National Voices

Wednesday, Dec 05 2012 11:00 PM

ESTHER CEPEDA: A 'bar exam' for teachers is a long overdue proposal

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    Esther Cepeda

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CHICAGO -- Let's applaud the best education reform policy proposed this year: A test -- similar to a bar exam -- for teachers.

This suggestion is fundamental, necessary and overdue. One other word comes to mind to describe my answer to education policy observers who are asking whether we should hold teachers to rigorous national standards: Duh.

The exam idea was proposed by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who, in her introduction to the AFT's "Raising the Bar" report, laid out the thinking behind what amounts to a seismic disturbance in the world of teacher preparation: "We must do away with a common rite of passage, 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."

I'll take that a step further and say that it's also high time to do away with the common practice of letting teachers tackle subject areas in which they possess little formal scholarship. A meticulous weed-out system and an overall culture of excellence that trickles down to the individual school level could help address this.

In 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics released a report -- "Education and Certification Qualifications of Departmentalized Public High School-Level Teachers of Core Subjects" -- which broke down the types of teachers in classrooms based on a 2007-08 schools and staffing survey.

In general, a majority of teachers of the 11 broad subject fields such as languages, science and math held both a postsecondary degree and certification in their main teaching assignments. But what's surprising is just how many don't.

For instance, 25 percent of English teachers, 34 percent of math teachers and 25 percent of science teachers were not considered highly qualified.

What's worse is how many underqualified teachers are concentrated in schools that serve overwhelmingly minority student bodies.

In a 2008 report called "Core Problems: Out-of-Field Teaching Persists in Key Academic Courses," the Education Trust found that "in America's secondary schools, low-income students and students of color are about twice as likely as other students to be enrolled in core academic classes taught by ... teachers ... who possess neither certification in the subject they have been assigned to teach nor an academic major in that subject."

As the AFT report notes, "Teaching, like other respected professions, must have a universal assessment process for entry that includes rigorous preparation centered on clinical practice as well as theory, an in-depth test of subject and pedagogical knowledge, and a comprehensive teacher performance assessment."

Rigor is the key word here. Another study -- the National Council on Teacher Quality's 2011 report "Student Teaching in the United States" -- has shown the weakness of many teacher-preparation plans. Three-quarters of the 134 randomly sampled programs the council evaluated failed to meet five basic standards for a high-quality program.

Many states require several standardized tests in order to qualify for certification. But take it from someone who's sat for many of these tests: They are insultingly easy. And yet there are plenty of "frequent fliers" who have to take them over and over until they can pass.

Extra education isn't the answer either -- research has shown time and again that the additional master's level courses or degrees that so many teachers earn in order to boost their pay are unrelated to their effectiveness in the classroom.

The AFT's proposed high standards aim at the heart of what's required for good teachers: Top students coming out of college with documented expertise in specific subject areas, uncompromising teacher training, exacting exams that demonstrate knowledge, and stringent methods of training and evaluating classroom performance.

Lots of interested parties will hate this proposal. But it sounds a lot like the kind of academic achievement we expect of our successful public school students.

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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