Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Will Bar Exam Turn Teachers Into Shysters?

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has launched a new initiative to raise entry standards for teacher-preparation programs, calling it a “bar exam” for teachers. My first thought on hearing the news was that they were trying to turn us into shysters, but then I remembered that we are already considered disreputable and unscrupulous by much of the public.

What's black and tan and looks good around a teacher's neck? A doberman!

So how will the bar exam change matters?

The AFT and its bigger sister, the National Education Association (NEA) have both been tripping over each other to prove to the public that they accept and intend to remedy every criticism made against teachers and their unions. This has included a tacit acceptance of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its testing mania, as well as evaluation reform and Value-Added models for assessing teachers.

So when the free market “reformists” insisted that there were too many incompetent teachers out there, it was only natural that the teachers’ two largest unions should jump to defend their members by conceding that it has just been too damned easy to become a teacher up until now, and new, more stringent entry requirements were necessary to protect our precious children.

Of course there are significant differences between lawyers and teachers which make this metaphor just plain silly.

For one, lawyers stand to make anywhere from two to several hundred times more than teachers, thus providing the incentive to spend thousands of dollars on tutoring and training courses to help them pass their tough bar exam. With teacher pay abysmally low and working conditions deteriorating daily, why should anyone want to invest the time and money into a professional teaching degree, as well as training for the tougher new test, when it could cost them years of debt and all the stress and anxiety that accompany the job?

Another consideration is that it costs society little if an aspiring law student fails the bar exam. Even if s/he retakes the exam and repeatedly fails it, it simply means one less lawyer. Last I heard, there was no shortage of lawyers, particularly if one has the money to hire one. But a “bar exam” for teachers implies lots of failure, which could easily translate into a significant teacher shortage. The number of students will not magically decline in unison, so class sizes will necessarily rise, while many students will find themselves being taught by non-credentialed, long-term substitutes. Thus, rather than improving the quality of teachers for greater numbers of students, a “bar exam” for teachers could wind up causing more students to have mediocre or lousy teachers and greater competition for help from the good teachers.

Of course, my criticisms are only valid if the AFT’s new exams truly are as difficult as actual state bar exams, which can have failure rates as high as 30-50% (see here and here). While it remains to be seen how challenging these exams will be, the AFT is also calling for teaching candidates to have 3.0 GPAs and higher scores on college entrance exams, in order to get into teaching programs in the first place. This could significantly reduce the number of people eligible for credential programs, or encourage them to get their undergraduate degrees from degree mills and less rigorous universities. This would further reduce the number of high quality entry level teachers.

AFT President Randi Weingarten, a woman who earns over $600,000 year NOT working the classroom, said, "It's time to do away with a common rite of passage into the teaching profession—whereby newly minted teachers are tossed the keys to their classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they and their students sink or swim.” (From Ed Week)

Her comments show a great deal of ignorance and disdain for teachers who act as mentors and master teachers to help novice teachers find their feet and grow professionally. Indeed, there is only so much a teaching candidate can gain from a university classroom—the rest must be learned in front of a K-12 classroom, through student teaching, peer observations and actual practice. It is absurd to think that any teaching program or high stakes test can produce a cadre of perfectly molded teacher droids.

Could more stringent requirements work in the favor of existing teachers? If the AFT’s proposed reforms are adopted, it would almost certainly create a teacher shortage. Theoretically, this could drive demands for higher wages, as districts compete more aggressively for fewer qualified applicants. In reality, however, it seems unlikely that districts, states or the federal government will pony up the money to pay teachers enough to make the new requirements worth their trouble. If budgets continue to be anemic, teachers’ salaries are most likely to remain stagnant, regardless of any future shortage.

The AFT’s proposal is yet another lousy solution to an imaginary problem. Sure, beginning teachers say they feel unprepared to start teaching. However, this is not because they didn’t have to pass a tough test. It is because keeping a bunch of kids focused, motivated and interested in the subject matter is no easy task. Getting them to behave and show respect for you and themselves is equally challenging. No exam can prepare a teacher adequately for this.

On the other hand, one might wonder why a union is focusing on making it tougher to become a member. Isn’t the job of unions to protect the interests of their members? Does the AFT believe that teachers who have jumped all these new hurdles and made it as teachers will somehow win the respect of Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, not to mention comfortable salaries and better funding and support for the classroom needs?

No amount of obsequiousness and self-blame will get the free market education reformers to back off, give up their privatization schemes, or cease their union busting.

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