Why All the Fuss About Testing Teachers?

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As a native Arkansan, former teacher educator, and present superintendent of an Oregon school district, I read with great interest Peggy Maddox's recent Commentary, "Testing Arkansas Teachers: The 'Quick-Fix' Politics of Reform" (Education Week, Sept. 11, 1985). In my opinion, Ms. Maddox is definitely marching to the beat of the wrong drummer.

Unlike Ms. Maddox, the voters of Arkansas do not see the testing of teachers as an empty gesture. Neither do voters in the other states that have mandated teacher testing as part of teacher certification. They see both the willingness of teachers to take a paper-and-pencil test and their ability to do so as significant gestures. Politicians are not so naive as to attempt to establish a direct relationship between teaching competence and the ability to pass a test. But the politicians, quite rightly, are listening to the important people whom Ms. Maddox tended to ignore in her Commentary: the public.

The message the public has been trying to get to teachers through its elected representatives is that teachers need to manifest throughout their ranks sufficient evidence of basic competence to regain the public's trust and confidence. Considerable and convincing evidence exists that too many teachers can't write well, figure accurately, or spell correctly. Thus a case has been made for testing teachers.

From what I have seen, this case is based on fact, not fiction. I often see errors in job applications, letters, and memos from teachers. I have observed firsthand that many teachers don't have a mastery of the language at a level acceptable to me or the public. Recently in my district, a screening committee--made up of laymen--rejected over 25 percent of the teacher applications it reviewed because of poor composition, penmanship, and organization. Other superintendents have told me of similar experiences in their districts. Legislators with whom we correspond have said they are appalled at the quality of some of the mail they receive from teachers.

What the public needs now is some evidence--however insufficient or insignificant it may seem in the eyes of Ms. Maddox and others--that teachers are, in fact, basically competent as measured by an examination. The people of Arkansas, through Gov. Bill Clinton, are not attempting to indict all Arkansas teachers as incompetents. They are simply trying to establish a reasonable expectation that the people teaching their children be able to demonstrate a measure of ability. The public expects of teachers exactly what teachers expect of their students: competence in the three R's. That's certainly a reasonable expectation.

Why then have educators allowed themselves to get so upset over such a simple, straightforward demand? In reacting to this requirement, teachers such as Ms. Maddox have seemed to be saying: "How dare they expect me to take a test. I'm a teacher."

Barbers and beauticians must pass qualifying tests. So must veterinarians, sewer-plant operators, chiropractors, vehicle operators, doctors, dentists, and lawyers. Is it not reasonable that the public expect the same of teachers?

Teachers must try to look at teaching from the perspective of those who pay the bills. Looking at it from any other perspective in our democratic society is invalid. Those who pay--the taxpayers--set the standards. They build the buildings, buy the books, hire the teachers, and determine the curriculum. Although they rely heavily on us "professionals," they have not abdicated to us.

Quite the contrary is true here in Oregon. Oregonians have public education firmly by the throat and have no intention of letting it go. They require teachers seeking certification or recertification to pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test. No hysteria exists among Oregon teachers because of this requirement.

Reform in this country in any endeavor-- whether the tax system, social programs, or education--must have a groundswell of grass-roots support to spark it and keep it going. Requiring a simple test for teachers may be an important first step, a spark for reform of education. For this reason, I don't see the testing of Arkansas teachers as a "quick fix." I see it as something that is timely, necessary, and nonthreatening.

Vol. 05, Issue 06, Page 15

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