Ask a Silly Question, Get a Silly Answer On Tests of Teachers' Competence

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There is something perversely pleasurable about the recent calls for the testing of public-school teachers. Walter Denton, the somewhat dimwitted high-school boy on the 1950's television series, "Our Miss Brooks," would no doubt have been thoroughly entertained by the sight of his teacher sweating her way through a real nail-biter of an exam. Many of us today, reading about teacher-testing in Houston and elsewhere, are just as delighted by the image of a few of our former teachers gnawing their nails and cramming by the midnight lamp and fashioning excuses for their failures and ... cheating! (As a number of the Houston teachers apparently found cause to do.)

Unfortunately, what I'm reading about teacher-competency exams suggests that they are ridiculous.

As usual, the test-makers are measuring only those things that are easy to measure--the ability to calculate and punctuate, to distinguish there and they're from their, to demonstrate knowledge of certain cultural and historical facts and concepts.

In other words, the tests measure some of the least important qualities of a competent teacher. Some of the worst teachers I've ever seen would perform splendidly on such tests; some of the most gifted teachers, I fear, would stumble.

Perhaps because the answers cannot be conveniently verified, more important questions are never asked. But if we want to know anything of real value about the people working in the public schools, boards of education should work with school personnel to devise more provocative and diverse questions, even if determining the reliability of answers would be more difficult.

I submit, for example, that the following kind of "exam" would provide the public with far more significant and useful information about those of us who teach. The questions are arranged in no particular order:

What book are you currently reading? What are the last five books you have read? List the books you have read in the last year. Discuss how they have affected your teaching. What was the last book you read that dealt with anything outside of education or your teaching subject?

What magazines do you subscribe to?Which do you regularly read? Which sections of the newspaper do you read? List the films, plays, concerts, and other cultural events you have attended in the last six months.

What was the last class you took because you wanted to, not because you were trying to improve your position on the salary schedule?

What community organizations do you belong to and actively support?

How often do students write in your class? How do you help them with their writing problems? What do you do when a student is having academic difficulties in your class? Social or personal difficulties? In what ways do you challenge your brightest students? What qualities do you prize in your students?

In what ways are you a better teacher than you were a year ago? What can you do besides teach? In what ways would you like to improve your performance in the classroom? What are you doing about it?

What percentage of class time is devoted to having the students listen to you? How frequently do you revise your lesson plans? What have been your most interesting lessons in the past month? In what ways do you have your students question their assumptions and attitudes about other people and customs?

I could go on. The point is, obviously, that there are many more questions one could ask teachers to determine the extent of their commitment to children, to an active intellectual life, to the improvement of their profession.

It is, of course, disgraceful that some teachers are unable to perform basic arithmetical calculations or write coherent sentences. Universities that have allowed marginally literate students to graduate and obtain teaching credentials have betrayed their public trust.

But there is much, much more to assessing a teacher's competence than finding out if he or she can recognize parallel sentence structure or balance a checkbook. Besides, balancing a teacher's checkbook is easy: On the 28th of every month, I have exactly 49 cents. Invariably.

Vol. 03, Issue 23, Page 19

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