From the Aspen Ideas Festival, interesting ideas on education

For a week before Independence Day every year, some of the most affluent and powerful people in the country come to listen to some of the most thoughtful and influential, in an event called the Aspen Ideas Festival. (Disclaimer: the NewSchools Summit, which I am responsible for, is organized in partnership with the Aspen Institute, which creates the Ideas Fest.) The event is notable not just for its carbon footprint (it may result in the greatest concentration of private jets on a small-town airfield in the country) and its astonishing profusion of thought-provoking panels and interviews, but also for the news that gets made there. This year, that news—at least in the world of education—was made by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who pitched the idea of a “bar exam” for teachers.

Weingarten aired the idea in a public interview (not up on video yet, as far as I can find) with Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson. It circulated on Twitter–first by your humble correspondent, then by the Atlantic, which wrote up a blog post about it, and finally by Weingarten herself, who tweeted this after the session:

Let’s do in teaching what we do in medicine & law-have a bar people need to surpass that shows readiness to enter profession. #aspenideas

Weingarten didn’t give detail about the idea out in this initial outing. Yet she spent the rest of the day, and much of the night, defending her left flank from critics who did not need to hear any explanation of the idea to attack it. Typical tweets:

“Bar exam”for teachers not helpful,let Schools of Ed.. decide <;;;;;most Ed Schls use experienced, retired tchrs to help w/ this”

“most lawyers say bar exam total waste of tome” [presumably meaning time, but maybe a Freudian typo?]

The notion of a quality bar to enter teaching couldn’t be more important, and having it advanced by the nation’s most influential union leader is intriguing. It’ll be interesting to see where this idea goes, but (and here I run the risk of acting like the critics I just criticized, passing judgment before the idea has been laid out fully) I do have one big question. Thus far, we’ve been pretty unsuccessful at figuring out which candidates would become effective teachers before they reached the classroom… as grades, SAT scores, and the like don’t offer much guidance. Will a paper-and-pencil (or, more likely, screen-and-keyboard) test do better? As I say, it’ll be interesting to see.

Among those interested was Felix Salmon, who tells me that he is, incredibly, the sole official blogger among the 300,000 employees of the world’s biggest information company, Thomson Reuters. Salmon penned (well, keyboarded, but that’s not much of a word) a 2,372-word opus on the education ideas at the Ideas Festival, called “Giving up Control of Education.” I liked Salmon and think he’s smart and, and while there’s plenty I’d disagree with in his post, it’s worth reading. I’m not convinced by his call for radical decentralization of schooling, nor by several of his steps along the path there, but his view of the potential of ed tech to provide data that can help us understand what’s effective in the classroom is thoughtful and important.

And the Aspen Ideas Fest isn’t even over. We’ll see what else comes out of the rarefied mountain air.

UPDATE: Andy Rotherham points out that Al Shanker put forward a proposal for a bar exam for beginning teachers in 1985, and smacks me around for suggesting there’s anything new here. My defense: I wasn’t as old as Andy then. And plus, I never saw anything about it on Twitter.

ANOTHER UPDATE: More about all this in a new post about teachers, technology, and a false divide on reform.

One comment

  1. [...] biggest education news to come out of the Festival was a different Weingarten announcement – a proposal for a “bar exam” for teachers to enter the profession. As Andy Rotherham notes, the idea dates [...]

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