Teaching: not just academics

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“Fewer teacher candidates pass basic skills test”

That headline topped Catalyst Chicago’s story on the impact of an Illinois State Board of Education decision to raise passing scores on the test that college students must take to earn admission to a school of education. The board’s move was part of a strategy to raise the rigor of teacher preparation in Illinois and, in turn, improve the quality of the teaching force.

In September, the first round of testing took place under the new standard—and pass rates plummeted to 22 percent overall. The racial disparity was even more shocking. Scores hit rock-bottom for African-American and Latino students, at 3 percent and 7 percent respectively.  The news stunned state officials, as well as community groups whose education agenda included bringing more minority teachers into schools.

Hours after we posted the story on our website—on a weekend, no less—the comments began to fly.

Some readers called the basic skills test a waste of time, with no proven correlation to teaching ability. Other readers wrote that aspiring teachers ought to be able to demonstrate mastery of high-school level reading, language arts and math. “If we, as teachers, want to be considered professionals, we need to show that we know our subject matter,” one reader wrote.

Since September, pass rates have barely risen. Students can re-take those sections of the test that they failed up to five times.

Frankly, it’s shocking to see such abysmal performance, among college students, on an 11th-grade level test. I took the practice version, available online, and found it to be a fair measure of basic academic content that any college student should have already.

It’s especially disturbing to see prospective black and Latino teachers score so poorly, since minority teachers are so scarce in the classroom. The racial gap is just one more sign of the disparity in school spending in Illinois. African-American and Latino students typically attend inferior, underfunded high schools and are still “catching up” once they get to college. They simply have not been prepared to pass an 11th-grade test.

Even so, the state board was right to raise the passing scores last year. Good test scores are not a direct indicator of future success as a teacher. But there is an indirect correlation, one pointed out by Deputy Editor Sarah Karp. “Don’t we want teachers to be role models?” asks Karp, whose three sons attend Chicago Public Schools.

Yes, we do. And as such, teachers must have a commitment to learning—for themselves as well as for their students.

There’s a lot of talk in education circles about getting “the best and brightest” college students to choose teaching as a career. A recent report that generated coverage in the education press explained how Singapore, Finland and South Korea use financial incentives and rigorous screening to recruit teachers from the ranks of top students.

Singapore offers paid tuition and a salary to prospective teachers who pledge to stay in schools for three to six years and offers three tracks for advancement to keep teachers in the field. In Finland, teachers must have a master’s degree, but the government pays for all graduate-level courses and gives teachers broad decision-making power in schools.

These countries are far smaller and less diverse than the U.S., but some of the practices might well attract more talented young people, especially minorities, into teaching—for instance, additional programs for loan forgiveness or paid tuition in exchange for working in urban schools.

But there are two dangers in focusing too much on recruiting smart students as teachers: One is the possibility of bypassing candidates who have the skill to connect with children and communities but less-than-stellar academic credentials. It’s harder to teach the former than the latter, and the ability to relate to students and parents is particularly critical for teachers in low-income urban schools. This issue of Catalyst In Depth reports on efforts by Illinois schools of education to teach this “cultural competence.”

The second danger is in turning a blind eye to larger policy issues. Research has shown that teachers are the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement. Yet, instruction and curriculum are only one of five essential supports for learning and school improvement, as the Consortium on Chicago School Research has noted. No matter how smart  and dedicated, teachers can’t do it alone.

At a November 2010 conference, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute noted that the economic recession has had a deep impact on the home lives of children and families. “Efforts to improve schools are undermined by the deteriorating conditions under which kids come to school,” Rothstein told the audience.

Here in Illinois, child poverty is on the rise and puts more children at risk of school failure, according to Voices for Illinois Children, which publishes an annual report on children’s well-being.

Education policymakers should take heed. Ignoring the realities of children’s lives, such as unemployed parents and inadequate health care, only perpetuates the inequity that impacts whether children can learn