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December 07, 2012 10:00 AM AFT’s Magic Test

By Daniel Luzer

America’s second-largest teacher union, the American Federation of Teachers, is proposing a national examination that all teachers would have to pass in order to receive certification. It’s perhaps useful for the union to be considering objective evaluation measures, but it’s unclear what a national ed examination would accomplish.

According to a piece at Inside Higher Ed

AFT is proposing today a new national exam that all new teachers — whether prepared by teacher education or other programs — would have to take to be certified. “Just as in professions widely recognized for having a set of rigorous professional standards, such as law or medicine, 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,” says an AFT report, “Raising the Bar.” “There has been significant debate about the quality of teacher preparation programs — both traditional and alternative. By requiring all teacher candidates to pass a universal assessment, we ensure all teachers who enter the classroom, whether trained in a traditional program or alternatively certified, meet the same standards of competence.”

Well, yes, they would “meet the same standards of competence,” but that still wouldn’t ensure that they’re any good.

The AFT proposal sounds reasonable, but why would a national evaulation ensure that teachers can teach? In fact, while we have some idea that subject matter competence makes people more effective teachers (meaning people who know more about science teach science classes better than those who don’t), there’s no reason to think one evaluation system for all teachers across the country could ensure anything other than a lot more paperwork and a great big pile of money for the one testing company that gets the contract.

It is, of course, possible that such reform efforts could yield to a strong evaluation system and great teachers, but we’ve actually seen this “revolutionary” idea before.

Now it’s worth pointing out that this test is not like some multiple choice standardized thing. According to the report the national examination will involve observation and real human evaluation. But it looks pretty similar to a pilot project developed by Stanford University and the education company Pearson in which students videotape themselves and then send the recordings (along with up to $300) to Stanford for evaluation.

Six other states are planning to adopt teacher performance assessments in coming years. California, which has an assessment similar to that developed by Pearson, apparently grants licenses to about 98 percent of student teachers who apply and submit the materials.

Most teachers, it appears, already meet the same standards of competence. But is it really a barrier against incompetence?

Read the AFT’s report here.

UPDATE: Another problem with the AFT idea, at least from an rhetorical perspective, is that part of the justification for the benefits of the teacher examination is that “as in medical, law and other professions, all prospective teachers—whether they come to the profession by the traditional or an alternative route—should meet a universal and rigorous bar.” Well no, people are licensed to practice law or medicine based on different examinations and standards administered by agencies of individual states. They’re similar, for sure, but there’s no universal standard.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • Ron Mexico on December 07, 2012 12:37 PM:

    It's an emerging myth that "subject matter competence" is what separates good from bad teachers. The implication is that students with subject area BA degrees are actually better qualified that students with a teacher cert. degree because they have more knowledge and experience with their discipline.

    This is rubbish--teacher cert. programs are BA+ programs; you are required to complete the requirement for a BA in your subject area, and take additional courses in pedagogy, as well as observation/student teaching.

    Mr. Luzer, your link is to a report that summarizes its own findings as follows: "Research indicates that teacher preparation/knowledge of teaching and learning, subject matter knowledge, experience, and the combined set of qualifications measured by teacher licensure are all leading factors in teacher effectiveness." It does not single out "subject matter knowledge."

  • Anonymous on December 07, 2012 12:41 PM:

    That's why the line is "we have some idea that subject matter competence makes people more effective teachers" and not "research definitively proves subject matter competence matters more than anything else."