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Voices: Why stop at a bar exam for teachers?

Tim Farmer, policy director for the Professional Association of Colorado Educators, says bar exams are an entirely reasonable way to measure teacher effectiveness. But why stop there?

At the recent Aspen Ideas Festival, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, pitched the idea of a bar exam for teachers. Weingarten was responding to a question regarding what more could be done to ensure that higher qualified candidates enter the teaching profession when she made the proposal. She went on to explain that prospective teachers should be given a test that emphasizes critical thinking and that changes, over time, as the expectations for teachers change.

As a former teacher and current law student, I think Weingarten is correct in looking to other professions for ideas that can help elevate the prestige of teaching. However, she is ignoring the big elephant in the room. The truth is that what has made the teaching profession different from the legal profession is the fact that it is largely shaped by the unions, and the factory worker policies that the unions support. The unions have imported a blue-collar approach to the profession that has created a culture in which longevity in the job is what is most valued; not talent, extra effort or performance.

Weingarten’s big idea to implement a bar exam for teachers is a good one, as long as other professional standards come with it, such as a transition from unions to more professional associations like the American Bar Association. This is exactly what the Association of American Educators (AAE) and the Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE) are trying to help accomplish.

AAE and PACE believe in elevating the profession of teaching through innovative new approaches, while still ensuring that a teacher has peace of mind in the classroom through legal and liability insurance. AAE and PACE fundamentally disagree with the union’s “us vs. them” mentality, and instead support collaboration and treating teachers like professionals. A new video released recently by AAE features non-union teachers talking about this more professional approach.

Blue-collar approach of teacher unions

Highlighting the problems created by the blue-collar approach to compensating teachers, a new report put out by The New Teacher Project looked at 90,000 teachers across four large and diverse school districts to examine questions like teacher quality and burnout. Not surprisingly, the study found that the teaching profession needs to adopt policies similar to those of other professions – like lawyers.

The study also found that the top twenty percent of teachers, dubbed the “irreplaceables,” are able to “help students learn two to three additional months’ worth of math and reading compared to the average teacher, and five to six months more compared to low-performing teachers.”

Sadly, it was also found that half of the “irreplaceables” burn out and leave the teaching profession within five years.

So we cannot stop at just a bar exam. We must continue the line of thinking that prompted Weingarten to make this suggestion in the first place. The future of teaching should be modeled after the other professions that it rightfully hopes to emulate – doctors, lawyers and other highly-respected professions.

Schools, like hospitals and law firms, must be given the autonomy to hire, fire and compensate as they see necessary and be held accountable for their results. The union-supported system of “another year, another step increase” fosters mediocrity for some and burnout for others that choose to work harder. Good teachers, like good doctors and good lawyers, have nothing to fear and don’t need outdated rules to protect their job. What is needed is a system that mirrors the autonomy and accountability found in other professions to ensure that there will always be great schools looking to hire great teachers and pay them great salaries.

So I ask, why stop at just a bar exam? Why not adopt all of the policies of the legal profession, including a transition to non-union professional associations and freeing up schools to pay the best employees the best salaries? If we can’t improve the talent pipeline to the classroom, and improve the retention rate of the “irreplaceables,” then a bar exam would be just another dog-and-pony show with a low standard for passing in order to meet the demand for new teachers – to replace the good ones we are losing.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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