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Next Steps for the "Bar Exam"

Since Education Week invited me to write a blog about a year ago, I have written all the posts myself.  Below you will find a guest blog, from Jal Mehta, an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  In it, Jal follows up on my last post, about the AFT proposal for national "bar exam" for teachers.  He raises, I think, some very good points about the way in which such an enterprise might be structured to best achieve its goals.

Next Steps for the "Bar Exam"

By Jal Mehta*
Assistant Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education

For many of the reasons that Marc Tucker references in his post, the AFT's bar exam proposal is a sorely needed step in the right direction. By requiring that all new teachers pass a rigorous bar of quality, there is a hope that American teaching could finally begin to resemble more established professions, in which we can trust that each entrant to the field has demonstrated the needed level of knowledge and skill. We can hope that, as in other fields, social closure over who can enter and some consistency of performance will win status and respect for the profession, which in turn would increase the pressure for higher salaries, creating a virtuous cycle of improved performance and more talented people drawn to teaching. It would also bring us more into line with PISA leading countries, which are more selective in who becomes a teacher and give them more extensive practical training than is the case in the United States.

At the same time, there are some ways the proposal could be strengthened.  The starting point is the analogy: a "bar exam" in law is a pencil and paper test you pass once, before you've started practice, and, as most lawyers will tell you, it is certainly not much of a guarantee that you actually know much about how to practice law. A better metaphor would be the medical boards, which happen in stages, reflecting the fact that expertise grows over time and in part through exposure to practice. If we took this analogy seriously, we would not simply examine beginning teachers at the end of their preparation program (after the first year), but would rather encompass the induction process which followed (years two and three), with a final exam to move from provisional to fully licensed teacher at that point. Following this pathway would ensure not simply that teachers have mastered the needed high leverage strategies of "beginning teachers" (the AFT's proposed bar), but rather that all full members of the profession had actually demonstrated their competence to teach.

In such a system, we might hope that over time the processes of teacher preparation and induction would become aligned or even joined, so that teachers would go through a three year program of training (consistent with research that suggests it takes about three years for most people to become moderately skilled teachers). In this model, teacher preparation institutions (including undergraduate education departments, education schools, urban residencies, and alternative providers) would work with districts to develop something akin to a teaching hospital, in which teachers were given explicit guidance from master teachers and increased responsibility over time. Teachers would be paid regular salaries in years two and three--we would not be asking them to forgo earnings now for future earnings as in medicine. Rather, the deal we would make with them is that they would be paid akin to how they are paid now, but with significantly more support and guidance than exists in most induction programs today.  By fashioning a multi-staged process for entering the profession, such a set of exams might provide strong incentives for creating the kind of robust system of teacher training across institutional boundaries that the field needs.

Professionalization will also mean building a much stronger knowledge base to support and guide teaching. At base, all professions are grounded in their claims to distinctive knowledge and expertise; the purpose of training and the reasons for exams and licensure are to ensure that each practitioner possesses the knowledge and expertise developed by the field as a whole. Education has some of this kind of knowledge, but much less than in many other fields, and, worse, it does not really have the kind of infrastructure needed to create it consistently.  No actor in the space is tasked with producing this knowledge: education school researchers publish for other researchers; teachers develop practical knowledge but do not share it; commercial designers make what districts and states will buy with little regard for what would produce high quality educational practice. A professional exam is only as good as the knowledge it is built upon; for the bar exam strategy to succeed, it will, in the longer run, need to attend to creating this knowledge base.

To bring any version of this idea to fruition will require, as the report recognizes, a wide group of stakeholders advocating for it.  This group should not only include the usual suspects (the unions, CCSSO, NBPTS) but it also could include some less familiar partners, like business groups, well-known political actors, and university presidents. While the profession should take primary responsibility for developing the exam, a wider coalition is needed for political support. This is an idea that will be attractive to people across the political spectrum who think that we need to raise the standards for the teaching profession; that latent support needs to be organized and brought powerfully into the debate. As Marc points out, raising standards will, in the longer run, mean raising salaries, and it will also mean holding the line against arguments that we should lower standards or issue emergency credentials to fill teacher shortages. At these moments, it will be important to have a powerful and wide coalition to draw upon.

One part of this coalition should be the "reform" community, including the alternative certification providers and Teach for America.  The AFT report does not exclude the possibility of alternative certification, but is unnecessarily rancorous towards these providers, writing, "the answer is... [not] to create endless alternative certification models designed to save the system." One of the major advantages of setting a bar but not prescribing the details of teacher training is that it allows a range of different providers to try to figure out how best to help their teachers achieve the competencies they need.  Given that, it should be possible to build wide support across different kinds of providers in support of the proposal, which should help the proposal move forward politically. As my colleagues Ben Levin, Robert Schwartz and Adam Gamoran recently suggested in their chapter in The Futures of School Reform, an alliance that drew on the strengths of Teach for America in recruiting talented students, governors and chief state school officers in bringing political support, and NBPTS as the mechanism for certifying accomplished teaching could be a powerful coalition.

In sum, if the bar exam idea is to be more than an idea, it needs to more carefully attend to how new teachers can become not just good beginners but fully competent teachers, develop a knowledge base that is commensurate to the aspirations of teaching as a profession, and, most importantly, build a wide coalition to support and advocate for the proposal.

* The thinking in this piece grows out of collaborative work with Joe Doctor, doctoral candidate, Harvard Ed.Ld., program.

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