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.



Most Unions Hate Performance Pay

Major League Baseball’s players union has eagerly agreed to eliminate large bonuses for certain accomplishments:

Major League Baseball and the Players Association have come to an agreement that the 30 teams will no longer be able to offer personal service contracts or special milestone bonus clauses in future player contracts, MLB’s top labor official said on Friday.

The two sides decided to eliminate those negotiating chips in the wake of recent deals in which Albert Pujols signed with the Angels for 10 years at $240 million and Ryan Zimmerman extended his contract with the Nationals for six years at $100 million.


Manfred added that this has been an issue on the table between the parties for years. It pre-dated last year’s collective bargaining negotiations and violated a clause in the Basic Agreement that restricts bonuses based on statistical achievement. Pujols also had a marketing clause in his contract that would pay him $3 million if he reaches 3,000 hits and $7 million if he breaks Bonds’ home run record. Pujols went into action on Friday with 2,089 hits and 445 homers.

The union’s quick agreement to lower salaries initially seems odd — what’s not to like about additional large sums of money going to its players? But upon closer examination it becomes clear that the kind of bonus in Pujols’ contract rests at the top of a slippery slope. Halfway down the slope are contracts with tiny base salaries and large incentive bonuses, and at the bottom lie contracts with salaries based purely on performance. The players union wants nothing to do with these performance-based contracts because although a shift towards performance pay will ultimately lead to a more efficient distribution of the salary pool, it will make it easier to shrink that pool.

I point this out because it’s important to understand that teachers unions aren’t all that different from any other union. On one hand, this means that some of the “our kids depend on them” arguments that attempt to make a special class out of teachers are relatively weak when it comes to labor issues. On the the other hand, it means that there’s nothing inherently “evil” or selfish about teachers unions attempting to protect the salaries and interests of their members by opposing performance pay.