Former NYC Schools Head Joel Klein: We Need a Bar Exam for Educators

The ex-chancellor finds rare common ground with the head of the American Federation of Teachers.

One of the biggest names in public school reform and one of the biggest names in the world of teachers' unions appear to agree on a very big, and possibly very controversial, idea: We need a bar exam for teachers.

I'm talking about American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, now the head of News Corp.'s education division. The two are considered fierce rivals at opposite ends of the school reform debate. But on this concept, they appear to have found some common ground. Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June, Weingarten said that giving aspiring teachers a rigorous exam that tests critical thinking and instruction chops -- much like the gargantuan test lawyers need to take before they can practice in a state -- would be a helpful step to ensure professional standards across the education system. 

 Washington Ideas Forum Conversations with leading newsmakers. A special report

Today, speaking alongside Delaware Governor Jack Markell at the Washington Ideas Forum, Klein sounded a similar note. He argued that our heavily trade-unionized schools model was "broken," and that teaching needed to be "professionalized."

Unfortunately, Klein didn't get a chance to elaborate much on that point, so I caught up with him in a hallway after his talk. What precisely did he mean by "professionalizing" teaching, I asked?

He responded that it could involve a wide variety of changes, many of which had been proposed by the legendary AFT president Albert Shanker in the 1980s. And one could be the implementation of "a very rigorous national test, like the bar exam," Klein said.

"We really need to insist on the best and the brightest going into teaching," he added. 

I can see the appeal of the proposal for both sides of the education reform debate. For the unions, as Weingarten said, a bar exam would be a great public relations tool for proving that the teachers they represent are qualified to be in the classroom. It would also inevitably limit the supply of teachers, which might make it easier to bargain for higher wages or prevent competition from charter schools. For reformers like Klein, it might be a step towards attracting a class of talented professionals to teaching who are less likely to want to collectively bargain, and who might be more amenable to ideas like performance-based bonuses.  

Whether or not you're a fan of professional credentialing -- and there are many out there who aren't -- there's one very obvious problem I can foresee: There's no way this idea would work unless teacher salaries were raised first, and possibly dramatically. As Klein said, our best and brightest already don't go into teaching. Throwing up hurdles in front of them without a big payoff in return isn't going to encourage them. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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