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The Trickle-Down Effect of Lowering Teacher Standards

“I read that New York teachers don’t have to be literate, anymore. Is that true, Mom?,” my seventh-grader asked last week. He’s recently become determined to “fix all education in America” (I have no idea where a son of mine could have picked up such an interest), and was on the Internet doing research. He’d already expressed his surprise at New York City’s less than 50% college readiness graduation rate and the fact that the most frequently failed college course was Algebra.

Now, he wanted to know about the NY Board of Regents decision to eliminate the Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST) for prospective teachers.

My thirteen year-old son isn’t the only one puzzled by the ruling. I am, too.

Among the move’s supporters are deans of Education Schools. Michael Middleton of Hunter College was quoted by The New York Times as saying, “We already know that our licensure candidates have a bachelor’s degree, which in my mind means they have basic literacy and communication skills.”

First of all, is “basic” really where we want to set the bar for those who educate our children? Don’t we all hope our children progress beyond “basic” themselves?

Second, potential doctors graduate from medical school, potential lawyers graduate from law school, potential accountants graduate from Master’s’ programs – and yet they all still need to take a licensing exam. (Many of them need to keep retaking these exams, to make sure their skills haven’t atrophied in practice and that they’re up on all the latest developments.)

In their ongoing quest to find the magic bullet to “fix all education in America,” many pundits who are not my son have seized on Finland as the example to emulate.

They ignore the reality that the entire country of Finland serves only 500,000 students, while NYC alone has over one million. (Size does matter when you’re talking about scalability). They ignore that Finland proportionately takes in fewer immigrants and has a more homogenous population. They ignore that Finland doesn’t warehouse students in Special Education, but expects all children to be able to learn (and speak their language), without excuses.

And they especially ignore that Finland has one of the most selective and rigorous teacher training programs in the world.

American teachers say they want to be treated and compensated like the professionals that they are. But then they balk at a licensing requirement that washes out a large number of those who apply. You know, like in Finland?

One of the main charges leveled against private and charter schools is that their teachers can be non-certified by the state. In private schools, it is much more common for a teacher to have a Master’s or Doctorate in their field of instruction, rather than in Education.

The reason given for getting rid of the ALST is that it’s discriminatory. More African-American and Hispanic aspirants fail. Fun fact: NYC is desperate to hire teachers of color, especially male teachers of color. My husband is African-American. He has an engineering degree from MIT and twenty years experience teaching math and science.

He is not qualified to teach in an NYC public school.

Yet someone who failed a literacy test is.

Having done a thesis on Instructional Technology for his Bachelor of Science, would Professor Middleton agree that my husband has “basic literacy and communication skills?” And maybe even a borderline grasp of Calculus and Physics?

What worries me most about this latest decision is the message that’s being sent. When those who teach teachers are saying, “If a test is too hard, let’s get rid of it,” rather than improving their own pedagogical approach, that defeatist attitude is bound to trickle down.

Already we have teachers and school administrators saying, “the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) is too hard, let’s get rid of it,” and “the state tests are too hard, you can’t use how we taught our students to do on them to evaluate teacher quality.”

Instead of upping their game, they want to lower the bar. That message is coming straight from the top, even as the US sinks deeper towards the bottom.

What do you think?

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