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Teacher exams: an overdue reform

Let’s applaud the best education reform policy proposed this year: A test — similar to a bar exam — for teachers.

This suggestion is fundamental, necessary and overdue. One other word comes to mind to describe my answer to education policy observers who are asking whether we should hold teachers to rigorous national standards: Duh.

The exam idea was proposed by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who, in her introduction to the AFT’s “Raising the Bar” report, laid out the thinking behind what amounts to a seismic disturbance in the world of teacher preparation: “We must do away with a common rite of passage, 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.”

I’ll take that a step further and say that it’s also high time to do away with the common practice of letting teachers tackle subject areas in which they possess little formal scholarship. A meticulous weed-out system and an overall culture of excellence that trickles down to the individual school level could help address this.

In 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics released a report — “Education and Certification Qualifications of Departmentalized Public High School-Level Teachers of Core Subjects” — which broke down the types of teachers in classrooms based on a 2007-08 schools and staffing survey.

In general, a majority of teachers of the 11 broad subject fields such as languages, science and math held both a postsecondary degree and certification in their main teaching assignments. But what's surprising is just how many don’t. For instance, 25 percent of English teachers, 34 percent of math teachers and 25 percent of science teachers were not considered highly qualified. What’s worse is how many underqualified teachers are concentrated in schools that serve overwhelmingly minority student bodies.

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