The Alabama State Board of Education has appealed to the U.S. Department of Education to modify or waive the requirement to send out letters this school year to parents telling them which teachers are “not highly qualified.” The Board believes it is unfair to good teachers because many of them have not had time to meet the new requirement for being designated “highly qualified.” No matter how this turns out, it is simply one more instance of a common, serious error in educational assessments that will victimize students and the public.
The criterion for a teacher to be designated in Alabama as “highly qualified” is that they have passed certain courses. Being “highly qualified” in Alabama is not the value assessment it seems to be, but is only a credential. It is a credential that is earned which has nothing to do with how well one teaches. If the federal courts allow the alternative criteria of passing a subject matter test, it will still have nothing to do with how well one teaches. In short, “highly qualified” teachers may not even be able to teach well at all.
While the Alabama State Board of Education recognizes many good teachers have not yet had the opportunity to become rated as highly qualified, they refuse to recognize that once teachers have achieved that rating it will not necessarily mean they teach competently or well. They should take no more future pride in a high percentage of teachers who are technically designated to be “highly qualified” than the justified lack of shame they feel now for the outstanding teachers who are not so designated. There is no reason to believe that bad teachers, who have earned a teaching certificate by already passing many exams and courses, will be any better teachers because they pass a few additional courses or one more predictable standardized test for which they are specifically rehearsed.
What the state and federal government, intend to do is a laudable goal -- to develop objective standards to evaluate teachers. Where they go wrong is confusing objectivity with significance and accuracy.
They make the same error (or perpetrate the same fraud) in supposedly evaluating students that they make in supposedly evaluating teachers. They take a word or phrase that has a normal meaning and use it in a specific technical way as if there were no difference. They call students “educated” if they have passed courses and standardized exams (such as the high school exit exam). But those courses and exams are flawed because they neither teach nor measure the kinds of knowledge and understanding, or the kinds of communication and analytic thinking skills that students need to have to be truly educated. Standardized exams generally ask specific factual information, much of it esoteric or trivial, that students are coached to learn primarily for grades. Most of it is meaningless outside of school or outside of standardized tests.
Moreover, coaching students for a specific, predictable test is tantamount to telling them just those parts they need to study and know in order to do well. That is not traditionally what “testing” students means, whereby tests are a sample of knowledge, not the whole of it.
The reason most students find math word problems difficult is that they can neither understand the words or the math that is necessary for solving them. It is not that they do not know how to do computations, but that they cannot tell what computations they need to do. Students too often can generally only work the kinds of problems that closely resemble what they have been coached to do. If the problem changes, or if a real life problem presents itself which they have not been rehearsed to solve, they are totally lost and helpless. Tests that do not reflect this educational flaw are themselves therefore flawed and meaningless.
The reason most students cannot read well is not that they cannot read fiction or factual material and answer trivial questions about it, but that they cannot understand in any useful way the significance of what they have read. They cannot “use” the material. They cannot make deductions from it; cannot see what is most meaningful in it. If they ever have to read material that is more complex or theoretical than a mere litany of facts or narrative details, they cannot see how it was derived and what assumptions were involved.
The same mistake is made with describing teachers’ abilities. For years the teaching profession has used the word “qualified” simply to mean “certified.” In normal language those two are not the same thing. To most of us, calling someone qualified or highly qualified, means they are competent or extremely capable to do a job well. But in bureaucratic education language, it only means they have passed certain courses and exams and are licensed. It is like saying that all people licensed or certified to drive in Alabama are thereby highly qualified drivers.
What we really want to know is whether teachers can teach well, not whether they can pass courses and exams. Good teaching requires not only knowing the subject matter, but it means knowing how to bring it alive to students in meaningful ways. It means being able to figure out what students need to know and what they already know that you can use to help them absorb and assimilate the new material. It means knowing what is important to teach. It means knowing how to inspire students to want to learn. It means giving them the tools to be able to learn on their own. None of that is measured, for either students or teachers, by whether they pass courses or standardized exams.
Yet in Alabama, as elsewhere, “objective” test scores are considered the answer to evaluating the abilities of students and the capabilities of teachers, even though college professors and business owners lament, regardless of test scores, that graduates are ill-prepared to think and seldom have any meaningful information or any understanding.
That problem will only be camouflaged if all we are going to do is to set the wrong standards for teachers or for students and call that “evaluation.” Such standards may be “objective,” but they are nevertheless meaningless because the objects they purport to measure are unrelated to what is important to value. You cannot say something is good because it meets particular criteria when the criteria itself, to borrow the phrase from Mae West, has nothing to do with goodness.