A “Bar Exam” for Teachers Misses the Point

In an interview with Walter Isaacson at the Aspen Ideas Festival, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten suggested that we establish a “bar exam” for public school teachers in America. This exam–which would be rigorous and would emphasize the teaching of critical thinking skills–would help to assuage growing concerns about the quality of teachers in America.

I respect and appreciate Weingarten’s intentions here. Ensuring that every classroom has a great teacher should be perhaps the primary goal of any education reform proposal. But I fear that another test will just be another hoop for potential teachers to jump through, further insulating the profession.

What we need to acknowledge is that, despite the emphasis on credentials in education, you learn how to teach by teaching; on-the-job training, experimenting, and adjusting is what makes great teachers great. I passed three PRAXIS exams before I started teaching, and I will be the first to admit that my high scores in no way correlated with immediate success in the classroom. (To be honest, closer to the opposite is true.) I’m not denying that learning key ideas and strategies before teaching can be beneficial for teachers. But creating a national exam for teachers and pointing to it as evidence of teacher quality falsely implies that teaching is akin to following an instruction manual–that we follow a set of clearly prescribed steps. It cheapens the art of effective teaching.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I fully support constant evaluation of teachers in order to ensure their instructional effectiveness. But evaluating teachers more before they step into a classroom only serves to further entangle the certification process in needless bureaucracy.


8 thoughts on “A “Bar Exam” for Teachers Misses the Point

  1. banshee

    The bar exam is *meant* to keep the incompetent and poorly educated from getting a license to practice law. You have made no case for different treatment for prospective teachers. I am sorry for the students in the first few classes you taught. Your essay would fail a law school bar exam essay question as an exercise in critical thinking. There is a university near me that has an excellent School of Education. They can’t get jobs while dead wood thrives in public schools. But I would bet my house that they could pass *any* exam the state chose to administer. I’m not so sure about the current crop of teachers.

    1. Jacob W Post author


      A couple of points in response:
      1) Teachers ALREADY take written exams as part of their certification process. What I am arguing is that passing an exam–whether the PRAXIS or this “bar”–is at best marginally connected to whether or not you are a good teacher, and so adding an exam would not actually improve teacher quality. The only result would be more bureaucracy in the certification process

      2) I have no doubt that, with sufficient preparation, the students at the university near you would be able to pass any exam. I think where we disagree is the extent to which that matters. A first-year teacher that aces a certification exam is still a first-year teacher, and will inevitably flounder at first. That is a reality of teaching: you learn as you go, and improve with experience. Your first couple of years in the room are vastly more important than any sort of exam you would take.

      You write:

      But I would bet my house that [these education students] could pass *any* exam the state chose to administer. I’m not so sure about the current crop of teachers.

      Maybe so. But so what? If we want to remove “dead wood” (I take issue with that phrasing, by the way–they are human beings) from the classrooms, shouldn’t we be actually looking at how they’re teaching and how their students are performing instead of a test? Your suggestion is akin to deciding who should qualify to race in NASCAR based on a written exam on how to drive really fast around an oval. There would be a hell of a lot of crashing and burning on that first day. Same could be said for classrooms staffed based on an exam.

      Thanks for reading.

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  3. Joseph McCauley

    My next door neighbor was the dean of the teacher-training division of a small private college. I told her that a teacher must meet two criteria before starting out:
    1. Know what the hell you are talking about
    2. Be able to relate to kids

    Everything else becomes on-the-job training (including the ability to say “I don’t know”)
    (I’m just an old guy retired from teaching after 35 great years)

  4. Iain Mavro Coggins

    I haven’t read Weingarten’s proposal, so I am only going off of what you say here. That being said, I would agree with you. I too found that teaching is the best way to learn how to teach. Very, very little of what I got in my School of Education prepared me for the classroom; many things I had to un-learn! I suspect that what Weingarten is doing is trying to take hold of the reins of teacher evaluation and get it away from the privatizers who are using it as the latest weapon to break down the teacher unionism. Sadly, the teachers unions in this country couldn’t organize or agitate themselves out of a cardboard box! They continuously play in the hands of their opponents and provide no real solutions the profound education problems besetting this country. Frankly, as things stand, the teaching profession is facing a massive de-professionalization promoted by various corporate-backed initiatives. Weingarten may be trying to avert this process with her proposal, but more than likely she is just wasting everyone’s time.

  5. dwbudd (@dwbudd)


    I was re-directed here from Joanne Jacobs’s ed blog, where you commented.

    I think your premise is interesting, and I, too, am somewhat a sceptic about Ms. Weingarten’s proposal. Not because I think that a credentialling test itself is a bad idea, but rather, I am suspicious of her motivations and thus, ultimately, how the test would be implemented and by whom.

    To be fair, the only explicit ‘teaching’ I’ve ever done was to undergraduates (I lectured as part of my graduate education – mathematics), but from that experience plus my experiences as a ‘consumer’ of education (i.e., a student), I agree that what is required to be a “good teacher” is the knowledge of the material PLUS the pedagogical skills set.

    There is no written test that can assess the latter, as you point out. Your “NASCAR” example is on point here.

    But I ask you, before the drivers enter the cars in NASCAR, I think they need to demonstrate among other things that they have driver licences and a basic knowledge of how to operate an automobile. Part of that is a written test.

    I submit that there is a non-trivial set of teachers who do *not* know, sufficiently well, the material they are supposed to be teaching. I suggest that the teachers’ unions should focus a lot less on, as the above poster mentions “agitating” and “organising” and stop pretending that there frankly are many teachers who are not really cut out for the profession, and re-focus on giving those who are skilled as teachers the tools that they need to succeed, and to ensure that the good teachers are retained.

    In short, a group of professionals who rely upon collective action that ostensibly sets out not to help the good performers but rather, at all costs, to defend the poor performers is doomed.


  6. Jacob W Post author


    I don’t deny that there is some content knowledge that should be assessed, particularly for teachers in the upper grades. However, most states already have those tests in place. It is also possible that those tests are not rigorous enough, and so there are teachers that do not know the content sufficiently well to be teaching it.

    I guess that my main concern lies with the fact that a new test, as I think you would agree, would be unlikely to actually improve the quality of teachers in the country. I fear that a new test would further cement the traditional track of education degree–>teaching certification that has, as you write, put teachers in the classroom that are “not really cut out for the profession.” I think that the key is getting the right people into the teaching profession, and then giving the adequate support once they are there. An additional test would not do that.

    And your final sentence? Could not have said it better myself.

    Thanks for reading,


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