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A Bar Exam for Teachers? A Lawyer's Opinion

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Following is a repost from Susan Weston, a Kentucky education consultant who often works with the Prichard Committee:

In The Atlantic Monthly, Joel Klein makes "The Case for a Teacher Bar Exam." His argument includes a commitment to both greater respect and greater strength in the teaching profession, and the tool he proposes is build on earlier ideas from Albert Shanker of the AFT. Klein writes:

In a 1986 paper, [Shanker] explained that "unless we go beyond collective bargaining to the achievement of true teacher professionalism, we will fail in our major objectives: to preserve public education in the United States and to improve the status of teachers economically, socially, and politically."

If we're going to look to Finland as a role model and an indicator of difference, then it's well past time for us to go back to Shanker's future.

But how do we get where we need to go? Here, too, Shanker was visionary. We need to start by insisting on a rigorous entry exam for those who teach, along the lines of the bar exam for lawyers or the national medical exam for doctors. Shanker actually proposed a three-part national exam: first "a stiff test of subject matter knowledge," followed by a second test on "pedagogy ... [including] the ability to apply educational principles to different student developmental needs and learning styles." Then, for those who passed both, he recommended a "supervised internship program of from one to three years in which teachers would actually be evaluated on the basis of how well they worked with students and with their colleagues."

The comparison to entry into the legal profession is apt--but not apt enough.

Every lawyer knows that the deep learning to serve clients happens on the job, and that success depends heavily on good feedback from mentors and good dialogue with peers in the first few years of practice. The tests and the job evaluations matter, but the support matters more.

More and more, that opportunity for professional engagement strikes me as the great puzzle of teaching quality: How can teachers be empowered to "get smarter off of one another?"

Or, to put it personally: How can each teacher get as much support from veteran teachers as I got from the senior attorneys in my first office? How can each one get as much rich an opportunity to think through professional issues as I got with the first and second year lawyers in the offices around me?

Most of all, how can those of us in other professions, knowing how we grew in our various chosen crafts, get serious about ensuring that teachers get equivalent support in their own?

Klein does suggest that the examination approach would create leverage to get other needed changes: improved admissions and curriculum in teacher preparation programs and better career ladder options for the strongest teachers are included on his list. He is thinking clearly about many of the pieces of professional reform. I just wish he would think more clearly about the essence of professional interaction and professional growth, comparing his own early experience to what is possible and impossible for a first or second year teacher in most American schools today.

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