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Teacher Competency and The Eye of the Beholder
By David W. Kirkpatrick (August 3, 2007)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

         Teacher competency is an area of public schooling where strongly held views trump careful judgment.  At one extreme are the teacher unions and other establishment figures who would have you believe the present staff is almost universally competent.

         At the other are those who are so anti-union and anti-teacher they who would have you believe competent teachers are practically nonexistent.

         The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between, although not necessarily in the exact middle.

         A former high school history teacher, I was for several years also president of the local association.  While it would be too much to say the staff was fully representative of all the nation's public school teachers then or now, my personal experience was that the more than 400 professionals with whom I worked, were, in general, caring, competent and decent.  So the following instances only represent a need to take teacher competency and accountability seriously.

         With 3,000,000 public school teachers in the nation, even a one percent failure rate would mean there are 30,000 teachers who shouldn't be there.  The late Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, suggested that as many as one-quarter of all classroom teachers should not be there.  That's 750,000. Unfortunately, along with a number of other positions he occasionally took, he did little to improve matters.

         Consider the following:

         Former President Bill Clinton recalled one of his teachers who referred to World War II as "World War Eleven," misreading the Roman numerals.

         Martin Luther King, Jr. was quoted as saying he had "met more school teachers recently who...wouldn't know a verb if it was as big as a table."

         Journalist Art Carey, looking at education in Pennsylvania, noted the second-grade teacher who asked him how many weeks there are in a year.  When he said, "fifty-two," she responded, "How did you know that?"  Then she asked, "how many days in a year.  She truly did not know."

         Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was for a time a student in a public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also the home of Harvard where he later taught.  His public school career ended abruptly when he came home one day in his sophomore year in high school and told his father his teacher "had informed the class that the inhabitants of Albania were called Albinos and had white hair and pink eyes."  His father promptly had him admitted to Phillips Exeter Academy.  That, by the way, was in "the good old days" of education - 1931.

         On occasion, public evidence is provided directly by teachers themselves.  A few years ago the New York Post received complaints from Brooklyn teachers about stories the paper had printed about shortcomings in the city's school system.  Post reporter Andrea Peyser said "one teacher after another demonstrates a grasp of written language that one might reasonably expect from a low-functioning second grader."

         This was then demonstrated by publishing something a teacher had written.  For example, in an attempt to show concern about a student's inability to keep up in class, one teacher wrote

     "Why is he not learning or learning so but so little, with my help. How comes his past teachers have been passing him from grade to grade without he advancing or progressing academicly. I will like to know what is causing the mental blockage."

         She answered her own question.

         And there are instances where, while the teacher might have some level of competency, it wasn't demonstrated by the teaching method.  A perhaps classic example occurred just a few years ago in a Los Angeles classroom in a school with predominantly black students.  The teacher took the multiple-hours 1970s television miniseries, "Roots," and showed it not once, not twice but six times in a single year.

         Yet most states have reported that more than 90 percent of their teachers meet the federal No Child Left Behind law requirement that all teachers be highly qualified.

         It needs to be remembered that, a few years ago, when a citizen surveyed the states as to how well their students were performing, every state responded that their students were achieving above the national average.

         And they wonder why so many have lost faith in the system.

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         "...students taught by teachers trained in teachers colleges do no better than laymen (housewives, automobile mechanics, and electricians) in promoting student achievement...children taught by inexperienced college students learned just as much as did students taught by college-trained, experienced teachers."  --R. Barker Bausell and William B. Moody, "Are Teacher Preparatory Institutions Necessary?", p. 298, Phi Delta Kappan, January 1973

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Copyright 2007 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

E-mail (tchrwrtr@aol.com)

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