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Teachers and the License Raj

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Requiring prospective teachers to take a rigorous ‘bar exam,’ as union chief Randi Weingarten proposes, is the wrong way to recruit and assess teachers.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten argues that requiring prospective teachers to take a rigorous “bar exam” would help raise teacher quality and improve educational outcomes. This approach, while seemingly reasonable, may actually be exactly the wrong way to recruit and assess teachers.

Here’s the key point: it does seem possible to isolate the best teachers given enough performance data, and the best teachers can have a huge impact on their students’ lives. But it’s really hard to predict which teachers will excel before they enter the classroom or even after a year or two of teaching. The best way to find a good teacher may be to watch people teach. In which case you want to cast a wide net: let a lot of potential teachers in the door, then weed out those who can’t teach and promote those who can.

This is pretty much the opposite of how teacher recruitment currently works. Today, a prospective teacher may major in education or some other subject, then takes certification exams to verify his or her ability to teach. After two to three years in the classroom, the teacher is assessed for tenure. The vast majority are approved, after which it is extremely difficult to remove the teacher for poor performance.

Let a lot of potential teachers in the door, then weed out those who can’t teach and promote those who can.

Weingarten’s “bar exam” would double down on this approach. But unless the bar exam would have stronger predictive power than other existing measures of teacher quality – and I see little in Weingarten’s op-ed regarding how this new exam would provide such data – it wouldn’t change things much.

Except in one respect: the bar exam would raise barriers to entry, restricting the number of teachers and (all else equal) raising teacher pay.

As Milton Friedman noted, “The justification offered [for professional licensing] is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers.”

Weingarten says, “We must do away with the common rite of passage whereby new teachers are thrown into classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they (and their students) sink or swim.” But if we can’t easily predict the best teachers beforehand, that may be precisely what we need more of.

Andrew G. Biggs is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Biggs also writes “Public-Sector Pensions: The Transition Costs Myth,” “Liberals or Conservatives: Who’s Really Close-Minded?” and “Public Pension ‘Air Time’ Is an Absurdly Generous Perk.” Sara Mead, Andrew J. Rotherham, and Rachael Brown contribute “The Hangover: Thinking about the Unintended Consequences of the Nation's Teacher Evaluation Binge.” Heather Hill and Corinne Herlihy discuss “Prioritizing Teaching Quality in a New System of Teacher Evaluation.

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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