Commentary: Arkansas Test Typifies 'Quick-Fix' Theory of School Reform
The attempt by Gov. Bill Clinton to improve academic standards in Arkansas by giving a basic-skills test to certified teachers typifies most of the myths the public associates with teaching. The passage and implementation of the Governor's plan also demonstrate the tendency of voters to be satisfied with empty gestures instead of solutions, a tendency that is especially unfortunate at a time when we need effective responses to the problems in teacher education.
One myth at the heart of the current reform movement--in Arkansas and across the nation--is that academic standards have somehow declined behind the backs of the public. An educational system, however, simply reflects the mentality of the public it serves. The long-time American disdain for subjects that do not have immediate career utility has given us a system in which traditional reading and language instruction have been devalued. It is only because the analytical-thinking skills developed by the old methods and materials have become an economic commodity that government and business are now involved in "raising standards."
Another myth is that politicians had to step in only because teachers refused to police their own profession. Governor Clinton has made this point repeatedly. Such reasoning ignores the fact that the teaching profession in Arkansas is controlled by the state. The state sets course requirements for teacher training, certifies teachers, and employs them. Teachers have as much to say about the direction of their profession as sanitation workers have in determining their own routes.
Strangest of all is the myth that it was necessary to test all teachers to find the few who were thought to lack basic skills. The prevailing logic here was that a statewide test was needed because local school districts were powerless to remove incompetent teachers on their own. Not so. Arkansas has no tenure law; the only people who get a contract for more than one year are superintendents and some principals. Arkansas has no all-powerful union that can keep bad teachers on the job when their employers wish to fire them. Until this year, there was no American Federation of Teachers here. Even the long-established Arkansas Education Association does not have chapters in every district. Many superintendents openly warn their teachers that membership in the aea will not be tolerated. Arkansas districts may be unwilling to fire incompetent teachers, but they are not unable to.
Genuine reform cannot be accomplished by token legislation designed to give the public a false sense that something is being done. The Arkansas basic-skills test is a good example of such legislation. The law requires all certified teachers to take and pass a basic-skills test by 1987 or lose certification. In addition, all certified teachers must either pass their subject area in the National Teacher Examinations, or acquire six additional hours of college credit in their fields.
The basic-skills test is an empty gesture; it's too easy to give an accurate measure of a teacher's fitness to teach. The nte requirement is useless, mainly because most teachers will choose the easier option of taking six additional college hours. (The six-hour option is a superb example of bureaucratic reasoning: Poor teachers who already have one or two college degrees and up to 30 hours beyond that will become competent by taking six more hours at the colleges that produced them.)
The worst thing about the basic-skills test is that the public has such an incomplete and misinformed notion of what it involves. In general, most Arkansans seem convinced that what is on the test is not as important as the fact that a test is being given. Giving teachers the state driver's test would probably have done as much to satisfy public opinion (and it would have cost a lot less).
The test given in March had three sections: mathematics, reading, and writing. The mathematics questions, like this example, were elementary:
In preparation for the 6th-grade graduation ceremony, the school custodian determines that the school has 1,200 folding chairs. However, the kindergarten classes will use 240 of those chairs for their graduation. How many chairs will be left for the 6th graders? A. 950, B. 960, C. 1,060, D. 1,440.
The reading section merely tested our ability to define educational, psychological, and statistical terms that were taken out of context, and to extract the main idea from stodgy paragraphs about education. All questions in both sections were multiple-choice. The writing section required us to compose a 200-word letter on a set topic--my assignment was to ask a local businessman for money to send band students to Washington, D.C.
Nevertheless, when the grading was done (and it has been very unclear just how the grading was done), 10 percent of the 28,276 certified teachers who took the test in March failed. This is precisely the failure percentage that, according to the former aea president, Peggy Nabors, Governor Clinton was determined to achieve.
Employers should have the right to determine the professional fitness of their employees, and I support the idea of having teachers demonstrate their competence by taking a test. I am, however, sorely disappointed in the quality of our test and the loopholes in the overall program.
There was a better way to go about it.
When the American Board of Surgery wished to introduce more stringent evaluation standards for practicing surgeons, it did not try to do it at gunpoint in a year and a half. First, in 1976, the abs notified that year's graduating surgeons that they would be certified for only 10 years. At the end of that time, they would be required to pass the new battery of examinations in order to be recertified. Any surgeon who has been certified since 1976 must take the exam. Surgeons who were in the field before then were courteously informed of the new examinations and invited to take them on a voluntary basis. The already-certified surgeons were provided with reading lists and syllabuses. In short, the surgeons were treated at all times as if they were intelligent human beings who cared about the quality of their work and the future of their profession.
Apart from the basic-skills test, Governor Clinton's reform package contains some excellent measures, but few can succeed if teachers and administrators are not committed to them. The Governor should be reminded that genuine educational reform must come from two directions.
First, there must be a complete overhaul of the teacher-training programs. It makes no sense to go after the practicing teachers without stopping the malpractice that is going on in the schools of education. There should be no such thing as a major in education, because education is not an academic discipline. Courses in education should not even exist at the undergraduate level. The only "professors of education" should be classroom teachers who have demonstrated their ability to teach children. Then they can presume to teach teachers.
Second, there must be a change in the way the public and its elected representatives think about teachers. If state governments want results, they need to start looking at teachers as partners, not pawns. We have teachers in Arkansas who should not be teaching anyone, but we have good teachers, too. Every state does. They are the experts whom reforming lawmakers should consult.
Lawmakers who prefer to humiliate and alienate their teachers by passing quick-fix legislation may win votes, but they will lose the opportunity to bring about worthwhile and lasting reforms in the schools.
Peggy Maddox teaches English at Central Junior High School in Hot Springs, Ark.