Education Opinion

How Do You Make a Good Teacher?

By Nancy Flanagan — January 18, 2014 4 min read
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Check out this headline, from the Center for Michigan:

One in Four Aspiring Teachers Pass New Teacher Test.

What’s your first thought?

  • Good! This will eliminate the plague of academic dim bulbs inhabiting our classrooms!
  • Clearly, Michigan will have a better teaching force a few years from now.
  • Makes sense--only someone with questionable abilities and low aspirations would think seriously about pursuing teaching anyway.

If that’s what popped into your head, you’re thinking like the editorial staff at the Center (a non-partisan, centrist think tank), whose op-ed commentary made clear that raising the standardized bar was their preferred, one-stop solution for making better teachers.

If only it were so simple.

My first thought was this: Where is the convincing evidence that the old Michigan Teacher Exam (which had a year-to-year pass rate hovering around 80%) did not screen out the folks who should not become teachers? Is there confirmation that we were pushing these unqualified teachers into the classroom, harming children with their lack of brainpower? Where is the convincing evidence that a test--even a tough new test like Michigan’s Professional Readiness Exam--is the best or most efficient means of identifying strong candidates for teaching?

Is this truly about making more effective, more professional teachers? Is it about workforce supply and demand? Or is it another way to point fingers at the colleges and universities that prepare graduates for the classroom, to shift blame? Read the headline again.

I once attended a State Board of Ed meeting where cut scores for the statewide standardized test (the “MEAP”) were established, and it cured me forever of the belief that any test can precisely determine who is/is not at “grade level” or, in this case, worthy of being admitted into teaching. Cut scores are (only sometimes informed) guesswork, often supporting an agenda. I’m not sure any two teachers with scores a point apart represent the difference between being fully ready to begin teacher training and flunking out of ed school.

What kind of teaching force do we want, anyway? Are we looking for a diverse mix of candidates--those who grew up in the tough neighborhoods where they want to teach, those coming to the classroom after success in another career or raising children? Do we want content experts? Passionate advocates for children? Role models? How do we test for those things?

I’m actually in favor of making more demands on those who seek admission into teaching, not fewer. We need demonstrably useful coursework and much more field experience. We need to connect novices to master teachers, whose observations are a much better gauge of a teacher’s prospects for becoming a solid practitioner than a test. Perhaps we need a fifth year, incorporating multiple internship placements, and coaching that happen while the newbie teacher is in an actual classroom.

I once refused to sign off on a student teacher I supervised, years ago. After the first week, it was clear that she was seriously struggling--but all novice teachers wrestle with strategies and techniques. She was never able to lead a group through a single lesson, however--she did not have the confidence to demand their attention, demonstrate a concept or ask questions. She burst into tears, running out of the room, almost daily. I could not leave her alone with my students.

We had long talks, modeled lessons, coaching sessions about learning goals and classroom management skills. Her go-to defense was declaring that my students didn’t like her (probably true). Then tears. It was a very long sixteen weeks, and midway through, I began having frequent conversations with the folks at her (well-regarded) university, letting them know that she was not--at present, anyway--a good prospect for being a music teacher.

They sent out two representatives to talk to me--a professor from the music department, and a student teaching coordinator from the ed school. The music professor kept insisting that she was an incredible musician--first chair!--and was carrying a 4.0 in her music coursework. She was getting As in her education courses, too. She was a genuinely excellent student.

Here’s the end of the story: I suggested the candidate repeat student teaching, with another teacher. That idea was rejected. The university overrode my refusal to sign the approval paperwork as cooperating teacher. She took the (old) MI Teacher Exam and actually got a job in a nearby school, as an elementary music teacher. She lasted until October, then was asked to leave.

Would the new, harder test screen out folks like her? Not at all.

In fact, it may make it harder to identify the prospective teachers with the passion and determination to make a difference. There are lots of important things for would-be teachers to know, be and do. A test is a crude measurement of only a small subset of those things.

If new items on the test deal with core literacy and numeracy skills, and candidates understand the critical importance of those skills in building a classroom practice, then a test may have some utility. We want teachers to be smart, curious and excellent communicators.

But making the test harder, then setting cut scores to produce a dramatic drop in the pass rate--and insulting, demoralizing headlines--does nothing to build professionalism in teaching. And the latest request--asking for still more money, to build “better” teacher-screening tests--reminds me of an update on the old saw: To a man with a computer, every problem looks like data.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.