The Case for a Teacher Bar Exam

American education won't succeed until schoolteachers are seen as highly professional men and women.


For many critics of contemporary American public education, Finland is the ideal model. It performs at the top on international tests and has a highly respected teaching corps, yet it doesn't rely on policies like test-based accountability and school choice that are the cornerstones of U.S. reform. So, the critics argue, let's change course and follow Finland.

It's facile, at best, to look to a small, largely homogenous, country, with a very different educational pedigree as a model for a nation like ours. Still, the "go- Finland" crowd is onto something: Finland long ago decided to professionalize its teaching force to the point where teaching is now viewed on a par with other highly respected, learned professions like medicine and law. Today, only the best and brightest can and do become teachers: Just one in every 10 applicants are accepted to teacher preparation programs, which culminate in both an undergraduate degree and subject-specific Master's degree. Even after such selective admissions and competitive training, if there are graduates who are not deemed ready for the classroom, they will not get appointed to the system.

Like law and medical schools, education schools shouldn't be able to survive if fewer than half their students can pass a rigorous professional exam.

Contrast that with America, where virtually anyone who graduates from college can become a teacher, and where job security, not teacher excellence, defines the workforce culture. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, "The U.S. attracts most of its teachers from the bottom two-thirds of college classes, with nearly half coming from the bottom third." And, today, more than a third of math teachers in the U.S. don't have an undergraduate degree in math, let alone a Master's degree. Yet, even with this remarkably low threshold for entry, once someone becomes a teacher in the U.S., it's virtually impossible to remove him or her for poor performance.

What explains this cross-national difference? It does not seem to be teacher pay. Although teacher salaries in Finland are slightly higher than the average salary there, they are comparable to teacher salaries in other European countries. And when adjusted for national price indices, they're lower than teacher salaries in the U.S.

Instead, the difference seems to be rooted directly in the relative professionalization of the position. In addition to setting high standards of entry and providing high-quality professional education, Finland has established a culture that motivates teachers to excel at school and then innovate in the classroom. As a result, teaching holds an appeal comparable to that of other high-status careers in Finland.

By contrast, in the U.S., as many as half the people who graduate from schools of education and go into teaching end up leaving within their first five years. According to a recent study, the majority of departing teachers cited "bureaucratic impediments" -- including "excessive paperwork, frequent classroom disruptions, and too many unproductive meetings" -- as the leading cause. Others pointed to inadequate preparation, lack of ongoing training, insufficient time with colleagues, limited access to student performance data, and unclear career growth opportunities.

And unlike other professionals, teachers and their unions in America are often heard complaining that they are disrespected or mistreated. Why is this, and is it related to the fact that -- in sharp contrast to Finland -- American kids are performing poorly by virtually any measure, including on the same international tests the Finns ace?

Contrary to what one might think, the vast majority of teachers in Finland are unionized. Rather than opposing education reform, however, the teachers' union has been a partner in Finland's 40-year efforts to professionalize teaching. More than a quarter century ago, Albert Shanker, the then-iconic leader of the U.S. teachers' union, called for a similar initiative, which he labeled as the "second revolution in American education" (the first being the one he precipitated decades earlier when he helped New York City teachers gain collective bargaining rights). In a 1986 paper, he explained that "unless we go beyond collective bargaining to the achievement of true teacher professionalism, we will fail in our major objectives: to preserve public education in the United States and to improve the status of teachers economically, socially, and politically."

If we're going to look to Finland as a role model and an indicator of difference, then it's well past time for us to go back to Shanker's future. But how do we get where we need to go?

Here, too, Shanker was visionary. We need to start by insisting on a rigorous entry exam for those who teach, along the lines of the bar exam for lawyers or the national medical exam for doctors. Shanker actually proposed a three-part national exam: first "a stiff test of subject matter knowledge," followed by a second test on "pedagogy ... [including] the ability to apply educational principles to different student developmental needs and learning styles." Then, for those who passed both, he recommended a "supervised internship program of from one to three years in which teachers would actually be evaluated on the basis of how well they worked with students and with their colleagues."

The power of this simple proposal cannot be overstated. It would, to begin with, change the admissions policies and curriculum practices of our education schools, which today admit almost anyone who applies and generally provide weak course work, especially in subject matter areas like math or science. Like law schools and medical schools that aren't able to get their graduates qualified, education schools wouldn't survive if fewer than half their students couldn't pass the Shanker admissions test (as would certainly be the case for most of them today).

I also suspect that, building on these rigorous entry requirements, many other sensible policies would emerge in a truly professionalized teaching force. Instead of practices like lock-step pay, life tenure, and seniority-based advancement, we would see sophisticated career ladders (think partner and associate tracks for lawyers or specialization for doctors), with pay based on performance and relevant knowledge acquisition.

We would further see teachers with far more independence and discretion than they're able to exercise under the current bureaucratic micro-management. They'd have much greater ability to move among districts and states. (The current pay and pension policies often keep teachers locked into a given geographic area.) And as in other professions, teachers would become self-policing -- ridding the profession of those who misbehave or don't perform -- rather than engaging in the scorched-earth legal strategies the unions now use, even in cases involving sexual abuse of students.

Over time, there would also be a more differentiated teaching force, with a smaller number of better-paid teachers supported by apprentices and effective technology, along with better, much more sophisticated methods of teacher evaluation. Shanker presciently envisioned all of this.

Given the positive impact of such changes on teachers, it's entirely reasonable to expect the current pillars of the education establishment -- the unions and the schools of education -- to lead the charge for professionalization. High-performing as well as low performing countries have unions, but as Atlantic contributor Amanda Ripley recently observed in a Wall Street Journal column, "There is a significant relationship between the professionalism of the union and the health of an education system." To elevate their level of professionalism, teachers' unions need only follow the reasoning advanced by Shanker, their wisest and most respected leader.

As for the education schools, surely they can see that it's not sustainable to continue to train people for a career that loses so many, and that views itself as disrespected -- in no small measure because it's failing our children.

In the end, American public education won't succeed unless teaching becomes a truly "professionalized" career, one in which all of our teachers are deservedly thought of as learned men and women -- as they are not only in Finland but in Japan, where school teachers, along with professors, doctors and lawyers, are called "Sensei," a title that connotes earned respect.

This way forward also holds the potential of unifying the now-discordant voices in the education reform debate. After all, both sides want us to perform like Finland. But only our teachers can get us there.