Columns
April 24, 2017
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California Focus

Thomas D. Elias
Teacher qualification, not evaluations, may be education answer
April 20, 2017

Few questions about public education have been disputed more hotly over the last few years than evaluations – in a day when almost everyone agrees public schools need major improvement, how to tell which teachers are good, which are the best and which don’t deserve to be kept around.

For some, the answer is in “value added” ratings: How much do children improve or decline in standardized testing while under the tutelage of one teacher compared to what they do under another?

 But America’s second-largest teachers union might have a better idea: make sure teachers are well qualified even before they’re hired. True, that’s what teacher credentialing is supposed to do, but no one pretends any more that a credential assures any teacher has mastery over the subjects he or she might teach.

As a rule, teachers and their unions don’t like the value-added idea. It  puts all the onus on them and none on pupils or their parents, where many analysts believe most education problems originate and are perpetuated.

But a few local unions have broken down and allowed test scores to be used as part of teacher evaluation. In 2015, California’s largest school district (Los Angeles Unified) and its teachers union tentatively agreed to this sort of arrangement. That agreement eventually could see state test scores, high school exit exam results, rates of attendance, graduation and suspensions all factored into teacher evaluations. The weight given to each of these factors and classroom observation is not yet agreed upon.

Into this dispute comes the American Federation of Teachers, the No. 2 education union behind the National Education Assn. (The California Teachers Assn. is part of the NEA.)

The AFT notes that school districts for a time raised the bar for students by using the high school exit exam and other standardized tests to make sure diplomas have real meaning. On hiatus now in California, that exam may or may not come back. But the union notes there are no similarly widespread means to test whether new teachers are qualified to take over classrooms.

It commissioned a survey of 500 new public school teachers and found fully one-third felt unprepared on their first day. Those hired to teach special needs students or working in low-performing schools were most likely to feel unprepared and overwhelmed.

The union suggests improving this via a national entry assessment “that is universal across the county, rigorous and multidimensional.” AFT president Randi Weingarten compared it to the bar exam taken by nascent lawyers.

“The components must include subject and pedagogical (teaching techniques) knowledge and demonstration of teaching performance – in other words, the ingredients of a caring, competent and confident new teacher,” said an AFT report. 

In response, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which evaluates what teachers should know, agreed to start designing entry assessment standards for the profession, which would include a full year of successful student teaching under a classroom veteran.

By doing all this, the AFT is not out to put more pressure on young teachers. Rather, the idea is that when school districts, parents, politicians and the public know everyone at the head of a classroom is qualified, pressure will mount on parents and students to do their share, because it will no longer be so easy to accuse teachers of incompetence.

The AFT also wants new standards for teachers to help de-emphasize what it calls “a national fixation on excessive testing,” which often sees instructors teaching to specific tests, rather than striving for a rounded education for pupils. That’s natural when teachers are evaluated on test scores more than anything else.

“Public education should be obsessed with high-quality teaching and learning, not high-stakes testing,” Weingarten said. “Tests have a role, but the fixation with them undermines (giving) kids a universal education and keeps us from fairly measuring teachers’ performance.”

In short, give kids the best-prepared teachers possible, rather than losing unprepared newbies into classrooms with insufficient guidance or preparation.

Then it would be up to parents and students themselves, as they’d no longer be able to scapegoat teachers when kids do poorly.

If this seems to represent a pendulum swing away from today’s overemphasis on tests, that’s probably a good thing, so long as standardized exams aren’t completely abandoned.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net