Should There Be a Bar Exam for Teachers?

Eager law school graduates are tasked with taking the dreaded bar exam before they practice law. What do you suppose would happen if there was a similar test for teachers?

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), was the first to propose this idea at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June. Weingarten, who strives to help the teacher labor unions in her charge, suggested the bar exam in part as a way to help counter the impression that unions protect failing teachers.

Her suggestion has made many people consider whether such an exam would be the best way to increase teaching standards and further legitimatize the profession. Others, however, feel a bar exam is just a public relations stunt that would be unlikely to make any difference in real reform.

As it stands right now, a person who wants to teach in public schools must fulfill certain state teaching credentials and pass a state certification after receiving a bachelor's degree. The requirements vary from state to state, although most states honor out-of-state certification tests.

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Joel Klein, the former New York City Schools Chancellor, recently announced that he agrees with Weingarten—an unlikley mutual agreement for two people who have radically different thoughts on school reform. According to The Atlantic, Klein said that teaching needed to be "professionalized."

In a brief interview with Atlantic reporter Jordan Weissmann, Klein (the current head of News Corp.'s education division) said "a very rigorous national test, like the bar exam" would be one way to give the profession some heft. "We really need to insist on the best and the brightest going into teaching."

Aside from the bar exam suggestion, there has been plenty of debate over the best way to prepare a teacher for years of instruction. An AFT task force is currently looking at a more rigorous entry exam into teaching credentials programs (rather than a simple basic skills test), as well as a higher GPA requirement for those candidates.

On the plus side, a bar exam could create a legion of respected teachers who are clearly among the top in their class. It would allow these educators better bargaining rights and and perhaps be an argument for teacher tenure.

On the other hand, the way a teacher handles critical thought in a classroom might be very difficult to measure in a test format. The creative and motivational realm of teaching is a tough idea to pin on paper. Also, if we cut down the number of potential candidates who do not want to face such a hurdle, we might lose some charismatic educators who would excel and inspire in a classroom setting.

 Do you think teachers should be given a bar exam? Share your thoughts in comments.

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Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.