Sunday, June 21, 2009

Is Quality Education a Lost Cause?

I love reading old stuff. Did some expert pundit's analysis and future projections come to pass or not. A quarter century ago, there were lots of articles wondering what we would do with all our future free time. The answer turned out to be---work even more. A quarter century ago, lots of articles wondered how America would solve its looming math and science teacher shortage. The answer turned out to be ---not much. Many universities are importing math and science professors from other countries because America is not producing its own. So it was interesting to reread an old article from Time entitled "Help! Teacher Can't Teach" dated Monday, Jun. 16, 1980, nearly thirty years ago. It could have been written yesterday.

Like some vast jury gradually and reluctantly arriving at a verdict, politicians, educators and especially millions of parents have come to believe that the U.S. public schools are in parlous trouble. ..Experts confirm that students today get at least 25% more As and Bs than they did 15 years ago, but know less.

Society holds the teachers responsible.

the new complaints about teachering also arise from a dismaying discovery: quite a few teachers (estimates range up to 20%) simply have not mastered the basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic that they are supposed to teach.

Even as criticism abounds, Time (and all of us) recognize that 20% does not equal 100%.

Of course, among the 2.2 million teachers in the nation's public schools are hundreds of thousands of skilled and dedicated people who, despite immense problems, manage to produce the miraculous blend of care and discipline, energy, learning and imagination that good teaching requires. ...The best-educated and most selfless teachers are highly critical and deeply concerned about the decline in teaching standards and educational procedures. Their frustration is perhaps the strongest warning signal of all.

Testing tends to be the first line of defense. Many states began mandating teacher competency tests, only to find that far too many practicing teachers were unable to pass these tests. Lest one should think that teacher competency tests were perhaps too hard, most required math typically taught between the eighth and tenth grades, and English at corresponding levels. Any teacher, presumably all college graduates, should be able to pass easily. But they do not.

I was astonished to be the first one done with the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST). I put that test away in less than two hours. It was supposed to be a four-hour test. I once took the National Teachers Examination (NTE) in early childhood education cold, no study, review or preparation of any kind. I had been a secondary teacher for many years. I scored at the 86th percentile. I was not happy. My score was too good for someone like me who had taken a test outside of my field. According to the normative data on my score report, the vast majority of test takers were graduates of early childhood education programs. I did better than 86% of them. Not good.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan's support of merit pay for teachers, though framed as a way to pay teachers more, is really just a disguised way of saying if teachers taught better, our schools would be better and maybe more money would motivate teachers to teach better. One of the problems of merit pay is the unstated assumption that teachers are not already doing their best.

Okay, let's face the issue of teacher quality head on.

1.Teaching credentials are no assurance of teacher quality.
2.Schools do not hire the best qualified candidates, but the cheapest.
3.School of education attract students of lower academic ability than other academic departments.
4.Graduates of colleges of education must often take basic teacher competency tests many times before they pass.
5.Math teachers often do not possess a profound understanding of fundamental mathematics.

Some schools, like The Equity Project charter school in New York*, is determined to acquire high-quality teachers. They are offering $125,000 per year and the application process is a grueling four-step process. The charter school has created such a grueling process because the usual documentation, university degree with or without a state teaching credential, is worthless.

It did not used to be like this.

In 1900, when only 6% of U.S. children graduated from high school, secondary school teachers were looked up to as scholars of considerable learning.

Things were going swimmingly as high schools graduation rates steadily improved to a high of 70% by the 1960's. Sputnik was a huge surprise in 1957.

Almost overnight, it was perceived that American training was not competitive with that of the U.S.S.R. Public criticism and government funds began to converge on U.S. schools. By 1964, achievement scores in math and reading had risen to an alltime high.

Let's repeat that: Public criticism and government funds began to converge on US schools. Though only a child, I remember that time well. Society did not simply complain and moan; society demanded action and the government responded. The result, which directly benefited me, was that by 1964 achievement scores in math and reading had risen to an alltime high. Only genuine achievement would do because society had a stake in knowing accurately if education was working. There was no interest in the statistical juggling so common now. Want SAT score improvement? In 1995, the College Board simply added 100 points** to everyone's score.

Over the last thirty years, there has been plenty of societal moaning and complaining, but no demand, no collective will. So society had the education system it wants. What did now Research Professor of Education at New York University Diane Ravitch say thirty years ago?

Diane Ravitch: "It is really putting things backward to say that if children feel good about themselves, then they will achieve. Instead, if children are learning and achieving, then they feel good about themselves."

Colleges of education are still teaching a backwards concept of self-esteem.

Although the motivation was not the noblest, beat the Soviets to the moon, my generation was the last beneficiary of America's once legendary education system.

Ever since the mid-1960s, the average achievement of high school graduates has gone steadily downhill.


Many teachers have come to see themselves as casualties in a losing battle for learning and order in an indulgent age. Society does not support them, though it expects them to compensate in the classroom for racial prejudice, economic inequality and parental indifference.

In 1957 it was Sputnik. What will it take today for society to set aside complacency, ideological wrangling, or perpetuation of social status quo?

*The Equity Project's 4-stage application process

**The purpose of recalibrating scores was to realign the scores to the population so that a score of 500 would once again be average. According to the New York Times article,
The average verbal score today is 424; the average math score, 478.
So the College Board officials have decided to "recenter" the scale, changing it so the average student will once again get scores of 500 on the verbal and math tests...
In 1941, when the current norms were established for scoring the S.A.T., the world was a very different place. A small group of middle- and upper-class Americans attended college...

As colleges diversified in the 1960's, opening their doors to more poor and first-generation Americans, S.A.T. scores began a steady drop. By 1969, the average verbal score was 462; today, it is 424.

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