Alan J. Singer: Snafu in New York

Jul 5, 2015 by

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An Interview with Alan J. Singer: Snafu in New York

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

(1) Alan, there seems to be all kinds of problems with teacher testing in New York State. When and where did it begin?

I wrote about this in my latest Huffington Post, “Teacher Certification SNAFU: Judge Rules NYS Exams are Racially Biased”.

Teacher tests are not new, and protests against them, are not new either. New York City pioneered the testing of applicants for teaching positions when it created an independent Board of Examiners in 1898. This was part of general civil service reform in that period. I think it was more of an attempt to stop favoritism in hiring than to ensure high academic standards.

I took the New York City middle school social studies teacher certification exam when I completed student teaching and my undergraduate degree at the City College of New York in 1971 and the high school licensing exam in 1975. The tests consisted of very demanding multiple-choice content questions coupled with oral interviews and teachers were placed on a hiring list based on their test scores. Of course there was no evidence that a hirer score meant you would be a better teacher. In the 1930s, it was suspected that the oral exams were used to eliminate Jewish and Italian teaching candidates who, because of their accents, were accused of not speaking Standard English.

The New York City Board of Examiners was finally abolished in the 1990s. New York State had already started to require prospective teachers pass the National Teachers Exam (NTE), created and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The city was facing a teacher shortage and the Board of Examiners exams were seen as redundant and an unnecessary obstruction to hiring. Even then the National Teachers Exam was being accused of racial and ethnic bias. The failure rate was between 60 and 70 percent for Black and Latino candidates, but only about 20 percent for Whites.

In the mid-1990s, thousands of New York City public school teachers who had never been fully licensed received termination notices because they had never passed the national exams. Some had been teaching on a “temporary” basis for ten to fifteen years. Most were Black and Latino.

ETS responded to criticism by phasing out the NTE and replacing it with Praxis licensing exams. New York State also committed to developing its own exams. These are the exams that have been ruled racially biased by federal judge Kimba Wood.

I have been very critical of a new series of Pearson created teacher certification tests that include a portfolio assessment developed at Stanford University. There is little or no evidence that most of the exams test actual job related skills. The portfolio ends up being about sixty pages long and includes videotaping. It might be appropriate for experienced teachers, but it takes over and undermines the student teaching apprenticeship experience.

It is worthwhile to note that all teacher testing has not been challenged or criticized. In 1995, eighty-one middle school and junior high teachers became the first group of teachers to earn national certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Over 100,000 teachers have now earned national board certification through a very vigorous process. However, it is optional and it is only teachers who have completed at least three full years in the classroom are eligible.

2) Trying to predict who will be a “good teacher” is problematic – what do you see as the biggest hurdles?

There are many factors that define good teaching candidates and everyone does not agree on what they are. I have been a teacher and teacher educator for over forty years. When I was at CCNY I was very active in sixties-style protest and one my first education professors said I should never become a teacher and recommended that I drop out of the program. Because of my reputation as an activist I was exiled to student teach in an “undesirable” junior high school in the south Bronx with a cooperating teacher who was starting her second year as a teacher. None of the regular professors wanted to go near me or the school so an adjunct was assigned to observe me three times. They were definitely right about my commitment to political activism, but I think I have demonstrated they were wrong about my ability to be a teacher.

One of the things I have learned overtime is that some people should not be teachers. They may lack empathy for young people, be impatient, have trouble connecting with other people, have too many biases of their own, be unwilling to put in the hard work to master the craft, or have their own emotional problems or academic issues. I have met smart and knowledgeable people who could not teach effectively. I have also met people who struggled academically in school who are very good working with young people. But I also need to confess that my first judgments about someone’s potential as a teacher are not always correct. Many teacher education students have surprised me with their classroom ability and some have disappointed me when they finally got up in front of kids.

Another thing I learned is that while there are many reasons some people should not be teachers, most of these are not measured by teacher certification exams that concentrate on academic skills.

There is no foolproof way to evaluate prospective teachers or anybody else for that matter. People have bad hair days and perform below expectation. Life also interferes with work and sometimes people do not develop as expected. Just look at some of the high draft choices in professional sports. There needs to be support and evaluations along the way and alternative career paths. There is no inoculation or test that can be administered at the start of someone’s career that will ensure people will be great teachers down the road.

3) Recently some judge ruled the tests to be “racially discriminatory” since the pass rate differs for African Americans, and Hispanics and Latinos. Do you think Pearson or NES set out consciously to make the test more difficult for certain racial or ethnic groups?

I do not believe Pearson designed the tests intentionally to be racially biased. I am not even convinced that they are. They are just lousy tests that should be thrown out. As a private company, Pearson has been immune from the kind of close scrutiny that public agencies must allow. The low pass rates for Black and Latino candidates on the Pearson tests, for whatever reason, provide a way to challenge Pearson tests and their role in teacher certification.

Federal District Court Judge Kimba Wood ruled that exams developed by a Pearson sub-division and used by New York State to evaluate teaching candidates was racially discriminatory because the pass rate for African-American and Latino candidates on the exams was as low as half the pass rate for White candidates. According to Judge Wood, once this was established, the State Education Department had to demonstrate that the exams actually measure the skills required to be a teacher. Since it did not, the exams are invalid.

Wood also charged that the National Evaluation Systems (NES), now called Evaluation Systems and part of Pearson Education, went about the process of creating the Liberal Arts and Sciences test (LAST) backwards. “Instead of beginning with ascertaining the job tasks of New York teachers, the two LAST examinations began with the premise that all New York teachers should be required to demonstrate an understanding of the liberal arts.” In addition, while NES sent surveys to educators around New York in an effort to demonstrate that the LAST’s “content objectives” were relevant to teaching, the sample was too small to establish the validity of the tests.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits both intentional discrimination and hiring and evaluation practices that disproportionately exclude minority group members, women, immigrants, or members of different religious groups, if the policies cannot be demonstrated to be directed job related. Poor performance by racial and ethnic minorities on teacher certification tests can be the result of many factors. The tests may be discriminatory or we may be seeing the impact of unequal education from pre-k through college. In either case, under federal law states are obligated to show that its teacher certification tests measure the ability to be a teacher and are not just being used to keep people out of the profession.

Wood is not some radical left-wing judicial activist. President Ronald Reagan nominated Wood to the federal bench in 1988 on the recommendation of New York State Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato.

4) NES seems to believe that after teachers get their teaching license and degrees that local school systems are going to shower them with all kinds of workshops and in-services to hone their skills. Is there any research that proves this?

Do you mean research to show that professional development improves teaching or that states will actually provide meaningful professional development?

Some of the most effective school systems in the world, Japan, Finland, and New Zealand provide continual professional training and support for teachers and believe this plays a major role in student success. But professional development for teachers is expensive. Teachers need smaller classes and paid release time. In the United States we prefer to pretend that students can somehow be trained at their own expense so they are experts before they begin. In my experience, it takes three-to-five years to become a good teacher after you start, if you work hard at it. No one is a good teacher at the beginning.

5) I don’t know what it costs in New York to take all these tests – but I know in my state, it runs several hundred dollars to take the required tests to become a teacher. Here I am going to say that all this testing discriminates against the poor teacher candidates who may be working some minimum wage job to get thru college – and are now confronted with yet another hurdle. Your thoughts?

In New York State teacher education candidates must take a minimum of four certification exams, ALST, EAS, CST, and edTPA. I calculate that it costs students between $512 and $612, depending on certification area, if you pass each one of the tests the first time. But there are hidden costs as well. I drove a taxicab while I was a college student. Prepping for all of these tests has to interfere with the ability of economically disadvantaged students to work.

6) Trying to predict who is going to be a teacher based on knowledge and information – when in fact it could be personality and disposition that are the important variables. Can we measure those oh so important personality traits relevant to good teaching?

Universities are trying to find ways to measure the “dispositions” of prospective teachers but there are dangers here. If CCNY could have thrown me out of its program because of my “dispositions,” they would have. There are people who talk to the wall, floor, or ceiling in class, and they should not be teachers. But when you look at “dispositions” there is always a danger that people will be eliminated because of their politics, because they suffer from LBST [low-bullshit tolerance], side with students and not administrators, or because of racial, ethnic, and gender biases. Again, I have been wrong about people I thought could or could not be effective in the classroom. I would rather error allowing someone a chance to teach than to exclude someone before they have a chance to prove themselves.

7) Some teachers are going to be great teachers of nice normal, well adjusted kids – but lack the skills and patience to work with ADD, LD, BD/ED, ID and other realms of exceptionalities. Can any single test really infer a teachers potential – especially to work with kids with special needs?

I am a great test-taker. I brag that test-taking is my super-power. I also think I was a good secondary school teacher. But I wasn’t always “good” for all my students, especially students with special needs. It took me time to learn. I am a bit manic and I can set off kids who are similarly wired. No test can measure that. I figured out that instead of having kids who were wired sit in front of the room so I could pretend to control them, I would have them sit in the back and by the window so if they needed to they could stare outside or stand and stretch without bothering anyone else. What test can measure that? Ongoing professional development would be helpful here.

8) The implications and unintended consequences of this recent judicial decision?

We live in very racially charged times and the disparate test results and the judge’s decision will be read through racial lens. Instead of seeing the decision as a legitimate and legal way of challenging invalid tests, some people will argue it is a form of affirmative action that permits unqualified minority candidates to get teaching jobs. I do not support the hiring of unqualified teachers just because they are Black or Latino, which is one reason why it is important to me to establish clear and relevant hiring criteria. However I also do not want minority candidates with the potential to be good teachers eliminated because of a test score on a questionable exam. Because of the judge’s ruling, the New York State Department of Education is now in the process of reevaluating all of its teacher certification exams. This is only positive!

9) What have I neglected to ask?

Where do we go from here? In my Huffington blog I recommend three steps for evaluating teacher certification candidates. Now I want to add a fourth step.

Step 1 – Fire Pearson. Pearson tests are disasters. Texas just fired Pearson, which had had a sole contract for designing tests with its state education department since 1980. Pearson also recently lost a major testing contract in California to ETS.

Step II – Design tests that measure necessary teacher knowledge. Possibilities include the ability to read, interpret, and explain Common Core academic skill standards, state content area frameworks, and the guidelines for teaching students with special needs and English Language Learners. Teachers should also be able to score well on student exit exams in their certification areas. Teachers should at least know what students are expected to know.

Step III – Design assessments that establish minimum teaching standards specifically for beginning teachers. The evaluation of teachers should distinguish between where someone should be at the start of their career and where they should be after three-to-five years of practice. The edTPA is a complex portfolio with a video that requires student teachers to submit evidence of teaching proficiency that would be challenging for experienced teachers. It is inappropriate as an assessment tool. Student teacher performance in the classroom should be evaluated by University field supervisors and cooperating teachers based on a full semester of work.

Step IV – Invest in the education of urban minority students and potential teachers. I think there is a consensus among educators that it is important to have an ethnically diverse teacher pool. We also do not want under-qualified teachers who were hired just because they are Black or Latino. If the United States is going to diversify its teachers, raise the standards for its teaching profession, and improve education in inner-city minority schools, it needs to make a long-term investment in urban education so people do not start off in an academic hole. It also needs to support teacher certification candidates so they can meet qualifications.

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