Streams

Raising the Bar on Teachers? I'll Pass.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 - 04:59 PM

If it breathes, test it.

That seems to be the current mantra of education reformers and, strangely enough, the teachers' unions have been chanting along. If New York City and the U.F.T. reach agreement on a new evaluation system for teachers, it's likely that every student in the state will be tested in every subject every year, from kindergarten on up, even in non-academic courses such as physical education. Picture your five year old being graded on how many times she can bounce a ball, and you'll have a rough idea how this will play out.

If you thought the testing fetishists were finished, think again. The unlikeliest of conspirators, A.F.T. President Randi Weingarten and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, among others, have joined forces to call for a teacher "bar exam" modeled on the certificationtest lawyers take. This exam, they claim, would "professionalize" teaching, elevating its status and ushering in an era of highly qualified teachers in every classroom.

Except it won't work.

The concept of a bar exam assumes that it's far too easy to become a teacher these days. Even a cursory look at current certification requirements will dispel that notion. To become an English teacher like me, for example, the most common path is to complete a New York State-registered college program and pass three tests: the Liberal Arts and Science Test (LAST), the Secondary Assessment of Teaching Skills (ATS-W), and the content specialty test (CST) in English. It's difficult to see how yet another test would improve the pool of potential teaching candidates; if anything, another hurdle may serve to discourage young people from entering the profession at all.

A bar exam for lawyers measures one's understanding of legal principles and minutiae, but it says nothing about how well a lawyer will perform in a courtroom. In law, that's fine, because if your courtroom practice resembles Matthew Perry more than Perry Mason, you can ply your trade in an office instead. For teachers, their courtroom is a classroom. Even the most thorough understanding of psycho-motor skills won't help when students use those skills to launch spitballs at each other. The ability to engage five year olds on a sugar high or teenagers with hormones rampaging through their veins isn't something that can be gauged with a #2 pencil. At various times, teachers must be performers, friends, disciplinarians, social workers, confidants, parents, and sometimes, just a shoulder to cry on. I've yet to see the test that can measure those qualities.

Raising the bar might seem an appealing option right now when unemployment is sky high and there are many applicants for the few teaching positions available. But what happens when employment returns to normal levels and college-educated students flee to higher paying jobs? If we're serious about raising teacher quality, we do need to take a page from the legal profession, but it isn't the bar exam. Law schools tend to lure top college candidates because the potential payoff is huge. A newly minted lawyer can easily earn twice what a new teacher makes for basically the same number of years of schooling, and the salary gap can widen substantially thereafter.

While more money is necessary to retain teachers, it isn't sufficient. Almost half of new teachers leave before they have put in five years, and all of them knew the salary going in. The reasons they leave are many but a common complaint among my colleagues is that they feel disrespected, not only by the press which sometimes seems to have a vendetta against educators but also by the people who employ us. In New York City, for example, teachers are given $45 for supplies for an entire year. That's not even enough to buy pencils for all the standardized tests our students will be taking. When was the last time a starting lawyer had to buy his own paper clips?

If we have a problem recruiting top college graduates to education, we should fix that problem. Testing doesn't fix anything and, in this case, a teacher bar exam disguises the need to do something more meaningful to attract and retain the best teachers by creating the illusion of action.

The fix is actually quite simple. Pay teachers well so they want to enter the profession. Make all first year teachers apprentices to experienced teachers so they can learn their craft. Make the tenure process rigorous but fair so that new teachers can earn their way into job security or be shown the door. Give teachers the same autonomy to run their classrooms as lawyers have to run their offices, or doctors their practices. Stop vilifying teachers in the press.

And we could use some rubber bands while you're at it.

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