Testing the Teachers

More and more our educational system is using paper and pencil multiple choice tests to stand for educational accountability and high standards. While the use of these tests on our children is ruining meaningful instruction in our schools, in this column I am going to address how these same types of tests are keeping qualified teachers out of our schools.

Teachers in California have been subjected to multiple choice tests as a requirement for entering the field for many decades. However, their use has recently increased, as has their difficulty, in the name of raising standards. Teachers currently have to pass the CBEST, a reading, writing and arithmetic test very similar in form to the standardized tests grade school children take. Teacher candidates have been required to pass this test now for many years before or during their student teaching. Recently another test has been added, a subject area test known as the CSET. This test is considerably harder (though no more relevant to the practice of teaching), and must be passed before a teacher candidate may even begin student teaching. Besides this test, there is the RICA, which is focused on the teaching of language arts. It requires that the teacher demonstrate that they have learned the methods of teaching reading currently in favor by the state (though many renown learning theorists do not agree with the practices that the test advocates).

The argument is that these tests assure the public that our teachers enter the schools with a set of basic skills necessary to anyone who will teach our children. However, do they measure up to that? I would argue not. A recent piece of evidence is that a number of past graduates of the program where I currently teach, who became teachers before the requirement to pass the CSET before entering teaching, have been unable to pass it since. These teachers are currently teaching in our public schools. They have been evaluated in their actual practice as competent and even outstanding teachers. Yet, because they have not passed this paper and pencil test, these dedicated teachers may no longer be able to serve the needy youngsters of our public schools. Therefore, either those who are in a position to actually see these teachers in action, and see the results of their teaching with the children, are wrong, or these tests are screening out qualified candidates.

A further factor in the negative impact of these tests is that those who have the most difficulty passing these tests are disproportionately students of color and under-represented minorities. The percentage of teachers of color compared to the student body in California is extremely low. While the number of minorities in the teaching force has been increasing over the last few decades, over the last ten years this increase has been extremely slow. In fact, from 1998 to 2004 there was practically no increase in the percentage of teachers of color (from 24% to 25%). This means that the gap between teachers of color and students of color is widening as more of our students come from minority backgrounds (growing from 62% to 66% during that same period). Therefore, over the last decade our teachers have become less representative of the student body than they were.

In the name of high standards, we have instituted mindless tests that have little or nothing to do with the qualities we need in teachers. I believe we should eliminate these tests. Schools of education have plenty of means of screening out unqualified candidates by actually examining their academic work as well as the practical work they do in the field.

Review of “In Schools We Trust”

In Schools We Trust:
Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization
by Deborah Meier
Beacon Press 200 pp.
© 2002


As in her first book, The Power of Their Ideas, Deborah Meier uses her experience as a principal of a small public school to illustrate her ideas of what the best of public education in a democracy can and should be. By grounding the book in her personal experience, her ideas become not just academic rhetoric, but complex stories of real children, teachers and parents. However, this is not specifically a narrative of a particular school, but rather an exploration and critique of ideas central to today’s struggles to improve public education for all children, using real stories to bring these ideas to life.

As the title implies, Meier centers the book around the idea of trust. She discusses what trust means, its centrality to learning, and how the issue of trust plays out on a variety of levels. As in her other works, Meier argues that the necessary level of trust is best built on as small a scale as practical. True trusting relationships require knowing each other well. And in heterogeneous communities getting to know each other well takes extra care and work. As common assumptions differ among different cultures, it becomes easy to inadvertently break that trust based on misconceptions, misinterpretations and unacknowledged biases.

Meier has divided the book into three section. The first centers on the school level. In this section she uses examples from her own schools to illustrate these issues extensively. The second discusses the current high stakes testing environment. The third looks at the larger political and policy contexts.

In the first section she looks at the issue of trust from a variety of in-school perspectives: adults and students, parents and school, teachers and teachers, and how issues of race and class further complexify all of these. Each of these issues is explored with anecdotal stories from her experiences in the three schools she has founded and directed.

The second section examines how high stakes standardized tests have arisen as a mistaken answer to the lack of policy makers’ trust in teachers and students. Meier examines closely what such tests can and can’t tell us about important learning, coming to the conclusion that not much important about individual children or deep learning can be gained from such tests. Further she looks at what effect these tests have on eroding the very trust they are supposedly designed to restore. She then examines what high standards, rather than standardization can mean for improving schools and the quality of learning. And finally she looks at what influence each of these stances are likely to have on the achievement gap. Again, she is able to compare how the exhibitions and portfolio assessments used in her schools have compared to the standardized tests both for what they tell us about students and about how they drive curriculum.

Many have criticized that despite the amazing and enormous success of all three of her schools with some of the most disadvantaged students, her ideas of small autonomous public schools cannot be taken to scale. In the third section she examines those criticisms. Meier speaks to how the current system is designed to undermine the success of such schools, and what it would take to create a policy environment to encourage rather than discourage such innovations, while still holding schools accountable to the larger public. Finally she sums up with a chapter on how public education and a truly democratic society are dependent on each other.
Meier’s writing style is engaging. The reader gets to feel like they are listening to the musing of a wise woman explore deeply, yet humbly, some of the most important questions confronting our educational system.

Other praise for this book
“A wise and beautiful book that elevates the level of debate on tests and school reform.”
—Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities

“A rich, nuanced reflection on trust and schooling that examines trust’s many layers. . . . A terrific, important book.”
—Mike Rose, author of Possible Lives

“A passionate, jargon-free plea for a rerouting of educational reform, sure to energize committed parents, progressive educators and maybe even a politician or two.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Listen carefully to Deborah Meier’s In Schools We Trust: She speaks to the heart of a school and of democracy itself.”
—Theodore R. Sizer, author of Horace’s Compromise and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools.

Book Review: “Tell Me More”

“Tell Me More”: Listening to Learners Explain
Edited by Eleanor Duckworth
Teachers College Press 200 pp.
© 2001


Eleanor Duckworth does it again! This is a book of Duckworth’s inquiry/discovery model of learning in action. In each of the first seven chapters a different teacher-researcher tells a story of their “teaching” using this model. The students studied vary from elementary through medical school, from poor minority students to the most privileged. The subject matter vary from math to literature to neonates. In each, the reader is captivated, following the reasoning and learning that is going on. It is a fascinating journey that explores how all of us develop and explore ideas if given the time and encouragement. These stories show us the complexity of deep learning, as well as a respect for the capacity for all learners to make sense of the world for themselves. Duckworth’s essay on exploring sinking and floating with teachers was for me the strongest. Schneier’s exploration of a Lucille Clifton poem with minority “low-achieving” high school students is almost equally fascinating. Knox’s essay on working with a medical student exploring the development of newborns shows us how this extends through the full range of learners, and that this way of thinking about teaching and learning is as needed in the highest most elite levels of education as in the most primary and most disadvantaged. The latter setting is explored by Quintero in a Puerto Rican elementary school in a unit on mapping. Duckworth and Schneier each sum up the collection with a look at what are some of the implications for research about teaching, as well as for teaching itself. This is a book that keeps you reading from cover to cover.

© 2005 Nicholas Meier

Other praise for this book“This book is a singular contribution on teaching and learning.”
–James A. Banks, University of Washington, Seattle“Duckworth has given us case studies of ‘mid-wife’ teaching at its very best.”
–Mary Field Belenky, co-author of Women’s Ways of Knowing

“Duckworth’s book is a fascinating and pioneering account of people working together over many weeks, struggling to invent ideas.”
–Howard E. Gruber, Teachers College, Columbia University

“These essays, in their concrete dailyness, give us a vision of what’s possible, some crafterly advice about how to proceed, and the courage to try.”
–Deborah Meier, [former] Principal, Mission Hill Elementary School, Boston

“This book by teachers…specifies a process of mutual inquiry and discovery that begins with a real problem in all its complexity and emphasized close observation and listening to the development of ideas.”
–Elliot G. Mischler, Harvard medical School

“This compelling collection vividly portrays Eleanor Duckworth’s notion of ‘the having of wonderful ideas,’ an educational practice, as you will see, typified by passionate teachers and engaged students, together collaborating in the ‘collective creation of knowledge.”
–William F. Pinar, Louisiana State University

“This book provides a close-up view of a foundational Freirian principal of learners constructing their own knowledge based on prior experience, new information, and meaningful dialogue with others.”
–Margo Okazawa-Rey, San Francisco State University

“Spend time with Eleanor Duckworth and you will become a better educator. Her life’s work has been studying the habits of engaged learners.”
–Ira Shor, city University of new York Graduate School