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An Interview with Alan J. Singer: Anger in the Heartland

Oct 30, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy -

1) Alan, recently you posted something in the Huffington Post about teacher tests. Can you tell us when this even occurred and what transpired?

New York State is in the process of implementing a series of new tests for teacher certification that will be designed and administered by Pearson. I have been visiting campuses around the state and students and teacher educators are both angry and frightened. The sample questions for the written and reading tests are ambiguous and seem to be unrelated to what teachers are expected to know. The tests include a video and portfolio but the directions for completing the assignments are very unclear and no one can figure out the guidelines explaining how the submissions will be assessed. Pearson says it will only assign a point total and individual states will decide who passes.

Students fear they will work hard, do everything that is asked of them, go thousands of dollars into debt, and then be told they did not make the cut.

The video and portfolio portion of the test was designed by Stanford University. If it was being used to support teacher education it would be useful. But as a measure of achievement, the expectations are unrealistic. At the end of student teaching a candidate at the most is ready to be a beginning teacher. You learn to teach after student teaching, not before or during.

2) Now, I know the state of New York, and attended many colleges and universities in that state. But it seems like the new politicians are out of touch with the realities of education in America. Your thoughts?

Out of touch is an understatement. The New York State Commissioner of Education is so out of touch that he was forced to cancel a series of informational meetings with parents and teachers about Common Core standards and state assessments for students and teachers when audiences rebelled and booed. Administrators in New York are protesting against tests that leave children crying and teacher assessments that take so much of their time that they are unable to do their jobs supervising and supporting teachers. They are overwhelmed by test generated “data” that has little bearing on curriculum and pedagogy.

3) How good are these new teacher tests and do they really test a person’s ability to motivate kids to learn?

I think that people will learn to game the test. My recommendation to student teachers and teachers is the biblical quote from Matthew 20:22 where Jesus of Nazareth says “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Learn to be the best teacher you can be, but when it comes to the assessments, follow the rules and give the assessors what they want. You can’t be a good teacher if you can’t be certified or hold onto your job.

4) Alan, you and I know about the explosion or what some call the epidemic of special education and kids with special needs. Are these needs being addressed?

I do not think there is any clarity on what the special needs of these children are. Under No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the tests that are supposedly aligned with Common Core Standards, children with special needs are supposed to perform just like every other student, which is grossly unfair to them and to their teachers. I have heard about cases where teachers in self-contained special education classes for students with severe intellectual and emotional disabilities were criticized because they did not ask the students higher order thinking questions. I have recommended to teachers that when a supervisor says something like that, they should invite the supervisor into the class to model proper instruction and questioning.

5) What will all this testing cost the average college student?

First, there is the cost of the degree. A Masters degree in Education at a public institution is about $13,000 for tuition alone and at a private university it is probably closer to $40,000. The four Pearson tests combined cost about $750, although the video submission may require that a student teacher spend an addition $300 to $500 on equipment. Students are going into debt while watching certification requirements change. They can do everything right and then be punished for trying.

6) Often, some students goof off the first year of college and end up with a poor GPA. I think they are now increasing the required GPA for teacher education programs. Your feedback?

I think you are describing me. I went to college in the 1960s, did a lot of protesting, played a lot of basketball and football, drove a taxi cab to support myself, and went to classes sometimes. In my freshman year I was required to take classes in subjects that I hated and I changed my major twice. It was not until my junior year in college that I began to perform well and my grades went up. I have worked with excellent teachers who performed even more poorly in college, but they have a good grasp of how to connect with students and know how to explain well. Meanwhile some of the worst teachers I have seen had the highest grade point averages. Their problem is that they understand the topic innately and have no idea how to explain it to someone else. This is a particular problem in a subject like math because what you teach in middle school has little to do with the advanced math you took in college.

7) Alan, tell us about the reaction from these students in Cortland, New York- the heartland of New York State to be sure.

The student teachers in Cortland feel like they were lied to. They started their programs with one set of criteria, they worked hard to meet them, and now the criteria are being changed. The state and Pearson are engaged in bait-and-switch with no evidence that the changes will produce better teachers or improve student performance.

A major task in the Common Core Standards is supporting opinions with evidence, but the state and Pearson feel no responsibility to provide evidence that the new tests have any predictive validity.

8) I know there are other colleges such as Vassar and Mercy College in New York-somewhat private schools- how will these schools be impacted? If at all?

All New York State schools must prepare students for the new teacher certification guidelines if they want their programs to survive. Private colleges will also feel pressure to raise the admission requirements for teacher education programs or else they will be accused of having low standards.

9) The reaction of students in the Heartland?

I try to be a bit of an agitator. Nothing is served by feeling depressed and defeated. The key is to be angry and fight back. These students are voters. Their parents are voters. They have to make demands of the politicians. I recommended that they press the university presidents to lobby State Education against the changes and meet with the teachers’ unions. Working teachers may not see themselves as being effected by the changes in teacher certification, but once the video tests are in place for student teachers they can be used to evaluate working teachers as well.

10) What are the teacher training programs saying?

Many of the teacher training programs are bending over backwards trying to prepare student teachers for the new assessments. I am doing it as well. But at the same time I am fighting to block the assessments and trying to promote good teaching.

11) What have I neglected to ask?

You should have asked, “How can we stop Pearson from taking over education in the United States?” Pearson is a global; profit-making company making money by selling tests, curriculum, texts, and an assortment of other services to school systems/.” No one elected them. No one tests to see if its products actually work. Meanwhile they have been implicated in a host of scandals and repeatedly perform poorly. I have documented much of this in my Huffington Post column.

Alan Singer is Director, Secondary Education Social Studies, Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership at 128 Hagedorn Hall 119 Hofstra University Hempstead, NY 11549

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