A ‘Bar Exam’ for Teachers? Experts Debate How to Bring Top Talent Into the Classroom

No one doubts that schools should recruit and support ‘smart’ teachers. But what does ‘smart’ really mean and is it enough?

‘Smart’ is one of those over-used terms that by itself doesn’t mean a lot when describing good teachers. It doesn’t necessarily suggest anything about pedagogical skill, and less about how a teacher will respond to students.

It all comes down to how you use your smarts, said Bill Raabe, director of the Center for Great Public Schools at the National Education Association. “All teachers have to be smart, but you have to be effective.”

Defining talented teacher candidates and providing them with the proper support and training was the topic of conversation at a panel discussion last week at the Center for American Progress. In addition to Raabe, the panel featured Heather Harding of Teach for America, Cami Anderson, superintendent of Newark Public Schools and Allan Odden, director of  Strategic Management of Human Capital Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Odden’s new paper, “Getting the Best People into the Toughest Jobs: Changes in Talent Management in Education,” drove much of the discussion and elicited strong opinions from the panel.

Talent matters, Odden said, and it is about time. Calling it the “third leg” of the education reform movement, Odden said talent had only recently been placed on the agenda, but more experts and policymakers were recognizing the urgency.

“In spite of the continuing need to improve curriculum rigor, fund education appropriately, provide quality development and support to teachers, and improve parental support, the undeniable fact remains: There are too few smart and capable people staffing the most challenging schools,” Odden said.

Odden recommends making entry into the teaching profession difficult at every point, including the implementation of a rigorous “bar exam.” According to Odden, this would ensure that only demonstrably effective teachers earn the full professional license (after three to five years of teaching) and then tenure. Nonetheless, the proposal raised a red flag for the other panelists.

“We have to be careful about a bar exam early on because we may limit the talent. Some of the routes into the profession would not prepare them for the sort of exam described in the report. I find that troubling,” Raabe said,

The paramount concern, Raabe said, should always be whether the people entering the teaching profession are prepared to work with the student they face every day.

“And what system do we have to ensure that?” he added. “How are we meeting the needs of kids, and is the system meeting the needs of kids?”

Teach for America’s Harding also expressed concern about a bar exam for teachers.

“We don’t need two sets of entry standards based on route and we don’t want to drive talent out of the profession” at an early stage.

Harding also cautioned against over-emphasizing academic achievement in determining talent – especially as it potentially excludes students of color.

“The SAT score is not going to get it if we want to increase diversity,” Harding said. Attracting candidates who are representative of the country’s changing demographics should always be a top priority for teacher preparation programs, she said.

While everyone agrees on the importance of staffing the nation’s schools with great teachers, clearly finding consensus on details is a challenge. Panel moderator Cynthia Brown asked each participant what obstacles would have to be removed in order to proceed wisely.

Everyone cited the destructive political discourse that has not only promoted misguided policies but has pitted stakeholders against each other.

“This is a real problem,” said Harding. “But once we all get in on the service of kids, we can work together on a shared mission.”

Cami Anderson of Newark Public Schools pointed out that nurturing talented teachers and improving student learning can’t move forward at the school level without a leadership team that models the right policies and behaviors.

“Performance and talent management isn’t about fear, intimidation or ‘gotcha!’ It’s about accountability and support,” Anderson said. “Unfortunately, the term connotes this crazy, nasty top-down fear. This is not taking us to the next level. So let’s show an equal commitment and laser-like focus on the abilities of the school leader, in addition to the teacher, because you can’t do one without the other.”

Raabe added that the lack of teacher voice in the debate is a major obstacle.

“We have to engage the actual practioneers and acknowledge them as experts in what truly makes a difference for kids. Too much time is spent by adults talking to adults without really focusing on the effect on students.”

A successful mission to develop great teachers and ensure student success, Raabe said, also depends a great deal on stakeholders working together.

“Union, management, teachers, community – we all have to understand the importance of collaboration. If we fail to collaborate, we will be ineffective.”