Some groups are making teachers into scapegoats to justify opposition to unions, taxes, or facing problems in low income neighborhood schools. In a 20014 speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan claimed that academically, our teachers were in the bottom third of their college class. He argues that new teachers are underprepared, and low-income students get short changed. Somehow better qualified teachers would improve our ranking on international tests.
A New York Times article by Daniel Willingham Teachers Aren’t Dumb takes a different view and gives facts to back it up.
Professor Willingham argues that even though students who intend to become teachers may have lower scores than those who plan other careers the gap goes away. College graduates who actually enter teaching, however, have the same average SAT score as those in other fields. Teachers have what it takes to succeed, but not always the background knowledge and experience they need. Teacher education programs tend not to train students in underlying structure of reading and math skills. In order to effectively teach reading, he argues, teachers must know syntax, morphology, and phonology. (Do you?). Not surprisingly, teachers are not as well prepared in mathematics as those in other countries.
The solution is to evaluate teachers on what they know and can do. Test them. Using student scores to evaluate teachers does not improve teaching. Most states have teacher certification tests. Florida has a subject area test for just about everything a teacher might encounter. There are also four general area knowledge tests and a professional education examination. If you are curious, you can see a summary of the topics included and the passing rates.
I used to know the Florida certification tests well. My office ran the program for twenty years under contract to the Florida Department of Education. I remember the need to identify different instructional strategies. There was some educational theory, and teachers needed to know alternative assessment approaches. (I also remember when a senator’s wife failed the math test.) There was a lot of factual information and less critical thinking and problem solving. Do you suppose that we need common core standards for teachers? Willingham argues that standards based on research would lead to more knowledgeable teachers. I shudder to think about another upheaval–and yet, a close look at what is required on teacher certification exams may be worth the effort. At least, it would be an alternative to Value Added Scores that are blatantly invalid.
If this review of teacher certification standards becomes a national movement, let’s hope that real educators are in charge.