The head of the American Federation of Teachers has proposed that all prospective teachers pass a rigorous exam measuring subject-matter knowledge and pedagogical mastery before being licensed ("How About a Bar Exam for Teachers?" The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 10). I find the proposal by Randi Weingarten not nearly as newsworthy as it initially seems. First, although it comes from the teachers union, which is supposed to be obstructionist, it is hardly the first time that teachers unions have broken with their reputation. Second, it echoes the suggestion made by Albert Shanker in the 1980s about how to make teaching a true profession.
Let me take each point separately.
Despite what the media have written, teachers unions are not attempting to preserve the status quo. For example, the Toledo Federation of Teachers in 1981 pioneered a teacher peer-review system long before reformers ever promoted it. Since its inception, about 100 veteran teachers have been removed and about 350 interns have resigned. In 2009, the AFT struck a landmark labor contract with the New Haven school district that permitted a streamlined way for getting rid of underperforming teachers. This year the New Haven Federation of Teachers took over the management of the city's schools. These are hardly steps that are characteristic of obstructionists.
More importantly, although Weingarten's proposal is well intentioned, it will do very little in practice to improve teacher quality. Each state is currently allowed to set the requirements for licensing of teachers, in the same way that each state does so for licensing of lawyers. Unless all states agree to be bound by a national written exam - as Albert Shanker proposed decades ago - and a uniform method of evaluating student teachers, I fail to see any great improvement forthcoming. For example, California has stiffened its rules for certification since I entered the profession in 1964. Nevertheless, new teachers continue to struggle the first few years, and the dropout rate from the field remains high.
If we want to improve matters, I suggest the medical school model. Early on, students are introduced to the reality of medicine by clinical experience. They quickly begin to identify their weaknesses by making hospital rounds under the direct supervision of licensed doctors. This reality check makes the didactic part of their education much more meaningful because it is no longer an abstraction. By the same token, prospective teachers need to be immersed in actual classrooms early in their training under the supervision of experienced teachers. Passing a written exam is no substitute for clinical experience no matter how rigorous the exam is.
I'm encouraged that the AFT is in the vanguard of the movement to improve the teaching profession. But I think that Weingarten and the union have to think more deeply about their proposal if true progress is to be made. It is too sketchy at this time to have anything but heuristic value.