Column #5, posted 5/18/99

And Now Let's Test the Teachers!

Those of us who care about education should be pretty excited when the Vice President says, in his campaign for President of the United States, that "education is our number one priority for investing in the future." I wonder why I am less than thrilled. According to the New York Times, Gore's current focus is on teachers. He wants to "create a teachers' corps", "have rigorous tests for new teachers" and "elevate the teaching profession." So, now the problem is teachers. But, I notice that he manages to say this in a way that might not offend teachers. Well sorry, it offended me.

It is easy to assert that if we tested teachers, and paid them more, then things would improve in schools. This is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist, however. The assumption here is that the schools are failing because the teachers aren't any good. So, the argument goes, if we lure better quality people into the profession, pay them more, and make sure they are good, then the schools will improve. Sorry Al, it doesn't work like that. You think there aren't high quality teachers in the schools now who feel they are paid enough and who love to teach and who get high marks from everyone as dedicated and knowledgeable teachers? There are thousands of them. And you know what happens to those great teachers? They are made miserable by the system that includes -- are you ready Al? -- all those improvements you keep making.

You see Al, every time you call for higher standards and more testing for students you make life unbearable for teachers. All those Harvard graduates that you hope to lure into the teaching profession last a year or two and then they can't stand it anymore. And the reason isn't discipline or violence in the schools, although those problems certainly don't help. The reason is standards.

Here is your idea in a nutshell, Al -- let's get the best people we can find and make them teachers. Then we will make these teachers into robots who have no say about what to teach or how to teach it because you have created a system that allows no innovation on the part of teachers. Never mind that a teacher may realize that a given student will never have any need for what is mandated in the curriculum. You have created a system whereby students are tested so often about so many meaningless facts that you have made them memorize that any intelligent teacher is frustrated beyond belief.

And, while we are at it Al, how were you going to find those great teachers? By using multiple choice tests? Well, isn't that clever? Has it crossed your mind that doing well on multiple choice tests actually may not be an indicator of teaching ability, of compassion, of being interested in children, or even of knowledge of a given subject matter? All it really indicates is an ability to do well on multiple choice tests. And since that is what you want from students as well, there may well be a method in your madness. A nation of great test takers can only be created by teachers who were themselves great test takers. The innovation and creativity in this country that you are so proud of and so afraid of losing was not done by great test takers, but by great thinkers. These are not the same qualities, Al.

With respect to the hard problems in life there aren't right answers, there are actually many possible answers. (Should we bomb Kosovo? What do we do about gun control? You can't make multiple choice answers out of these questions, Al.) A great teacher is one who elicits all possible answers, discusses them, teaches students how to find a solution and how to question what they have found. A great teacher knows that she may not know the answer, but she is okay with that because she realizes that it is not the answers that matter, only the questions. But, a teacher who is paid by the answer, who is checked up on and criticized (and maybe even fired) because her students are not doing well on standardized tests, does not allow students to wonder and discover. She needs students to memorize memorize memorize, and then practice taking multiple choice tests.

No, Al you don't want a great educational system. What you want is a system that produces great test results so that you and all your friends can pat yourselves on the back about how you raised test scores. Eliminate the concept of right answer from the schools and you will begin to teach students how to think. We need thinkers, Al, not test takers.

I get a lot of letters from teachers in response to my Outrage column. Maybe you should talk to an actual teacher some day, Al. Here is what one had to say to me recently:

It is that time of year again where I am having to test my students to show the people in charge of all the money how my kids are reading and doing math. I have nothing against testing a child to see if they have learned something worthwhile. However, we have administered three different types of tests for reading and not just at one time of year, but at the beginning, middle and end of the year. One of them would be sufficient and I would not mind it, except that the other one is redundant and someone did not have the sense to see that ahead of time or doesn't care.

I am so burned out this year. I have never felt like a failure of a teacher before. There are always times when I feel like I could have done a better job of teaching a particular concept or lesson to my students. But at this point, I feel like I have let my kids down in a big way. Everybody wants their piece of the pie. I cannot possibly teach every skill in every subject to a group of young children whose
most important need is not to recognize a preposition, but to just simply learn to be a confident, strong reader who comprehends the written word and can express himself intelligently. I am cramming so much down my kids throats, and every year "THEY" add more to our curriculum requirements!

The number of skills (and sophisticated ones at that) that each child is supposed to be taught by the end of second grade is outrageous. They have us trying to do SO many different things that MANY of the kids don't learn ANY of them WELL!

Let me tell you about a couple of kids I have this year: This little girl and boy both started out the year nearly tripping over their own feet, had horribly sloppy control over their writing and have never been that good at "making the grade". However, they are the "different" thinkers out of all of the kids. They take more chances at discussions and give answers (no matter how off the wall) while some of the others sit around like a bump on a log. We went on a field trip to a camp one day to be "Indians". My husband and his coworkers who put on the trek in the woods (in full Indian regalia) for us were very impressed with these two children. They were so into it. They were the only ones who kept asking questions and offering answers throughout the whole time. Anyway, my point about these two kids is that even though they may not "get it" on paper, they "get" the deeper concepts that the rest of my students don't.

--an e-mail from a teacher from Tyler, Texas, May 1999

It is not the teachers who need fixing, Al.

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