A Bar Exam for Teachers?

The president of the American Federation of Teachers suggests such a test will ease doubts about  instruction quality.

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Steve Clemons

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in an interview with Walter Isaacson, President of the Institute, just launched an interesting, "big idea."  She said that we should establish a "bar exam for teachers."

Part of the challenge that the AFT, the mother ship for about 3400 teacher labor unions, is that it is perceived by many to be concerned primarily with protecting the jobs of teachers, some of whom are poor performers, rather than with promoting higher quality outcomes for students.

AFT's Weingarten has been trying to turn that impression around, just recently announcing the launching of a free, new, digitally-based resource platform for teachers called "Share My Lesson."

But the bar exam idea shoots at the doubt many have about the quality of teachers in the American educational system.  Isaacson started the discussion this morning at the Aspen Ideas Festival, presented by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, by asking about what more could be done in "training and gating teachers."

Weingarten said that it took her longer to get her certification as New York City school teacher than preparing for the bar and taking the exam to become a lawyer in the State of New York.  She said that the bar exam is made for the times -- and that ten years from now the bar exam would be different.

She said a bar exam for teachers today should emphasize the instruction of critical thinking.  That could change in the future as needs and expectations change.

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage

Weingarten said that we could do with teacher screening and training what we are doing today with the "common core" -- establish a national board that sets a 'national standard' and then strongly encourage, nudge, and seduce states to adopt the standard.

I look forward to hearing the views of others in the education reform debate about whether this bar exam idea has merit. 

My sense is that such a bar exam could be promising, but all depends on how high that bar is set.  If low tier graduates from our universities continue to turn to teaching as their default profession and get an easy hop over the bar -- then this bar exam big idea will flop.

Weingarten may be on to something that helps change the impression that many have of the quality of today's teachers and teacher unions, but hopefully she will not only suggest the "bar exam" but rather a "bar exam with high standards".


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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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