Should teachers take a bar exam?

Prof. Pettigrew says it’s worth considering


The idea of an exam for new teachers, similar to the bar exam for would-be lawyers, has been floated in the U.S. and we should consider it too.

As it stands now, teachers generally require only the requisite degrees in order to earn certification in their province. Shouldn’t that be enough?

No. There are simply too many ways to game the system—taking the easiest courses one can find, finding the easiest sections of mandatory courses, inventing dead relatives to get exemptions and extensions—everyone knows the tricks—though not everyone uses them. It would be nice to know which are which. Besides, there is a world of difference between the student who passes with fifties and the student who passes with nineties. And degree status itself doesn’t indicate that. Even among honours graduates there can be a large difference in abilities.

The potential benefits of such an exam are numerous.

First, it might help select out potentially bad teachers before they head down the education road. If prospective teachers knew they had to take a rigorous exam before they were licensed—an exam they might not pass—they might decide that there are better ways to earn a nice vacation and a good pension. And given the levels of stress reported in the teaching profession, in the long run, they might be glad that they did.

Second, it would help weed out under qualified or barely qualified education graduates who might otherwise find their way into schools through connections or misplaced perseverance. Or, along similar lines, it might encourage would-be teachers to work and study harder during their university years so as to be better prepared for their professional exam—and thus for their professional lives.

Third, it would help restore faith in our school system generally. There are plenty of great teachers out there, but they are working alongside too many colleagues who should never have been there in the first place or who should have quit years ago. If you’re a great teacher, don’t you want all your colleagues to be as good as you?

Indeed, though such an exam might be greeted with skepticism by the teaching profession at first, it could, in the long run, be a boon to them. For one thing, it would provide a powerful argument that teachers should be better paid. After all, if the bar is being raised, shouldn’t those who clear that bar reap the rewards? If they are meeting the same high standards, shouldn’t teachers be paid more like lawyers? Of course, that may not happen in the short term, but it would be a move in the right direction.

But is the bar exam the right model? Curious to see exactly what the bar exam entails, I checked out the guidelines in my own province. I was impressed. Candidates for the bar answer twelve questions, with forty-five minutes allotted for each answer. The questions are detailed and designed to reflect the kinds of analysis and judgements that lawyers will have to make when they are on the job. They require respondents to consider a number of factors in complex situations and then provide a detailed response as to how to best deal with that situation. The exams take place over two days and applicants must earn a 70 per cent to pass. And not everyone passes.

Of course, a teacher’s exam wouldn’t solve every problem with the public education system. But it would be a great place to start.

Exams like this already exist in many other countries. It’s time for us to test it out.


Should teachers take a bar exam?

  1. First off, please proofread. “Has been floated in the U.S.”? “Over over two years”?

    It’s funny how the purpose of education is against standards-based and standardized testing, and yet, here we are. How can anyone trust teachers when the system restricts them so heavily?

    Comprehensiveness of a test doesn’t guarantee that the teacher you hire would be a good teacher. Tests are tests: they’re good if you’re having a good day. And if not? What happens then? Is that teacher shunned to Teacher Hell for not feeling their greatest?

    And are teachers lawyers? Why should teachers think like lawyers? Lawyers are not open to multiple interpretations. They are trained to focus in on certain criteria to help their side win. Teachers can’t do that. We are supposed to help the child aspire to their goals. So a kid isn’t doing so well in science, but wants to be an astronaut. As a teacher, you shouldn’t say things like, “You will never amount to such a field. Be a businessman instead”. You help the kid how you can, and let them figure out how to adjust their aspirations.

    Teachers need to be flexible to ensure that each kid feels included and valued. Lawyers do the opposite: they shred the opponent on the stand. They are trained to be detached from the case. Teachers need to be attached (and most are) to their students to really understand them.

    Moreover, teachers need to accommodate to each kid every single day. Do lawyers do that? Do lawyers act as counsellors for their clients? The biggest difference between being a teacher and a lawyer is that a teacher needs to be able to see the entire picture, not just circling “key words” like in the test. In teaching, the key words change from hour to hour.

    The bar test is a ridiculous idea.

    What’s more even ridiculous is the argument about people taking easy courses. Should we have a bar exam for everything then? Let’s just invalidate all the degrees then, since anyone can take “easy sections”.

    If you really wanted to improve teaching and teacher quality, a test isn’t the way to go. Hire teachers who are passionate. Stick to the experience profile and interview system. And don’t ask stupid questions like “How do you feel you can contribute to the school?” Ask questions about real problems in that school. Moreover, get rid of the programs that don’t require student teaching.

    Student teaching is vital to teacher training. I’m in Concurrent Education, so I’m doing my B. A. concurrently with my B. Ed. Every week, I teach the whole day. I get feedback, and my next lesson is better than the first. Because I teach weekly, I have time to process the feedback to improve my lessons. This leads to better and better plans. At the end of the year, I have a 20-day block in which I teach for 20 consecutive days. I am required to create my own block plans, assignments, schedule field trips, guest speakers, etc. It’s like I’m the actual teacher.

    You have no idea how useful this experience is. Tests don’t see the experience. A real teacher knows that a test doesn’t account for any personal or background story. A test only sees what you know on the spot, by yourself. Teachers work together to tackle a problem, such as in case management, which is when teachers of the same grade (or grade division) get together to see how an at-risk child is doing. Do tests account for this type of accommodation?

    Bar tests are easy to quantify, so I can see the appeal there. But instead of being so short-term, we should look into long-term investments. How can we improve teacher-teaching? And I don’t mean just hiring the profs who have the most degrees. How can we hire people who are passionate about the field, and actually know how to teach?

    • Michelle, thanks for the heads up on “over over” — it has been corrected. Even after proofreading, typos sometimes slip through. Not sure what your concern is about “floated in the US,” though.

    • Michelle,

      As a lawyer who has written the bar exam, I frankly think you have no idea what a lawyer does. Much of the job of a lawyer is providing multiple interpretations. (For a good example: check out President Clinton’s claim before a Grand Jury that “it depends what the meaning of is is”.) You also will not get very far in your career as a litigator if you do not know what your opposing colleague is going to argue and know how to respond to it. (In other words, you must be able to interpret every argument as your opponent would.)

      Furthermore, yes, there are criteria in law, but if they do not work in favour of your client you need to be able to prove why in your case they do not apply. In other words, if all you can do is apply criteria, you will be a crappy lawyer.

      As a lawyer, if you are standoff-ish to your own client and don’t care about their well-being, you will likely find that your client has gone to find a different lawyer pretty quickly. Law is all about repeat business and developing relationships with others. Lawyers (or at least the ones I know – and I know many) are not machines.

      As for whether lawyers act as counselors, I suggest you lug out your dictionary. Counselor is a synonym for lawyer. If you’re wondering why, it’s because counseling is what we do – we provide advice.

      Furthermore, any lawyer who only sees the ‘key words’ in his or her case is, frankly, failing at being an attorney. Lawyers have to think on their feet – what you may think is the key fact that the case turns on may not be the same thing the judge thinks is the key fact. If you figure that out while you’re before the judge, you better be able to think on your feet, and fast.

      Now for Prof. Pettigrew’s point, while I admittedly have never studied education, I don’t think that some sort of comprehensive exam for teachers is a bad idea. It goes without saying that teachers should still be interviewed, but given that by all accounts a lot of very competent teachers seem to currently be having difficulty finding jobs, having another hurdle to cut out those who just aren’t up to scratch (for whatever reason) out of the running makes sense to me. Those who are passionate and competent will get through without issue. Incidentally, Michelle, I also agree with you that there should be work terms (or classes where you teach) as part of B.Ed. degrees but I do not think that they are necessarily enough to keep out the bad apples.

  2. I think the way the system is now does an effective job of weeding out those that really shouldn’t be teaching. As one of 400 of nearly 5000 applicants to get into Teacher’s College, I am one of only two people in my section of 35 students who has full time employment in Ontario. 5 years AFTER graduating. If you still want to be a teacher after learning those odds and you persevere then I imagine you know what you’re doing or are working hard to make it happen. It’s no guarantee but the idea that we got hired by “gaming the system” is ridiculous.

  3. Almost forgot. If we judge a teacher’s ability by having them complete a written exam then we’ve missed the point completely. Good teachers have skills that no written exam could ever judge. I know plenty of people who could study their brains out and pass a written exam and have no place teaching children.

  4. Many of the teachers who are newly graduated are passionate, excited and willing to do whatever it takes to teach, just as Jason states. He also points out one of the major flaws in our current system…too many people are being accepted into B.Ed. programs and the province is too quick to hand out certifications to people who study abroad.

    I know many people who couldn’t get into schools in Ontario because of low grades, or because they did not meet course requirements for their teachable(s). So, they go to universities in the U.S. or Australia and do the program there. When they come back, all they need to do is fill out a form and they are qualified to teach in Ontario…they STILL have low grades in their undergrad and they STILL do not meet the course requirements for their teachable(s).

    Yes, there needs to be more stringent requirements to become teachers, but there should also be more stringent requirements to REMAIN teaching. My daughter is in Grade 11, and in November, in all 4 of her classes for 3 days in a row, she watched movies…not even movies that related to the curriculum that is supposed to be taught. I’ve heard teachers complain (including while doing my placements for my B.Ed.) that they don’t have enough time to “teach” all the material that is required of them, yet they spend so much time on busy work and movies during class time.

    To summarize:
    1. Lower the number of people accepted in the B.Ed. programs in Ontario.
    2. Don’t allow so many people trained outside of Ontario to become certified to teach in Ontario.
    3. Require teachers who are currently employed to undergo “Re-certifications” every 5 years or so.

  5. There was a test in Ontario early on in the 2000s, and it didn’t work. A test doesn’t prove a teacher can teach. A test proves a teacher can study and learn themselves. A teacher doesn’t need to be able to give an answer off the top of their heads – a teacher needs to be able to show how to find the answers. I realize you are not saying a “test”, you are saying something equal to a bar exam, but like the other Michelle above pointed out, lawyers have an entirely different job than teachers.

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