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National teachers union proposes ‘bar exam’ for beginning teachers

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, at 10:29 p.m.

A national teachers union has proposed a rigorous professional exam for K-12 teachers that would be similar to the bar exam for lawyers or board certification for doctors.

“There is a body of knowledge that teachers should know and be able to do when they walk into classrooms, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who announced the plan during a nationwide conference call Monday.

“It would be a huge asset to kids and to teachers, and to ensuring that teachers are prepared on day one.”

A task force of teachers and education experts spent about a year developing the just-released 36-page report aimed at improving teacher preparation and certification.

It calls for a “rigorous entry bar for beginning teachers,” which would include in-depth tests on subject matter along with practical knowledge of classroom management and theories of learning.

Says the report: “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.”

In a survey conducted by the national union, one in three new teachers said they felt unprepared their first day on the job. New teachers reported feeling particularly underprepared in the areas of classroom discipline, time management and lesson preparation.

Fewer than half of teachers surveyed described their training as “very good,” and more than half said on-the-job experience or help from other teachers was more helpful than their formal training.

Randy Mousley, president of United Teachers of Wichita, called the proposal “a very bold step forward” toward improving teacher preparation and respect for the profession.

“This is a direction we need to go,” Mousley said. “If there are perceived issues with public education right now, it’s always, ‘Oh, it’s the teachers.’ … In reality, we don’t have a real good quality control system of people coming into the profession.”

The national union is calling for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to develop the actual “bar exam,” based on a set of teaching standards crafted by educators.

The proposal also calls for universities to be more selective in accepting students into teacher preparation programs and graduating them into classrooms.

Currently, teacher certification requirements vary from state to state. In Kansas, teachers must pass the Praxis test of content knowledge for whichever grade or subject they plan to teach, as well as the Principals of Learning and Teaching exam.

Both tests are written and administered by the Educational Testing Service, said Susan Helbert, assistant director for teacher education and accreditation for the Kansas Department of Education.

Kansas also requires a semester of full-time student teaching or internship, Helbert said.

“In the teaching profession, they do have professional standards for both leadership and teaching that have become the basis for most of the states’ own professional standards,” she said.

Sharon Iorio, dean of the College of Education at Wichita State University, said the quality of teacher education programs may vary, but “Kansas has high standards” as evidenced by state policy and procedures.

In an e-mail, Iorio said WSU’s requirements for minimum grade point averages, along with benchmark assessments and cut scores on national exams like the ACT “is a good gateway system to identify only those students who qualify to be good teachers.”

Lisa Waterman, an education major at Southwestern College in Winfield, said the idea of a bar exam for teachers “is not going to phase me” because she feels confident she could pass such a test.

But the 43-year-old mother of two who will start student teaching at Beech Elementary School in January said comparing teaching to law or medicine isn’t a fair parallel for at least one reason:

“When you think of a bar exam for a doctor or a lawyer, you think of those wages, those salaries, and it’s not exactly the same,” Waterman said.

“I personally would be fine (with an additional test). But if they’re going to raise the bar for professional teachers, so to speak, it would be nice if the respect for the profession and the salaries could go up as well.”

Mousley, the Wichita union president, agreed. He added that he is “a little skeptical” about whether diverse interests within the teaching profession will be able to come up with a common set of standards and a common exam.

“It’s going to take buy-in from a lot of other people,” he said. “This (proposal) lays out to me that if this country wants a world-class education system, here’s what we have to do.”

Ron Thorpe, president and chief executive of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, said Monday that the task may be difficult but is necessary.

“The key definition of a profession is that the people in it define the key terms,” Thorpe said during the conference call. “What should (first-year) teachers be able to do? What should they look like in front of students at that point in their career?

“In education there are lots and lots of players, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “It just means there’s a lot of work to do in terms of aligning.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SuzanneTobias.

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