A call by the nation’s second-largest teachers union for something like a “bar exam” for teachers reflects an overwhelming consensus about the need to improve teacher performance.
The American Federation of Teachers tackles the problem from its origin — teacher-training programs. The union proposes a stringent qualifying test, similar to the bar exam for lawyers or the medical boards for doctors. The union also suggests minimum requirements for enrolling in teacher-training programs, such as a 3.0 grade -point average.
Numerous questions arise from the proposals, but the ideas deserve serious attention. The goal must be not to create artificial barriers to teaching, but to elevate standards so only the most rigorously vetted and well-trained teachers make it into the classroom.
Teacher quality is a thorny subject. A combustible mix of blaming teachers and teachers reacting defensively has made it difficult to identify solutions. Credit the AFT and its 1.5 million members for being willing to impose tougher standards on themselves.
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About 1,400 teacher-preparation programs nationwide produce 200,000 to 300,000 teachers each year. But the programs range widely in terms of quality. That has a significant bearing on teacher performance.
The concept of improving teachers by taking a page from other professions is not new. Seattle Public Schools’ new urban teacher residency program applies the medical residency model to teacher preparation. Other cities, including Boston, Chicago and Denver, have similar programs.
The idea is to blend classroom-based apprenticeships with graduate-level studies and mentoring. In Seattle, the first class of 25 residents and 25 mentors begin graduate coursework next summer and start apprenticing in classrooms in the fall.
Key to the program’s success is that it has partners with considerable skin in the game: the district, its teachers union — the Seattle Education Association — and the University of Washington College of Education.
The Obama administration and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards have responded positively to the AFT’s proposals. But final say falls to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the nonprofit agency that oversees teacher certification.
The proposals are welcome in the overall debate about ways to ensure the best teachers are working in the classroom. Dozens of states, including Washington, now have stronger teacher-evaluation systems to identify teachers who need help, or need to leave the profession. Principals cannot fire or hire enough teachers to address the performance problem. Deeper solutions lie in how teachers are trained.
The AFT offers a credible framework. Yet to weigh in on this particular set of proposals is the National Education Association. With 3.2 million members, its voice is important.