Teacher Bar Exams Would Be a Huge Mistake

Schools should make it easier -- not harder -- for mid-career professionals to enter the classroom.


Bill the engineer wants to become a teacher.

He has 10 years of experience working in the engineering division of Lockheed Martin, and he'd like to share some of his extensive knowledge with high school students in Northern Virginia, where he lives. He'd prefer to take a couple of hours each day to teach a class on physics or calculus, which would enable him to stay in his current job. Bill imagines that this part-time teaching job will give him the opportunity not just to teach, but to mentor local students aspiring to science careers.

So Bill goes to the principal of the local public high school with his proposal. Before we detail the vast array of statutes and regulations governing who is allowed to teach in public schools, let's pretend--for a moment--that those regulations don't exist. Just consider how, in an ideal world, the principal would react to Bill's offer.

First, the principal needs to verify that Bill can be an effective teacher. How might the principal do that? Perhaps require him to give practice presentations of difficult material. Then maybe Bill should shadow seasoned teachers for a period of time to get a feel for classroom management and lesson planning. When Bill does get his own classroom, the principal will want to check each year that his students are learning what they're supposed to learn.

Bill is not likely to consider these requirements overly burdensome or bureaucratic. But in the real world, what would it actually take to allow Bill in the classroom? Let's examine the tangled web of teacher certification law.

First of all, it will be difficult for Bill to find a part-time teaching job. Teaching a single class period is rare in a regular public school, so it may be full-time or nothing for him. That's the first hurdle. So let's hope that Bill is open to giving up his engineering job entirely.

The most straightforward option for Bill is to get a master's degree in teaching, which includes semester-length courses of questionable value or relevance to STEM education -- adolescent development, lesson planning, and contemporary issues in education. This will set him back about $30,000 after two years of full-time study, which seems like an awfully time-consuming and expensive commitment for someone who is already an expert in his field.

Thankfully, the Virginia state government has tried to make it easier for mid-career professionals such as Bill to become teachers without getting another master's degree. He could participate in Virginia's Career Switcher Program. That can't be too complicated, right?

To go this route, Bill must first apply to the Career Switcher Program through one of the state-approved institutions that offers it -- for instance, George Mason University or the Virginia Community College System. To apply, prospective teachers must have at least five years of work experience in their field, hold a bachelor's degree, possess sufficient subject-matter coursework, and have passed the teaching exams approved by the State Board of Education.

Once admitted into "Level I" of the career switcher program, Bill must complete 180 hours of courses in, among other things, human growth and development, differentiated instruction, and classroom behavior, along with in-service teaching.

After that process, a provisional license is awarded, and Bill can enter the classroom. Now he is in "Level II". But during that second year (which is a full-time paid teaching position), he must continue amassing credentials by attending five instructional seminars. After successfully fulfilling those requirements -- which, combined with the Level I courses, may cost upwards of $6,000 -- a prospective teacher can apply for a 5-year renewable license, which typically takes another four weeks to process.

If all of that sounds overly complicated, Virginia also offers a route that does not go through the Career Switchers program. But the alternative route has similar requirements. And upon completion, prospective teachers receive licenses that are good for three years and are not renewable. Bill would still have to obtain traditional certification to continue as a teacher after three years.

And there's more. Once Bill has obtained his provisional license through this alternative route, he must satisfy any remaining "endorsement deficiencies" in the content area in which he is teaching, and must complete 15 hours of professional development classes to qualify for that five-year renewable license.

It's not hard to imagine that such a time-consuming process might dissuade Bill from trying his hand at teaching. This is highly unfortunate: A 2010 report published by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology noted that there are "approximately 20 million people in the United States who have degrees in STEM- or healthcare-related fields [who] can potentially be a tremendous asset to U.S. education." But by smothering teacher hiring in regulations and requirements, governments can actually dissuade the most talented people from trying to become teachers in the first place.

Presented by

Jason Richwine and Lindsey M. Burke

Jason Richwine is senior policy analyst in empirical studies, and Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in education policy, at the Heritage Foundation

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