Op-Ed: Seriously, a Bar Exam for Teachers? This Is Not the Answer

Pearl Arredondo, the founder of a pilot middle school in Los Angeles, feels more student teaching is the best way to prepare new teachers.

Two girls hug a former teacher, Sandra Geddes, at the end of an after-school science club at Bethesda, Maryland’s Westbrook Elementary School on November 16, 2011. Geddes is a legendary former science teacher at Westbrook. Someone like her would make a great mentor to a new teacher. (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images)

A bar exam for teachers is an idea that has been recently brought forth by the teachers’ unions. While some educators believe this would provide a stronger gateway into the teaching profession, I do not think another test is the answer.

Instead, the question we need to address is, “How prepared are teachers for their first assignment?”

Like any other skill or game one wishes to master, it takes practice. This practice must be in the classroom, with real students, guided by mentors, coaches, and peers, delivering content knowledge, and “tricks of the trade.”

It’s not enough to require that new teachers complete a university credential program, because some programs will accept any paying applicant with a high school diploma. Nor is it enough to accept those teacher candidates into the profession based exclusively on the recommendation of the university that accepted them.

It is not enough to require teacher candidates to pass content area examinations, including the CBEST and CSETs. I easily passed the CBEST with little review and study; most functional adults with a C average in high school could pass the CBEST in one Saturday morning. And the CSET examinations, which assess content knowledge, while decidedly more challenging, do little to prepare teachers for day-to-day life in the classroom.

It is not enough to have work experience or expertise in a profession outside of teaching. The old adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” certainly holds a kernel of truth, especially for those individuals who left commercial employment, by ineptitude, choice, or necessity, to become a teacher.

It is not enough for a teacher to simply know the content. Furthermore, a vast understanding of pedagogical theory is no guarantee of its exceptional execution. And unfortunately, good practice cannot be assessed on a bar exam.

When I began my teaching career in 2003, I was one of four first-year teachers at my school. One of the other teachers had never worked in a classroom and was on an “emergency credential.” He had a rough year and transferred to another school in June. The other two had at least one year of student teaching under their belts. However, both still did not feel very confident and it showed in how poorly their students behaved and performed academically.

Of the four, I can honestly say that I was the most prepared. My confidence and preparation came from a variety of places. I had worked as a special education assistant throughout my undergraduate program. This afforded me many opportunities to practice teaching and classroom management before I even began my formal student teaching. This also provided me an opportunity to work with a full gamut of teachers—the good, the bad, and the “Why on Earth are you here? Do you even like kids?”

The learning that happened onsite was beyond what any university or teacher preparation program could offer from a textbook or lecture; you simply have to live it.

My teacher preparation program was a leveled program. This meant you had to prove you could teach at a certain level before being allowed to move on to the next. It began with incremental hour requirements.

Each student teaching assignment had to not only be completed, but the master teacher and the university supervisor had to recommend you for the next level of student teaching. 

Now, I’m not saying that everyone needs to be an assistant before becoming a teacher, but I am saying that teachers need to spend more time student teaching. This time spent needs to be coupled with the right master teacher, university supervisor, and content pedagogical preparation.

The learning that happened onsite was beyond what any university or teacher preparation program could offer from a textbook or lecture; you simply have to live it.

The American Federation of Teachers proposes, “Teaching, like the medical, legal and other professions, must have a universal, rigorous entry assessment that is multidimensional. Its components include subject and pedagogical knowledge and demonstration of teaching performance—in other words, the ingredients to be a caring, competent and confident new teacher.”

There is no argument that this type of training program is needed to produce the best teachers possible. It is a fact that lawyers and physicians must pass a bar exam before they can practice their profession. However, lawyers who pass the bar are not necessarily skilled litigators. Physicians are also not tested for bedside manner, they have to learn that through intense intern and residency programs.

The problem with a bar exam for teachers is that it is still a content test in a profession that requires a very high level of interpersonal skills. While we might end up with more scholarly and education-invested professionals, how do we screen for the skills needed to understand, support, and motivate students on a personalized basis?

This is where student teaching is so vital to a new teacher’s success. This is the arena for a teacher to develop those interpersonal skills, practice lesson planning, and classroom management. It’s a good place to try out new learning theories they have studied, and change what doesn’t work. This is the arena where teachers are guided and mistakes happen.

Mentors stand by to ensure that the mistakes new teachers make are not detrimental to students or their learning. The teacher gets better from consistent feedback. In contrast, those who do not respond and improve through feedback may not continue. If you don’t practice well, you won’t be in the starting line-up.

If more teacher preparation programs modeled the admissions process, the training, and the accountability of rigor of other professions, we would have candidates that are much better prepared for day one in the classroom.

Finally, if we really want to elevate the teaching profession and have it mirror other professions in their stringent admission, training, certification, and credentialing processes, than we need to consistently produce highly qualified teachers and pay them accordingly for their accomplishments and ongoing commitment to excellence.

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