Sunday, March 13, 2016

Teacher Accreditation: A Game of Trivial Pursuit?

One day last week, I was tutoring three college juniors who aspire to be English teachers. In order to be allowed to student teach, these students were required to pass the English Language Arts Content Test (formerly the Praxis) developed by ETS. Using a practice test provided by ETS, I was guiding the students through some multiple choice questions, when this question appeared:

If you were to go merely by the quantity of his imitators, you could argue that Dashiell Hammett was a more important writer than James Joyce. He gave his imitators more than an attitude; he gave them a cast of characters, a resilient plot, a setting, a repertory of images, a style, a keyhole view of society, an ethos, and, above all, a hero. Sam Spade is an old American type brought up to date, Hawkeye become private eye with fedora and street smarts instead of leather stockings and wood lore, his turf the last frontier of San Francisco.

Question: In the last sentence, the comparison of Sam Spade to Hawkeye alludes to novels by

Before they answered the question, I decided to activate some background knowledge. I asked the students to name important novels by each of the authors. For Conrad, one student quickly mentioned Heart of Darkness, another chipped in with Lord Jim. Everyone knew that Hawthorne wrote, The Scarlet Letter and also were able to name The Last of the Mohicans by Cooper. But when I asked, "How about Melville?" .... crickets. No response.

I admit I was a bit taken aback. Aspiring English teachers who could not identify Melville as the author of Moby Dick? Shocking. But this is not a blog entry on the failure of our educational system to teach kids the classics of the canon. Nor is it a diatribe about the failure of colleges of education to prepare young people to teach. Instead my focus is on the absurdity of turning the assessment of preparation for teaching into a glorified game of Jeopardy!

This standardized test and others like it for other disciplines are required for licensure in most states. Many colleges require passing the test prior to student teaching, so they can be sure the students are qualified for employment immediately after they graduate. Like all standardized tests, these tests disadvantage second language learners, minority students and students who traditionally struggle with standardized tests. They also tell us almost nothing about what kind of a teacher these aspiring educators will be.

Wilson and Robinson (2012) found "negligible correlations" between standardized test performance and teacher quality. MIT economists, Angrista and Gurynab (2007) warned that a standardized test driven licensure system would limit the number of qualified Hispanic teachers. And Goldhaber (2006) found that basing teacher certification on standardized tests was a Faustian bargain that would lead to talented teachers that schools would want to hire being denied a license, while poor teaching candidates would get licenses due to item knowledge rather than teaching ability. 

It should be clear to anyone that teaching is a complex profession that requires content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, knowledge of child development and motivation, classroom management skills, the ability to differentiate instruction and a wide variety of social and emotional skills including empathy, self-control, perseverance and what Jacob Kounin has called "withitness." No standardized test could possibly come close to measuring all these traits and no standardized test should stand as a gatekeeper blocking the door for candidates who may potentially be very good teachers. 

In our current educational culture we are attempting to use standardized tests in place of trust. We do not trust that our schools are teaching well. We do not trust that our institutions of higher learning are preparing teachers well. In an atmosphere of trust, it would fall to the various colleges of education to prepare and assess teaching candidates and sign off  on these candidates as prepared to be high performing teachers. Certainly. we should expect schools to live up to that trust, but the only way to make sure that they are is to watch their graduates teach and assess the teachers' performance over time. Trust does not fit into the current education reform narrative. Trust also costs money, because any documentation of the trust would be time consuming and labor intensive. So, in the absence of trust we hit the default button and come up with the standardized test.

Here is another question from the ETS practice test:

The Secret Life of Bees was written by which of the following authors?
            A. Margaret Mitchell
            B. Sue Monk Kidd
            C. Bailey White
            D. Alice Walker
I'll take Contemporary Female American Authors for $400, Alex. Can we seriously consider questions like this to be a worthy standards for screening prospective English teachers?
So what of our young aspiring English teachers who can't match Melville to Moby? They may become very good teachers (if they can pass the test). I don't know right now, but I do know their lack of this bit of item knowledge won't be a determining factor. When I began writing this blog entry, I did not know the name of the educational theorist who came up with the term "withitness." A ten second search on Google gave me the answer (Kounin). For a teacher, knowing stuff is important, but knowing how to find out stuff and how to communicate that stuff to children is more important.  

Do I think that prospective English teachers should know what Herman Melville wrote? You bet your Billy Budd I do. I just don't believe that knowing or not knowing this bit of trivia says much about the teachers they may become.