GRAVES: Teacher's bar exam might be good but don't bet on itUnder current conditions, the best people are not drawn into education but into other fields with higher levels of compensation.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
In 1910, the Carnegie Foundation released the Flexner Report — so named because it was authored by Abraham Flexner — on improving medical care and physician training in the United States. It called for, among other things, rigorous standards for the training of medical students and its adoption resulted in the closure of many really awful — one is tempted to say “so-called” — medical schools around the country. It is considered by many, in fact, to be the flash point which changed the medical vocation into the medical profession in America. Medical schools were held to stringent new standards, physicians required to pass a series of seemingly endless competency exams (“boards”), and a shared consensus was reached on just what a physician needed to know and be able to do in order to really be a member of the profession.
It had other consequences as well, of course. With such enhanced expectations of the individual physician, the number of people who could meet muster declined and the resulting shortage or reduced surplus caused physician compensation to rise significantly, some would say dramatically, though given the skills and years of training now required, higher compensation seemed reasonable to most.
The legal profession has undergone a similar metamorphosis, moving from one in which hopeful lawyers trained at the knee of veteran practitioners and “read the law” to one which now virtually requires years of law school and the successful passage of a bar exam in each state in which they wish to practice. The result has been the professionalization of the law and also increased compensation for attorneys, though not to the same extent as physicians probably because there is still a large surplus of attorneys, given the legal work to be done. (And, yes, I’ll spare everyone the various lawyer jokes that come to mind at this point. My brother is a lawyer and entirely humorless about such jests.)
Well, it may have taken education a really long time to notice the net effects of such professionalization, but the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teacher’s union/association, has finally seen the light and called for “boards,” or a bar exam, for teachers along with higher entrance requirements to education schools and a more challenging curriculum for prospective teachers.
Knock me over with a feather.
I genuinely never thought I would see the day. Throughout my career as an educational administrator, I have occasionally taught various college courses to upcoming teachers and/or administrators and this topic has often arisen, under the guise of certain questions, such as: How do we enhance the respect parents and the public feel for teachers? How can we make education a true profession? What will it take to boost compensation levels for teachers?
This frequently comes as a result of a gibe from a non-educator who is taking the course as an elective or in order to gain a certificate so they can teach at the post-secondary level, along the lines of “Well you know that education courses are much easier than those in (choose your field).” This leads the education students in the class to explain that as soon as pay goes up, education effectiveness will as well. And then the conundrum strikes. If it is true that education will become “better,” will become a profession when compensation increases, and educators can see that they won’t necessarily work harder or just be more effective if pay goes up (since they see themselves as working as hard and as effectively as possible now), then the almost inescapable conclusion is that driving up standards along the lines of what the AFT is describing means that more capable people on average will thereby be drawn into the profession. In other words, under current conditions, the best people are not drawn into education but into other fields with higher levels of compensation. And if that is the case, the AFT’s proposal would work, but not necessarily for at least some of the people in education today. It also means that the AFT would no longer be a part of the educational profession or even necessary since the legal and medical professions lack such unions/associations functioning as the AFT does.
There is another problem, of course, and that is the unlikelihood of society to tolerate a transformation as is being proposed by the AFT for education in any case. In the past, whenever a teacher shortage looms, the response of teacher associations as well as local and state government has been not to simply allow the compensation levels of teachers to rise, thereby eliminating the shortage, but instead to reduce the qualifying conditions for teachers. Thus, certification requirements have been diminished or individuals allowed to enter the profession without certification temporarily or permanently. This may be because schools, unlike the legal or medical professions (though less so in the latter case as Medicare and Medicaid, providing increasingly large proportions of insurance coverage, have set compensation levels for specific procedures), are mostly government functions. Thus, legislatures and departments of education can fiddle with certification requirements for teachers and administrators in ways really not possible in law or health care and they have demonstrated time and again their willingness to do so rather than allow the market to resolve the issue.
And this is a shame. I would welcome the sort of enhanced professionalization (notice I am not saying education is devoid of professionalism, just that it is not at the level it could be) that would come with the AFT’s proposal and am encouraged, even if only mildly so, that a teachers’ group has seen the value of doing so. In a more perfect world, this pronouncement could someday be called the AFT Report and be held in the same sort of regard as that of the Flexner Report.
But I doubt it.