U.S. standard for certifying teachers worth pursuing

You can just hear the sighs in public schools across the land. Ugh … another test … just what we needed.

This one is different, though. The test wouldn’t be for students but for their teachers. The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union behind the National Education Association, has proposed a national “bar exam” for teachers.

It is an interesting idea, and the teachers union has presented some very logical arguments supporting it. Still, in an imperfect world – and nothing is more imperfect than our current educational system – even ideas that look good and sound good have to be vetted.

The idea certainly raises some organizational and structural questions. The first is a matter of responsibility for the examination. A national test would be very different from the current system.

Right now, teacher certifications are controlled by each individual state, with assistance from assorted bureaucracies, interest groups and meddlers. As a result, there are substantial variations in the requirements and standards applied. The union report notes that, “The top-performing countries spend substantial time and resources to ensure that standards, programs and entry assessments are aligned and coherent, while the United States’ system is a patchwork lacking consistency.”

It is certainly that, but the impact on educational quality isn’t crystal clear. The level of difficulty in obtaining certification, for example, does not translate directly to educational effectiveness — at least not as directly as we might expect.

We wouldn’t want teachers administering standardized tests to their students that they couldn’t pass themselves, certainly. Mastery of the subject matter is a key factor in successful teaching. Equally important, though, is the ability to empathize with students, to see the subject the way those still learning see it, to motivate them to learn and overcome obstacles, and to take joy in their “getting it.”

Some years ago, it was very difficult to obtain certification, a “teacher’s license,” in California or New York City, which were at one time considered the best systems we had in the country. In New York, for example, there was a written examination, which was generally viewed as difficult. Additionally, the school district required that all candidates show up at headquarters for an interview and an oral examination that combined elements of a dissertation defense and a police interrogation. It was generally viewed as easy, compared with the Inquisition.

Did the system guarantee good teachers? Not really, but it established a basic level of preparedness. No examinations, regardless of how thorough, can fully determine if a teacher is ready for the reality of the classroom experience.

While certification of basic levels of preparedness is worthwhile, the value of making it a national instead of a state responsibility, though, is not clear. The teachers union report states that, “teaching must raise standards for entry into the profession through a process similar to the bar process in law or the board process in medicine.”

Wanting to raise entry standards is a good thing, but neither law nor medicine involve national exams in order to practice, so they do not provide a perfect model to base teacher certification on. Bar exams for lawyers are the responsibility of each state, as are licenses to practice medicine. Subsequent board certifications in one or more medical specialty areas, however, are national.

There is another, more fundamental problem in using law and medicine as models for professional certification. Neither lawyers nor physicians are unionized. The labor movement has wrestled unsuccessfully with professionalism vs. union membership issues throughout its history and they remain unresolved.

The union proposes that the overseeing organization for teacher certification would be the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a non-profit organization formed in the mid-1980s to further the work done on preparing teachers for the 21st century.

That board would be a good choice since it already exists and we wouldn’t have to argue and bicker for a year over who gets to be a member. Even better, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards already certifies teachers, about 100,000 of them so far.

There is still the question of effectiveness, though, as well as some unanswered questions about how national certification requirements might affect the supply and demand issues faced by states, school districts and principals.

The existence of thousands of already nationally certified teachers in classrooms across the country makes studies of effectiveness relatively straightforward. There is no real question that National Board certification is a good thing; what we need to know is whether it makes a measurable difference in the very different classrooms that make up the American K-12 system.

The American Federation of Teachers’ proposal for national certification is not a quick fix. And it will not solve the critical problem of teacher scarcity in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Still, it is an idea worth pursuing.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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