Best 2012 education reform proposal? Bar exam for teachers

Posted Online: Dec. 10, 2012, 11:49 am
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By Esther J. Cepeda
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.
Esther J. Cepeda writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.


Local events heading

  Today is Saturday, Aug. 30, the 242nd day of 2014. There are 123 days left in the year.

1864 — 150 years ago: A large pair of elk, captured in Iowa, were exhibited in Market Square today.
1889 — 125 years ago: The Rock Island Arsenal dam was being constructed under the supervision of Charles Frances, of Lowell, Mass.
1914 — 100 years ago: Mrs. Frank Mixer, of Rock Island, was the winner of the final preliminary for the women's handicap golf cup at Rock Island arsenal links.
1939 — 75 years ago: Sixteen hundred persons — many from war-fearful Europe — arrived in New York aboard the German liner Bremen. For two days on the trip, passengers were cut off from the world with both incoming and outgoing radio messages banned.
1964 — 50 years ago: Police reported five youths have been involved in the theft of about seven cars in recent weeks. Three of the youths were arrested Saturday afternoon, one was in custody as the result of a previous arrest, and the fifth is expected to be arrested today.
1989 — 25 years ago: The Rock Island/Milan School Board is asking the city to tear down Franklin School and allow the school district to pay back the estimated $100,00 cost during 10 years.

(More History)