Setting the Bar Higher for Teachers

With a couple of changes, a teachers' union's proposal for rigorous testing for prospective teachers could have a big impact on public education.
by , | December 12, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

There's a lot to like in an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) proposal to create a rigorous professional exam that would be the K-12 teacher equivalent of the bar exam or board certification for doctors. With a few tweaks, the proposal could go from good to great.

Under the plan, which was developed by a task force of teachers and education experts convened by the AFT, prospective teachers would have to demonstrate knowledge of their academic subjects and spend a year in "clinical practice" as student teachers before sitting for the exam.

It calls for universities to raise their standards for education students by requiring a minimum 3.0 grade point average both to enroll and to graduate. With research making it clear that teacher quality affects student learning more than any other school-based variable (issues like income and parental education levels are external), the focus on raising education-school academic standards is a welcome one.

According to 2010 College Board data that breaks down SAT scores by intended major, students intending to pursue undergraduate education degrees ranked 25th out of 29 majors generally associated with four-year degree programs. Only "Agriculture," "Family and Consumer Sciences," "Parks, Recreation, Leisure and Fitness Studies" and, sadly, "Public Administration and Social Services Professions" ranked lower.

It doesn't get any better in graduate education programs. Scores are low, and they're even lower among applicants who were undergraduate education majors.

But there is evidence that an academic content-based teacher test can have a positive impact on teacher-preparation programs. It was a shocker when the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL) were first administered in 1998 and 59 percent of teacher candidates failed. But that changed in just a few years as state teacher preparation programs adapted to the higher standards.

MTEL, which is far more rigorous than the most often used teacher test, PRAXIS, was an important part of a comprehensive state reform effort that has paid handsome dividends. By 2005, Massachusetts became the first state whose students finished first in all four categories on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "the nation's report card." Since then, Bay State students have repeated the feat each time the tests have been administered.

Massachusetts students also proved themselves to be among the best in the world in both the 2007 and 2011 Trends in International Math and Science Study. Bay State eighth graders tied for the highest eighth-grade science scores in 2007.

A couple of important changes would make the professional-exam proposal even better. First, AFT proposes that the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) develop the test. But NBPTS certification requirements are not very rigorous and are based largely on inputs. Certification should be based on a teacher's record of improving student performance as demonstrated by test scores, among other measures.

And rather than a single national test, students would be better served by state-based professional exams, as is the case with the bar exam. K-12 public education in the United States is largely a local endeavor; state and local taxpayer shoulder 90 percent of the funding burden, and they should control its content.

School districts across the country are beefing up teacher evaluations as a means of weeding out bad teachers. That's a good idea. But improving the quality and rigor of teacher preparation so that bad teachers never get to the classroom in the first place is an even better one.

The AFT undoubtedly expects that implementation of a prestigious exam would ultimately result in higher teacher pay. Done correctly, that additional investment would be a bargain for taxpayers.