Yo Teach…! Or how to avoid teaching like Jason

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 15 2013

An argument against a teacher bar-exam.

In response to the ever-vexing Joel Klein, a couple Atlantic authors released a solid critique of the new “teacher bar exam” movement. No doubt, teaching has definitely solidified for me the idea that “standard resume characteristics — level of education, certifications or licenses, and experience beyond the first few years of teaching — have essentially zero power to predict how much students learn from a given teacher. Even raw intellectual ability as measured by IQ tests has only a small positive effect on how much knowledge teachers are able to impart to their students.” Translation: I am every day shown up by teachers at my school who probably could not attain my GRE scores, and, unless I am missing out on some universal consensus on the exact kinds┬ápedagogical┬áskills that all teachers learn at grad school, could probably not BS their way through a bar-exam type test with minimal studying as effectively as I could. Why? Because I value these practically useless skills (outside of academia), and they value more useful skills like…teaching well. I worry a bar exam would get more people like me to join the profession and fewer people like them, and damn, they are just better than me.

To be persuasive, bar exam advocates need to show that:
a. there is a particular set of skills/knowledge that is correlated with student outcomes
b. increasing barriers to entry will lead to some cascade of institutional changes in schools that could improve teacher professionalism (perhaps limited supply–>higher pay and more bargaining power for (effective) teachers–>better balance between autonomy/accountability–>more effective teachers wanting in). I’m skeptical. I think it would more likely look something like this (bar exam–>less interest in teaching profession (especially for those not in the top 10% of college graduates or switching mid-career)–> a higher percentage of teachers who don’t stay more than a few years and a higher percentage of current teachers who leave due to the implicit insult of having to retake a very challenging exam to do something they’ve done well for a long time).
c. there is some reasonable plan in place to deal with effective (current) teachers who could not pass such an exam (I predict there will be many) and may be reasonably turned off from the profession with its enforcing…and of course…
d. this plan is better than the myriad of alternatives for improving the profession.

I think this movement needs a better vision of what the ideal teaching profession looks like. I think there is a growing consensus that the teaching profession would benefit from a few characteristics that would be stifled by a bar exam:

a. more diversity in positions (full time teachers, teaching assistants, tutors, specialists, coaches, mentors, part-time teachers, co-teachers). The more extreme manifestation of this idea is Rick Hess, who argues that we could further unbundle the “teacher” into instructors, behavior managers, graders, tutors, etc. Regardless of your commitment to the latter vision, I think there is a lot of consensus around getting more people and different kinds of people into the “teaching” profession broadly. This would be difficult and less likely to happen consistently with a one-size-fits-all bar exam.

b. A hearty percentage of career teachers. If you are someone aces rigorous bar exams, I would argue that you are less ┬álikely to be a career teacher, mainly because it is hard to continue teaching when you know you have a host of easier and more lucrative options available, especially once you plan on starting a family. Plus, many TFA-type college grads who often come from the top 10% are a bit too ambitious and self-involved to limit themselves to helping just one class of students a year (please read the self-loathing-I’m certainly not proud of being predisposed to this way of thinking). Most of us find *bigger* and *better* things. Or probably just things we are better at. Since again, I’m not convinced good grades lead to good teaching.

c. A teaching profession that is not expected to have some external authority shoving their idea of “best practices” down our throats. With medicine and law, this is kind of necessary, since the constitution is a pretty solid best practice and I’d rather have my doctors innovate in lab settings and save the proven methods for me. Sadly, as nice as it would be, the teaching profession is different from the medical profession. And that’s because it’s not a science. I don’t think anyone who makes the medicine comparisons is in favor of schools buying standardized, *research aligned* curricula. But the existence of a teacher bar exam would legitimate the existence of such practices, which I honestly believe are the biggest threat to the teaching profession.

That’s my argument. I like this issue though because I don’t think it will fall along the usual corporate hack-union/crony lines (evidenced by the endorsement of Klein and unions).


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