Friday, July 28, 2006

If you were ever one of those students who wished you could grade your teacher instead of the other way around, the federal government may be about to grant your wish, vicariously anyway. This week, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has threatened to give failing grades to some states for not testing teachers adequately.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act (2002), which was passed with bipartisan support, all states were given until August to show teachers in their school systems were “highly qualified” in core teaching areas. But several states are so far behind in meeting these standards they could lose federal funding.

“I want states to know that Congress and the president mean business on the law,” Mrs. Spellings told the New York Times in a recent interview. She was criticized by some education reformers last year for taking a go-slow approach in forcing school systems to meet the NCLB requirements, but the only complaints now are from states that don’t measure up — and the teachers unions. “Last year it was, ‘We’re marching together toward the deadline,’ ” Mrs. Spellings said, “but now it’s time for, ‘Your homework is due.’ ”

Both Maine and Nebraska have received letters from the Education Department warning they may lose federal funds because their teacher testing flunked the federal standards. The feds allowed Nebraska to administer teacher-devised tests in its 250 school districts instead of statewide, but the state failed to demonstrate that teachers in all districts were held to a high standard, the Times reported. In all, the education department has notified 34 states that their teacher testing had major problems and would be subject to mandatory oversight.

It should come as no surprise that teachers aren’t measuring up. Teacher certification in most states has been a joke for years. In the District of Columbia, for example, teachers can be certified by scoring barely above the 20th percentile on the Praxis test, an exam used by 29 states to determine who is fit to teach. The other states aren’t much better, granting certification to teachers so long as they score above the bottom third of all test-takers.

Yet the National Education Association, the largest union in the nation, has fought tougher standards all the way. Even the smaller American Federation of Teachers, usually a more sensible voice on education reform, has resisted retesting veteran teachers so long as they’ve met the abysmally low state certification requirements.

And it’s no wonder teachers have a rough time when they’re tested. A recent study by the American Institutes for Research showed education majors had the lowest levels of practical literacy among college students. When asked to evaluate the arguments in a newspaper opinion article, such as this one, or summarize opinion survey results or compare credit card offers with different interest rates and fees, education majors scored at the bottom of the class. Education majors also have among the lowest SAT scores and do poorly on other measures of verbal and mathematical ability.

How can we expect elementary and secondary students to improve their achievement when the men and women who teach them are so ill-prepared to impart the necessary skills? Much of the emphasis in NCLB — and the criticism it has generated — has been on the required testing of students. But it’s hard to imagine how students can perform better unless we ensure teachers know the subject matter in the first place.

No doubt the states receiving poor grades from the U.S. Department of Education will cry foul, but an insistence that all teachers meet high standards is critical to true education reform. We’re putting the cart before the horse when we insist on higher test scores for students but accept mediocrity from teachers.

Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of “Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics.”

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