By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Area educators say they see possible merit in a proposal to have all new school teachers pass a stringent exam before they can enter the teaching profession.
The proposal released this week by the American Federation of Teachers -- one of the nation's largest teachers unions -- calls for prospective teachers to pass a tough, new written test, much like the bar exam for lawyers.
The exam would be complimented by stricter entrance requirements for teacher training programs, such as a minimum grade point average.
"It's time to do away with a common rite of passage into the teaching profession, whereby newly minted teachers are tossed the keys to their classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they and their students sink or swim," AFT President Randi Weingarten said, calling that system unfair to students and teachers alike.
The AFT proposal -- released last week as part of a broader report on elevating the teaching profession -- calls for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to take the lead in developing a new test. The nonprofit group currently administers the National Board Certification program -- an advanced, voluntary teaching credential that goes beyond state standards.
There is no single, national standard for teacher certification, although the federal government does ask states to meet certain criteria to be eligible for federal funding.
Cal Lee, interim superintendent of the Quincy School District, said Illinois already requires teachers to pass a basic skills test for prospective teachers who also must have a minimum grade point average to continue on to graduation in their majors.
"lllinois has already made it tougher," he said. "They've made the basic skills test tougher."
Lee said he would be "OK with national standards" for teacher certification.
"However, the danger with something like that is sometimes you end up with a series of low hurdles so that everybody can make it," he added.
Lee said some states currently have lower or higher standards than others for teacher certification.
"If you have national standards, they tend to be more in the middle," he said. "I guess I'd rather go national for certain things."
He wouldn't say for certain if he would support a national test for teachers, because he hasn't seen a copy of any proposed test.
However, merely passing a test -- whether it's a state or national exam -- is no guarantee that a person will end up being a good teacher, Lee noted. That's where the interview process prior to hiring and the ongoing evaluation process afterward have always been essential to determining the quality of the local teaching staff.
"Basically you want to make sure that the candidate is qualified," Lee said. "In any interview, you ask specific questions specific to your district and specific to your goals. But after that, it's working with them, it's mentoring them, it's providing role models for them, it's certainly supporting them. It's like any other job that you interview for. You interview who you think is the best, who is the best fit, and then you support them. Nine times out of 10 you expect it to work out, and nine times out of 10 it does."
Lee said some people more than others have the "intangibles" needed to be a good teacher, and that's often something that develops in a teacher through experience.
"You don't learn that in the classroom," he said. "Those intangibles develop over time -- how to work with a kid, when to push, when to pull back, how to work with a parent."
According to a report this week by the Associated Press, the AFT's proposal to impose tougher requirements on its own members may signal a shift in tone for a profession facing heightened scrutiny. In recent years, unions such as AFT have resisted calls to end tenure and to tie teachers' evaluations to their students' test scores.
But by embracing more rigorous certification standards, the union hopes to raise the status of the teaching profession, which could reap future rewards when it comes to compensation and other benefits.
In its report, the AFT drew comparisons between teaching and other professions that require advanced professional training, such as medicine and law.
The AFT's proposal also calls for making entrance into teacher education programs more competitive. Candidates should be required to have a minimum 3.0 cumulative grade point average, the AFT said, in addition to formal interviews and 10 hours of field experience.
"If you impose that kind of restriction, that means you're signaling to society at large that not everybody can be a teacher. You're saying it's hard to get in. It's hard to be good," said Arthur McKee of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which supports the proposal.
Carol Frericks, superintendent of the Western School District in Pike County, was asked if she thought having a national test for prospective teachers would serve as barrier for those seeking to enter a field that's already being projected to have a shortage of qualified candidates in coming years.
"I don't see it as a barrier," she said. "I see it more as a challenge. And teacher preparation -- and the assessment that goes along with that pre-service preparation -- is going to be aligned to what it expected with the common core state standards."
The common core standards are being adopted by most states in the country, including Illinois, Missouri and Iowa. Frericks said it's her understanding that the AFT's testing proposal would dovetail with teacher-preparation efforts that will be taking place in colleges across the nation.
"I support the fact that universities are preparing teachers and giving teachers pre-service opportunities that align with common core state standards. And taking an assessment, which already exists in the state of Illinois, would support that as well," Frericks said. "I guess the difference is that instead of doing the Illinois state teaching certification test, we'd now be using a universal test. I think it would provide more alignment to what's actually being required that we teach in the schools."
Here is a link to download a copy of the AFT's report: www.aft.org/pdfs/highered/raisingthebar2012.pdf
The Associated Press contributed to this report.