A Bar Exam For Teachers Won’t Solve Anything

The AFT’s proposal to institute a bar exam for teachers is one of the more ironic developments to hit the ed reform world. To briefly recap some recent history, for many years whenever somebody called for reforms that would make it easier to fire teachers unions responded by saying the real problem was the supply of quality teachers. That is, getting rid of the bad teachers wouldn’t matter if we didn’t figure out how to get more high quality teaching candidates to replace them. It was perhaps the most potent, albeit indirect, response to criticism of teacher job security.

So what does this latest bar exam proposal accomplish? It reduces the number of bad teachers — by raising standards — while doing nothing to increases the supply of good teachers. Just like the proposals unions have long railed against! In fact, by making it harder to become a teacher the proposal might reduce the supply of good teachers; surely certain people who would have excelled at the job will be driven away by the new exam.

Obviously the AFT sees things differently. But why would they think making it harder for people to become a teacher will increase the supply of quality teachers? It appears this idea comes from a warped interpretation of how the law and medicine professions function:

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.

This would make sense if the medical profession was once filled with bumbling buffoons and only started to attract qualified people once strict credentialling was put into place. But that’s not what happened. The rigorous standards didn’t create quality candidates, they were put into place so that current professionals could restrict the supply of quality candidates who might drive down wages. The AFT’s causality is backwards. Quality candidates aren’t the result of high standards, high standards are the result of qualified candidates.

It’s great that unions are proposing policy innovations rather than defending the status quo, but it’s hard to change the composition of prospective teachers when you’re dedicated to preserving an “all teachers are equal” structure in the profession. As the folly of that model becomes increasingly clear, proposals built on preserving it will begin to look increasingly incoherent.


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