Tag Archives: Mumford

Black teachers, teacher quality, and education reform, revisited

In the interest of focus, I left a few things off my original post.

First, and most importantly: teaching is insanely complicated and non-linear. For me, it’s a free-form high-wire act on a daily basis, interspersed with bouts of intense mental activity outside of class as I try to figure out the best way to explain complicated subjects to kids who don’t want to be there and often don’t have the requisite skills to master the material. But for others, it’s a highly structured daily routine in which each lesson is planned out months in advance. I know many math teachers who have each problem worked out before they teach it (in many cases problems they’d done for years); I often make up my problems as I write them on the board, so I can carefully calibrate the difficulty level based on the students in that class. I know history teachers who have tremendous difficulty lecturing without index cards and can’t casually lecture on any topic in their curriculum without preparation; I can go from complete unfamiliarity to ready to talk in 2 hours.

Many non-teachers visualize their ideal teacher as someone more like me, except a lot younger–smart, fluid, an expert on anything a student might want to inquire about, and particularly an expert in the subject taught. Highly educated elites, in particular, have romantic notions of their little snowflakes being taught by a bright Harvard graduate who went to a top 50 school and wants to help the next generation be as enamored by learning as she is.

Given the tough times I have finding jobs, I encourage all those who hold these romantic notions to find the evidence that teacher IQ and general intelligence is dispositive in successful teaching. (It must be said, however, that principals don’t like teachers that are too smart. Or too old.)

Much as I’d like a world that makes it easier for me to find a job, though, I think the reality is much less comforting to those who want “smarter” teachers. Certainly, research has provided little comfort. When the best news available tells us that teachers in the 95% percentile get very small improvements over the very worst bottom-dwellers, and any improvement at all is considered great news because it’s so hard to find any teacher quality criteria that show any increase at all….well, it’s just possible that being smart ain’t all that.

I really understand the intuitive belief that smarter teachers are better teachers, because I used to hold the same notion, when I was a suburban parent. But that belief was shaken even before I became a teacher and realized that teachers weren’t complete morons and, furthermore, that the demonstrated knowledge requirements for teachers took a sharp increase after NCLB, particularly for elementary school teachers. Huge. So big that, if teacher competency were a factor, we should have seen some improvement in teacher outcomes. Instead, recent research shows, again, that experience boosts performance a bit and new teachers are still weakest of all. I’m open to having my mind changed on that one because no research has specifically tested on this point. But again, the boosts in demonstrated ability were huge in many states, and shouldn’t we have seen some improvement in performance?

But what we got for sure were far fewer black and Hispanic teachers.

Notice that the fraud ring involved existing teachers, teachers who were probably caught in the NCLB net and forced to re-qualify for existing positions. As always, ETS explains this with a helpful graphic (I’ve combined text and image from page 16. ETS has excellent data. That’s why everyone trying to push an educational policy ignores it.)

In 2001, NCLB required teachers to be fully credentialed, forcing many existing teachers with emergency credentials to pass a Praxis test. Many black teachers couldn’t. Hence, the fraud. This wasn’t simply a case of wannabe teachers, but actual teachers, teachers with jobs. What if they were considered competent teachers?

There’s a really interesting study idea: test the outcomes of the teachers who committed fraud, compare them to white and black teachers who passed the test legally. What if they do well?

I’m not fuming at the double standard revealed by the reformers who scream about “unqualified teachers” but duck and cover when black teachers are found to have committed fraud. I am, however, annoyed that reformers are constantly promoting a lie, or at least a fantasy unsupported by research, and they don’t even have the balls to hold consistently to that position. Instead, they wilt and run away from the Clarence Mumford case. They never seem to commit, exactly, to the qualifications teachers should have, and how the current tests fall short.

Why? Because failure to commit to a line in the sand allows them to skate on two points. First, the minute they draw that line, they will be ferociously questioned about the impact their standards will have on black and Hispanic teachers. Race is an area that reformers are absolutely determined to avoid, unless it’s an opportunity to call teachers racist for the uneven performance results, of course.

Furthermore, the minute they draw that competency line, they will be forced to confront the fact that, as I’ve said with some frequency, research doesn’t support their claims. It’s hard to argue for changes that will further obliterate the population of black and Hispanic teachers when you can’t prove being smart makes that much difference—and that the teacher’s race seems to matter.

So instead, reformers prate endlessly about incompetent, mediocre teachers who aren’t anything but white, of course, talking cheap about improving standards while fleeing in terror from the tiniest suggestion that raising teacher test scores will disparately impact black and Hispanic teachers.

It’s too bad, because if they stood up for their beliefs, we could have a meaningful discussion about where, exactly, the line is for teacher competency. One reasonable interpretation of the research thus far is that we are well above the line needed. Bad news for reformers, if so.

I keep wondering about one other possibility, which might explain why a low or failing score on a basic skills tests could nonetheless belong to an effective elementary school teacher.

Maybe they’re underperforming.

My years in test prep have shown me a number of oddities, including more than a few African American kids (by far, the smallest percentage of my demographic), who have a terrible time reading and thinking “on their feet” (that is, a general skills test), and can’t think abstractly at all, yet have very strong demonstrated abilities that they’ve internalized.

Two different African American girls have had exceptional writing skills with a strong demonstrated vocabulary (both got perfect scores on their essay), but struggled to break 500 on the SAT verbal. One of them got a 4 on the AP US History test. More than one boy (including some Hispanics) can do relatively complex math word problems beautifully but, given a simple equation, can’t isolate x. I had one kid who could not solve 4x -3 = 21, but if you asked him what number you could multiply by 4 and subtract 3, and get 21, he’d say “6” before I’d worked it out myself.

I’ve had more than a couple kids ask me why they were being tested on history when they’d never studied it in school. It took me a while to realize they thought the questions on the reading passage were questions they were supposed to know offhand. Their reading scores shot up (from say, the 3rd percentile to the 35th or 40th) when I explained that the big chunk of text on the right had the answers to the questions. They had no idea. And although they did better, they still complained that they wanted to be tested on “what they know” rather than “learn new stuff on the test”. Yes, that sort of thinking is completely alien to me and yes, it’s still pretty common.

In other words, I wonder if maybe crystallized vs. fluid intelligence impacts test scores on the bottom half of the bell curve. This might explain why relatively low skilled people have difficulty showing that knowledge on the test, but can be effective classroom teachers to young kids.

So I’m not as ready as I was five years ago to say that people who can’t pass a basic skills test don’t, in fact, have sufficient mastery of basic skills.

I’m not excusing the fraud. But it infuriates me that everyone’s ignoring it, because the conversations it would kick up are conversations we need to have—and, of course, they’re conversations we’re afraid to have.