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Published in Print: January 1, 2000, as Misfire

Misfire

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The bottom line, as far as the shortage goes, may well be the bottom line: We need to pay teachers more.

The two outlaws in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid want to go straight, so they interview for a job guarding a stage coach. The company boss asks Sundance, played by Robert Redford, to shoot a tiny wood chip tossed to the ground 30 yards from where he stands. Sundance draws his pistol and twirls it, but before he can squeeze off a shot, the boss man interrupts: "No, no. I just wanna know if you can shoot." He grasps Sundance's arm, raising it toward the target. The flustered cowboy fires, missing wide.

The boss snorts and turns to walk away, until Sundance asks, "Can I move?" Eyeblink-quick, he crouches and hits the mark twice. "I'm better when I move," he explains shortly.

"Considering I'm desperate," the man allows, "and you are just what I'm looking for...we'll start in the morning."

School administrators who scrambled last summer to fill staff rosters with qualified teachers in the face of a nationwide shortage might take a lesson from the stagecoach boss. My own employer, Fairfax County, Virginia, still needed 1,600 teachers late in August, according to the Washington Post, and other local counties were in similar straits. Across the country, schools were 2 million teachers short.

In the face of such a drought, it's high time to examine how teachers are hired. The bottom line, as far as the shortage goes, may well be the bottom line: We need to pay teachers more. College graduates with liberal arts degrees have to be mighty altruistic to even consider teaching given that starting salaries lag tens of thousands of dollars behind those in technology, law, and business. Though teacher pay is not likely to change radically in the near future, tinkering with other aspects of the hiring pro cess might address the crunch. First we have to reconsider how we decide who's qualified to teach.

Are we, like the Sundance Kid's new boss, inadvertently asking candidates to shoot while standing still? More than 20 states screen new teachers using a test called the Praxis Series, produced by the same Educational Testing Service that brings us the SATs. Praxis is a battery of exams in reading, writing, and math, as well as various subject areas. Each state sets its own passing scores for would-be teachers: Virginia's happen to be the highest in the nation. (An untold story of Praxis in Virginia is the manipulation of cut-off scores several years ago by then-Governor George Allen. He rejected the minimums suggested by his own appointed panel to post get-tough numbers at least a point higher than California, which then had the highest cut-off scores.)


Praxis is a standardized test. It's lauded by some for including essays along with multiple-choice questions, though various nationally administered tests, including the SATs, have been doing that for years. But new and would-be teachers forced to take Praxis criticize its lack of specific feedback on what they missed. Though the company markets an extensive line of test aids, including computerized practice tests, Praxis results are ultimately spit out in the form of a single make-or-break number for each section. If the numbers don't add up, you aren't hired. Period. Next applicant.

Does Praxis work? The recent hiring crunch is one sign that it does not. We aren't finding enough good teachers with Praxis, that much is clear. And it's not just because many would-be educators don't meet the standards outlined by the test. Rather the standards do not, and cannot, define teaching. Teaching is alchemy, the phase of the moon, and whether or not Johnny had breakfast. Teaching is compassion, a broken Xerox machine, and the endurance of a long-distance runner. Of course, there is a difference between good teaching and bad, but the only way to evaluate teachers is to see them in action. There isn't a standardized test in the world that can reveal someone's teaching ability, or even their potential, as effectively as watching that person teach.

We need a new measure of whether someone is fit to teach—one based on what goes on in the classroom.

Praxis advocates might argue that it is merely a gateway test, that once the applicant pool is narrowed, other means of assessment come into play. Some cost-effective screening mechanism is necessary, they contend. The fault in this logic, of course, is that while Praxis does, statistically, narrow the number of candidates, it doesn't necessarily winnow the right ones. A terrific 1st grade teacher, for example, might very well be excluded from the selection pool because she can't do the algebra that Praxis requires for elementary certification. Fixing the way states use Praxis might ameliorate its ineffectiveness: If that 1st grade teacher fails the algebra section, she should get the chance to demonstrate her mastery of the subject by taking a college class. But rather than judging her by whether she remembers y = mx + b, would it not be far better to watch her teach a lesson with counting sticks to a bunch of squirming 6-year-olds?

Anyone who wants to become a teacher must already go through some sort of accredited teacher education program to become certified. Though these programs vary, a universal component is student teaching. Why not use this already existing apprenticeship simultaneously as an evaluative tool in hiring? We could use some sort of rubric to gauge a student teacher's potential for success.

Or, we could create a teacher test based on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. In the real world, the Harvard professor says, people draw on various combinations of intelligences-such as interpersonal, spatial, and music-to achieve success. His ideas have already spawned a sizable body of educational research and could provide a framework with which to evaluate teacher applicants. Whatever method we use, let's judge would-be teachers in action rather than in a vacuum.

This past summer, hapless human resource employees from local school systems vied with one another to woo the relatively few qualified applicants with enticing table displays and free key chains. In this milieu, it is obvious that we need a new approach to teacher hiring. Dump ing Praxis and creating a hiring formula based on what actually goes on in the classroom would be a good start. We don't need an exam that screens for good standardized test-takers: As the Sundance Kid suggested, we need a test that lets teachers move.

Vol. 11, Issue 4, Pages 52-53

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