Defense Department bigger than . . . .
Jonathan James
7 years 4 months ago
Teacher's pay is not really that bad. When you see an annual pay of $50,000 for 10 months of work, that equals $60,000 annualized pay. Teachers in Chicago are paid a median wage of $71,000; annualized that is $85,000 per year. Not too shabby. Particularly when you realize that the students are far down the list in academic achievements. If teachers were in private business and their product was so inferior they would be fired. Or possibly promoted to management. One or the other. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/09/12/chicago-teachers-make-more-than-the-national-average/
Michael Casey
7 years 4 months ago
While it's true some teacher pay isn't bad, it is not generally comparable to other professions demanding equal education. Where I work, just about every teacher has a masters degree, and the average pay is about $40,0000. Find a doctor, lawyer or engineer with a MS and significant experience that makes $40,000. Most teachers, myself included, pay student loans for many years (22 in my case). Better yet, check the cars in a teacher's lot vs. those outside a law office and that should help clarify the difference. Bad teachers don't work in the summer, but good teachers take classes, develop curriculum, sharpen unit plans etc all summer long. Plus, at least at the high school level, most teacher work nights and weekends grading and planning. Many of my friends in business get frustrated that I can never join them for weekend fun. But to be ready for Monday morning, at least one weekend day, often two, has got to be spent at the desk. This is particularly true for new teachers. So, with a 6 or 7 day week, and many weekdays going well into night, I think those ten months are much more like twelve. As for private business, how about all those CEOs who came in, sank their companies, wrecked the US economy, and walked away with tens of millions in their "golden parachutes". Talk about failure being rewarded! And in private business, if a product isn't selling or a certain sector isn't producing, you just cut it off. That's how efficiency is maintained. Should teachers then cut off struggling students, downsize classes to just motivated kids? Maybe we can outsource and just have students from China in our classes.
Bob Baker
7 years 4 months ago
Modeling teacher programs after other professions is a losing proposition. Teachers (especially Catholic ones) do not (and may never) make what a lawyer or engineer, etc, does in a year. While there is no doubt that Catholic school teachers work harder than most professions all week (regardless of what grade they teach), teachers in the United States are somehow viewed differently than those in many other countries. This mindset seems to be also driving this proposal which will only serve to make things worse for teachers. Further, this scheme comes from the “ivory towers” where the bugs to Common Core haven’t been worked out yet. The need to change “programs” every decade or so also pervades education. Remember New Math? The invariable cottage industries spring up, as well. New testing, revised testing, periodic testing, books, new books and new bureaucracies are created, to the delight of many who make money off of education. Many Catholic school administrators, in a rush to prove their worth, have bought into this system – not through necessity, but because they don’t really know our past (and they probably have to do something to earn their, sometimes enormous, salaries). There are many ironies in this new proposal, as well. Common Core (and other programs) makes use of videos and technology to teach, replacing many of the tried and true methods of education. Kids will watch TV or play video games all day if they are left to their own devices (no pun intended). This doesn’t mean they will learn anything. Education is the province of each state because our Constitution does not reserve it for the Federal government. Almost all states have adopted Common Core because they want the money the Federal government will keep if they don’t (i.e., they won’t return our tax dollars). As “experts” begin touting a system that hasn’t been implemented, some Catholic administrators are joining the band wagon, making their weighty pronouncements, demanding compliance. Do they have to? No. What has occurred is a lack of vision as to what made Catholic education great and how it surpassed public education along the way. Learning times tables, prayers, nursery rhymes, cursive writing, etc, were common place things that children were expected to learn by rote. Heard, in reply, from one administrator, “Why? Students can look them up on-line.” Let’s hope the system doesn’t go down and computer devices are allowed in churches, much less learning the Faith. Few pieces of classic literature are read and even learning math is becoming taught as more of a survey than in-depth. Most Catholic teachers are degreed and many go on to obtain a master’s degree, usually at great expense which dioceses do not reimburse. A survey conducted a few years ago found that nearly 25% of the teachers who left Catholic school positions went to public schools. Considering that some 30% of schools do not also have tangible benefits, such as medical and dental insurance, it hardly surprising to so many teachers leave. Catholic schools have been great training grounds for public schools and they are more than willing to take advantage of this fact by providing better pay and benefits, as well as a degree of protection from arbitrary rules. Catholic school teachers don’t need to have the bar raised, they need to not lose what made our schools the envy of the education community and return our Faith to its preeminent role.


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