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.”

  • Betty Suetomi

    It really doesn’t matter how “smart” or how knowledgeable a teacher is. If she can’t convey this knowledge to the students in a way that they can understand it, then no learning takes place and she is not an effective teacher. I’ve seen this happen over and over again and it just creates frustrated and unhappy students.

  • Terri

    I have met a lot of “smart” teachers that could not relate or connect to students. I am “smart” but if I had to take an SAT I would be in trouble right now! I have the knowledge and experience in the classroom and I continually try to grow as an educator, but keep getting slapped in the face by people who say, “those who can’t teach.” Well those who can ….TEACH those who can’t! I work with all types of kids in my classroom and have to find a way to engage them and keep them excited about what we are doing. I try to get them excited about learning and love learning. A Bar Exam….. okay I will take it, but I expect the 6 figure salaries that lawyers make! That won’t happen….so I have to take 2 certification tests and then I can take more for more specialization. I did not go into teaching for the money, but I also did not go into teaching to keep getting slapped in the face!

  • Adam Karp

    There are already exams in most states in regards to content area. How do you measure talent, especially with a brand new teacher? The biggest achievement here is that teachers will have yet ANOTHER exam to pay for and periodically pay for again to keep their licenses.

  • Article after article that I read talks about how we – society in general, but including educators, parents, mentors, etc – cause great detriment to ourselves and our kids by celebrating their intelligence rather than their effort. . Carol Dweck’s research and writing about how important it is to foster a growth mindset comes to mind. The core idea being that if one is celebrated for being smart, they will tend to not persist in times of challenge… but if we congratulate people for their effort, despite the outcome, they will be more resilient and tenacious when it comes to new and challenging tasks

    And yet – when it comes to the teachers who are actually to be helping guide these kids on their journey, we want them to be demonstrably “smart”?

    The disconnect is incredibly sad.

  • Emily

    As others have said, I paid over $600 on certification exams prior to teaching. What was the point of those, if not to show that I am “smart” in my certification areas and that I am worthy of being a teacher?! Not to mention application fees for applying for actual state certification– comments about a “bar exam” for teachers only makes me suspicious that there is some testing company paying these people to promote it, so they can be the ones charging new teachers astronomical amounts of money to be a teacher.

  • Kevin Elzinga

    While I agree that potential teachers need to be screened for how well they present material to their students, I think that there are MANY other factors that ultimately determine whether learning will take place in a classroom.

    There has to be more focus on matching teachers and students who come from similar backgrounds.

    That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t occasionally be crossover…

    But the reality is, some kids are completely unwilling or even unable to adjust to a teaching style that is unfamiliar to them.

    Some kids come from homes where they are rewarded for doing the right thing; and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that…

    But these same kids can completely shut down in an environment where rewards are viewed as “spoils” and there is little, if any, recognition of accomplishments. The stress of feeling unappreciated can paralyze children who are used to be complimented and rewarded for their contributions.

    On the flip side, there are other kids who NEED to be in a highly demanding setting that offers few rewards because that is the only environment that they are familiar with at home.

    Their home environment demands that they fulfill their duty to family and society and that they accept that they may not receive ANY reward for their efforts.

    This setting is the most real, but it is not the most forgiving or kind.

    The kids who come from these homes are taught to expect and understand this point of view and they often have great disdain for any environment that seems “fluffy” or “soft” to them and they can often chafe against teachers who appear to be fostering a “fluffy” environment.

    And yet MODERN society NEEDS both approaches to life.

    Without rewards or humor, life becomes monotonous and stressful.

    However, an environment that is too frivolous can collapse into undisciplined chaos.

    Saddling the ENTIRE responsibility of education on the individual teacher is a very narrow and ineffective approach to educating our children.

    Teaching has to be a team effort, but also a realistic effort.

    It is true that there is no “I” in team and that teachers need to be somewhat flexible.

    But administrators and policy makers should not demand an “ALL U” approach from their teachers either.

    Because the word “team” is not spelled merely with “U’s” either.

  • I agree that potential teachers need to be screened for how well they present material to their students,this could be a revolution towards the teaching industry in the world students are facing troubles for so many year now this system of Screening teacher can provide them the best they need and can create the best Individual of students.

    I hope this system is going to be Implemented in Asia as well.

  • I totally agree with Terri. I would further add that not only would the powers that be require the bar exam, but would they continually threaten me with my job if my kids don’t pass the state test. I went into the job to teach children a life long love of learning, not bubbling. All I see is a society that complains EVERY time I want to be paid for doing by job. Until our country actually values children, families and education we are destined to be 26th in the world or lower. If our priorites don’t change soon, we are headed into third world class.

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