On Campus

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.