Testy Times For Teachers

It's not a good sign when comedian Jay Leno includes Massachusetts teacher hopefuls in his late-night opening shots.

Mr. Leno was joking about exacting revenge on his schoolteachers by paying a visit and suggesting they "just apply themselves" a bit more.

The reason? Last week, the Massachusetts commissioner of education announced that 44 percent of candidates failed an eight-hour, two-part test that gauged both literacy and grasp of subject area. Close to 60 percent would have been rejected but for a last-minute lowering of the bar.

In the blink of an eye, the announcement snapped a freeze-frame of everything that troubles American education - and how much lies ahead for reform.

The candidates were all college graduates; many majored in education. Frank Haydu, state education commissioner, said a strong 10th-grader should have been able to pass the literacy part of the test and noted that many of these college grads couldn't construct grammatical sentences.

So why on earth would they want to be teachers? That's problem No. 1. Teachers have made progress in raising salaries and status. The National Education Association, already America's largest union, will vote this weekend whether to become even more influential by merging with the American Federation of Teachers. Yet public school teaching is still, ironically, often viewed as an option for the academically weak or undirected.

Problem No. 2 is the low status of many education schools, where academic training can be trumped by large doses of educational theory. Then there's the issue of K-12 classes that graduate students who can't write or calculate well, or digest a subject area.

Some observers argue that tests are a poor gauge of teacher ability, and they may have a point. But as Harvard University education professor Dennie Palmer Wolf points out, states can establish multiple standards including, for example, portfolios of a candidate's work. Once hired, teachers can be monitored more closely. States can also refuse to lower the performance bar (since no one is proposing this for students) and send a clear message that this is not a low-performance system.

Many teachers do excellent work, and these test results don't help their reputations any. But if they prompt a larger effort to raise what Dr. Wolf calls "psychological income" - reward structures, autonomy, high expectations, and constructive interchanges with parents - then maybe they will help schools attract and hold the candidates they want.

* Write to Learning Editor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115 or e-mail newcomba@csps.com.

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