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In the 1992 military-justice drama A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise got into a heated dialogue with costar Demi Moore about a point of law, sarcastically asking if she was “absent the day they taught law at law school.” Given the pathetic test scores of America’s schoolchildren, many are wondering if a similar question might be raised about those hired to teach the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Due to the public outcry over low test scores, teachers in a growing number of states are being required to take basic-skills examinations in their course curricula and, much to the surprise of no one but those in the teaching profession, they are failing these tests in alarming numbers.

In a nation that collects data on everything else, however, there are no national data to identify the extent of the problem. But there have been sporadic state and local news accounts that suggest it is both severe and alarming. So, based on the small amount of information made available, just how bad are teachers in the public schools?

According to a September 2001 Chicago Sun-Times series that reviewed test scores for elementary, junior/middle and high-school teachers in Illinois, 67,118 teachers were tested between July 1988 and April 2001 and 5,243 failed at least one test while 1,308 failed three or more. On basic-skills tests alone, 66,769 teachers were tested during the same period and 2,132 failed at least one test, 414 failed three or more tests and 868 failed to pass any basic-skills test.

In June of this year, the Lawrence, Mass., school district put 21 teachers on unpaid leave because they could not test well enough in English to be understood in that language in a classroom. Of 92 teachers tested in Lawrence for English fluency, 31 failed and, given a second opportunity, only four passed.

According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, or NCPA, 35 states use a test called Praxis I to certify that graduates have sufficient general knowledge, professional skills and subject knowledge to teach in a public-school classroom. In 1998, Virginia’s then-governor, conservative Republican James Gilmore, reported that as many as one-third of would-be teachers in his state flunked the test. Virginia has the country’s highest cutoff score for Praxis I, and experts say scarcely one-half of the prospective teachers nationwide who took the test would have made the Virginia cut.

According to a report commissioned by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future:

  • Fewer than one-half of the nation’s 1,200 teachers colleges meet professional standards of accreditation.

  • In recent years, more than 50,000 teachers who lack training for their jobs have entered teaching annually on emergency or substandard certification.

  • More than 40 states allow school districts to hire teachers who have not met basic education requirements, and more than 12 percent of new teachers nationwide begin with no training at all.

  • When Pennsylvania evaluated its teacher testing, it discovered that teachers could qualify for positions in hard-to-fill subject areas just by signing their names.

  • In Hawaii, one-half of new hires failed either to complete or pass certification exams.

  • In Long Island, N.Y., a superintendent who decided to give teaching applicants an English test normally given to 11th-graders discovered that only one in four could pass.

  • Among the 21 states using the Praxis I math test to screen teachers, most set cutoff scores so low that applicants could miss 40 percent of questions and still pass.

Given this data, it is little wonder the testing of teachers is one of the hottest issues facing educators. What is astonishing is that the vast majority of professional educators and school administrators interviewed for this article did not believe that failing the basic tests should be sufficient to disqualify a teacher from remaining on the job. In other words, the general mind-set is that just because a teacher doesn’t know the material he or she is responsible for passing on to students, that teacher shouldn’t be excluded from teaching that material.

Sol Stern is the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice. Also a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and a contributing editor of the institute’s City Journal, he tells Insight that “generally I fall on the side of less licensing requirements. I think you have to possess minimal skills, but I tend to go toward the system used in private schools.”

How is public teaching different from private?

“Well, for example, if you were in New York,” Stern explains, “and had to pick out the 20,000 most-sophisticated education consumers, you’d probably say it is the parents who send their kids to the elite private schools where they’re paying $23,000 a year in tuition for elementary school. These are clearly people who want to get their money’s worth, but what you find in these schools is not only don’t teachers have state licenses but you can count on one hand the number of teachers who have even taken graduate courses in education.”

Stern continues, “So the question is, what is it that they do in these schools, whose teachers don’t have the graduate courses, etc., that produce better results? The point is that they use a system of close scrutiny of the knowledge the teacher brings to the subject – what they’ve studied, their academic performance and what they’re like in a classroom – so they can weed out the teachers who can’t make the grade. No one will tell you that having a license guarantees an effective or even adequate teacher. I’m on the side of less licensing and also giving principals and districts the right to devise their own way of assessing teacher competence. We’d save a tremendous amount of money.”

How then do you evaluate administrators?

“It doesn’t bother me that a principal fails a test. I’d first want to know what his record is as a principal. You know, does he run a decent school? Look at it this way: What if all the newspapers were required by state law to hire only licensed journalists who had been to graduate schools of journalism? Do you think it would improve the quality of journalism? I think, for sure, there should be some basic tests for teachers concerning liberal arts – some minimal understanding of basic curriculum – and that they know at least in what century the Civil War was fought, but beyond that we should allow the schools to make those decisions and then hold principals and districts accountable for the results. I just don’t think there should be any other iron rule. There are many things to look at before you can determine who is doing a good job and who is not,” said Stern.

Tim Dedman, a senior policy analyst with the National Education Association Teacher Quality Department, the nation’s leading teachers union, tells Insight that “testing of teachers is something that should occur throughout the teacher-preparation phase of teaching. We have resolutions that speak to teacher preparation, content, competency and lifelong learning, and we believe that’s the most appropriate phase of testing teachers. As far as testing teachers in service – those who have begun their practice – we believe in very strong and jointly developed evaluation systems to promote ongoing career growth.”

Just what does that mean? According to Dedman, “In terms of requiring a teacher test for individuals who are already practicing, we do not support that. It would be the equivalent of requiring a lawyer losing a certain number of cases to go back and take the bar exam again. We believe the testing should be based on the content and teaching skills required and determined by the various states as an initial licensure piece.”

Lisa Graham Keegan, a former state education superintendent in Arizona and currently the chief executive officer of the Education Leaders Council, a nonprofit organization that advocates for fundamental reforms in education, believes that teachers at every level should be tested.

“It is absolutely essential that a classroom teacher know the subject matter and know effective teaching,” Keegan told Insight. “One of the things you have to know about effective teaching is the only way to know if you are effective is to test the students. You don’t know if you’re an effective teacher by asking if the kids like you. Kids will like you for all sorts of reasons. You could be charming, the children could be charming, but teaching isn’t about whether a student likes you. It is about whether they are acquiring the capacity to move on to the next level right on through the system. This whole argument that classroom teachers should not be tested is just a touchy-feely hangover and we’ve got to get beyond it.”

As Keegan sees it, “The teaching profession needs to establish its bona fides here in terms of intention. It’s not okay to be running schools and be illiterate in English if the people you are supervising have to be literate in English. The fact that it takes a law or regulation for us to respond to this is really marginally unethical. If a teacher doesn’t know math, and has been hired to teach math, they shouldn’t be in the classroom pretending to teach it. This would be equivalent to working in a hospital where there’s an opening for an anesthesiologist and they hire you to bore the patients to sleep because they’ve got to fill the space. You really don’t know anything about anesthesiology, but you’ve seen the tubes and, gosh, the nurses love you and it seems it might work. Everyone would totally reject that idea in any other profession and it should be rejected in the teaching profession.”

The former Arizona state education superintendent insists, “That is not the kind of profession we’re trying to grow. Ethically we ought to be lobbying for more-competent teachers because incompetence reflects poorly on our profession. And it certainly hurts the kids to have teachers teach math who can’t do the math.”

“This is not rocket science,” Keegan continues. “The tests that teachers are being asked to take are not just basic, they’re painfully basic. One of the issues that comes up is the claim that the content of the tests is too rigorous, but it is only what we expect the children to know at the end of their journey with us. On top of that the state sets its own cutoff score, usually way below the 80 percent limit. The fact that teachers are not passing these basic tests is outrageous.”

In Keegan’s opinion, “The NEA is appalling on this matter. They say it is demeaning to give teachers these examinations; that it suggests they aren’t professional. Well, it’s only demeaning when they fail them, proving they aren’t professionals, and then it is only demeaning to the teachers. The victims are the students they’re hired to teach. Look at it this way: Should a doctor have to know anatomy?”

While the debate rages about whether teachers should be tested, the Department of Education reports that worldwide the United States ranks 19th out of 21 in math scores and 16th out of 21 in science. Nationally, 7 percent of fourth-graders and 69 percent of eighth-graders are below proficient in math and reading.

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Kelly Patricia O’Meara is an investigative reporter for Insight.

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