Note: The following is a chapter from my new book, Education Under Attack, available on this website under “Books and Papers.”
In the perception on many in our society, teaching is for mediocre students and teacher education programs admit and retain students with low academic ability. Though critics often note that the SAT scores of high school students who say they want to become teachers are lower than the average of other college-bound students, they do not say how many of those students actually get into teaching or graduate as teachers.
In reality, many candidates who wish to be teachers do not meet the entry requirement to enroll in a teacher education program. Of those qualified to enroll, some do not successfully complete the program. Of those who complete and meet certification standards of the teacher education program and the state, many are not selected from among the pool of available candidates to be hired as teachers. Of those who are hired, some are not retained as teachers after their first years as teachers. Of those retained some find the work too demanding or the rewards too small, so many leave the profession for reasons, such as low pay and poor working conditions that have nothing to do with their abilities or preparation.
At my university, about half of those who applied to become teachers were allowed to enter and complete the program. We have file drawers filled with students who wanted to become teachers, but did not meet our academic or other standards. Of all newly certified teachers in Michigan, less than half will be hired as teachers in this state, and of those, only about half of them will still be teachers after five years according to national averages.
At my institution and others documented through the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, teacher education students actually graduate with grade point averages that are higher than of students not preparing to become teachers. If we compare teacher candidates’ grade point averages in the subjects for which they are being certified to teach with those students who are majoring in the subject, but are not in teacher education, the teacher education students get higher average grades in those content areas. For example, teacher education students in mathematics and science get higher grades than straight majors do in the same content courses. In addition, education students majoring in these subjects are required to take and pass externally prepared and scored standardized test to demonstrate mastery of their content, whereas the non-education majors are not.
Almost all states require that students pass standardized tests in basic skills before they can enter into a teacher education program as well as pass a test in their special subject matter to be certified to teach that subject. Teachers, like medical and law students are required to achieve a certain score to be admitted into their professional programs. The states and institutions set the standards needed in the basic skills to enter into teacher education and in the content knowledge to be certified as a teacher. If evidence suggests these standards should be higher, then the states can raise them.
However, far more is needed than basic skills and subject matter knowledge to be a successful and inspiring teacher. Policies and reforms generally do not acknowledge or assess these essential qualities. If officials were serious about getting the best and brightest into teaching, they would not rely on limited and superficial standardized tests of knowledge to determine eligibility.
My concern here is in politicians trying to legislate excellence and professional standards and assuming standardized tests are the best, or even valid, reliable, good or reasonable assessments of teacher quality. I would suggest these tests are minimal measures that only get at a very limited and superficial slice of what is expected of a good teacher. General and content knowledge are necessary, but not sufficient, and the government places too much emphasis on them. More attention should be given to professional dispositions, knowledge, skills and practices. Most teacher education programs have extensive field experiences, practica and clinical practice involving performance-centered assessments to ascertain that their candidates have the skills and attitudes needed to be good teachers.