Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Massachusetts: Cradle of racism? Teachers may think so

Most aspiring black and Hispanic teachers in the Commonwealth cannot make the grade:
More than half of black and Hispanic applicants for teaching jobs in Massachusetts have failed a crucial state licensing test.

Since the start of the test nearly a decade ago, 52 percent of Hispanics and 54 percent of blacks failed the writing portion of the test compared to a 23 percent failure rate among white applicants.

Blacks and Hispanics also fall behind white applicants in other test subjects like English, history and math.
These merit standards are getting in the way of the diversity the Board of Education is seeking. Really, that's the major concern raised from these dismal figures:
Education officials say the gap is making it harder to bring more diversity to the state's teaching ranks.
Competency would be nice, but diversity is a must. A must! The severity of the situation has forced the Board to oh-so-surprising measures:
The problem is so persistent that a special state task force of teachers, state education officials and hiring directors has been set up to find out why minorities don't do better on the tests.
Uh, I'll save Bay State educrats eons of time and gobs of money. I'll even work pro bono and I'll deliver the goods right now. I must say, though, I'm a bit taken aback by the Board's inability to see the answer that is in plain sight.

A failure rate of over 50% probably strikes readers as being indicative of a test that is overly difficult for the modest intellectual abilities necessary to teach K-through-12. I suspected as much as well. This is the most intelligent state in the union and these test-takers all have college degrees, after all.

We're off the mark. Take a look at the practice questions from previous exams to gauge for yourself. The link provides fifty multiple choice and short-answer questions and a couple of expositions on the open-ended writing section of the test. Here are a few of them:

If sentence 5 contains an error in spelling, capitalization, or punctuation, select the type of error. If there is no error, select D, "senctence correct."

These firms, which include such large and well-known corporations as General Motors and Home Depot, all have a proven track record of sucsess.

A. spelling error
B. punctuation error
C. capitlalization error
D. sentence correct


If sentence 4 contains an error in spelling, capitalization, or punctuation, select the type of error. If there is no error, select D, "sentence correct."

"I will have to send her a note, he thought idly; it's the least I can do."

A. spelling error
B. punctuation error
C. capitalization error
D. sentence error


49. The following sentence contains one or more errors (e.g., in grammar, usage, punctuation). Rewrite the sentence in proper form.

After we convinced him that we were, who we claimed to be, he lets us into the arena.

Although the school of education has never been known to house budding Einsteins, these are not difficult items. Test-takers are not penalized for incorrect responses (as opposed to skipping items entirely), and while the grading metrics are (intentionally) shrouded, it appears that scoring a mere 70% (if that) is required to pass.

Why not have a companion set of tests for teachers as exists for students via the NAEP? The averages at the state level would probably track well with NAEP scores for students, since populations that have lots of bright members will likely produce relatively sharp teachers as well. Although it might reveal a trend that is common in economically undeveloped countries, where the most promising intellects shuffle off into government bureaucracies for lack of prospects in the private sector. So maybe we would find Michigan's teachers to be the nation's most intelligent.

The National Education Association is opposed, of course. It's easier to get along without standards than with them, if the money is assured all the same. The NEA fears it would further make risible the myth of the selfless and erudite elementary school teacher, slogging away heroically for much less than she deserves. Computed hourly, teaching is a lucrative profession. Public school teachers also enjoy safe employment, as disciplinary action is almost unheard of even for the most egregious breaches of competency. With a version of the NAEP for teachers, we'd also see how ignorant so many of them are.

Imagine if, as a parent, you discovered your child's English teacher didn't know how to use quotations indicating speech properly, as in the second question excerpted above. Well, most states do not have academic prerequisites for teachers that are as vigorous as the ones Massachusetts has in place. So it wouldn't be surprising if your kid's teacher really didn't know when to use quotations.

I expect the Massachusetts Board of Education will 'remedy' the problem by giving more weight to the open-ended sections of the writing tests and less to the binary multiple choice questions, as well as watering down the tests' overall difficulty. There'll be hand-wringing over institutional and societal racial bias as well. Conspiciously, there has been no word on how Massachusetts Asian hopefuls have been faring.

I'm doubtful that competent teachers matter much in the performance of the student body at large (although if Massachusetts teachers are, like Massachusetts students, among the most intelligent in the country, it would give the impression that they do). Boosting the IQ of the student body by a few points will do a lot more for their performance than installing a crop of Joe Clarks will. But these teachers are better able to challenge the most gifted students who are neglected by legislation like No Child Left Behind than dull teachers are.

An NAEP for teachers, even if it occured, would be but a baby step. The entire educational system needs to be made over.

Introduce market forces by putting the $800 billion spent on education into the hands of students through vouchers (there is the problem of dull kids from affluent families being forced into classrooms with the underclass that would have to be addressed--although there would be institutions that would charge some amount above the per-pupil voucher amount that would make the cost prohibitively high for kids from rougher areas). Allow students to take tests demonstrating mastery of various subjects, and let the free market find ways for them to do so most efficiently (video recorded lectures by the best of the best teachers, online materials, accelerated learning, etc). Vocational education would replace more theoretical and conceptual learning for students to whom such theory will remain hopelessly arcane.


faq said...

I am generally a supporter of so called "school choice" because it breaks to teacher union monopoly and restores discipline in the classroom.

It works best of all in well to do middle class suburbs.

But I can see why whites, in urban areas especially, are hesitant. It's not of much benefit to someone who is already sending a kid to private school.

It knocks the price down, but at a price that is steeper than the tuition, or else the student never would have been sent there anyway.

Audacious Epigone said...


But why wouldn't private schools be able to adapt to this as well? If you're already sending your child to private school, vouchers do not effect you if the school simply adds whatever the voucher amount is to its tuition. That would still make it prohibitively expensive for those who might be bused in and cause angst.

I think the performance gains would be modest, but it would provide an avenue for gifted students across the SES spectrum to accelerate their learning. Some schools would be, in effect, daycares. But there are public schools that are already like that as it stands. Some of them would be able to specialize in it, and students who were being totally squandered in that environment will have more options.

As long as the schools are given free reign in how they operate, I see vouchers as a great thing.

MensaRefugee said...

Read a book recently called "Civil War II" by Thomas Chittum. (Its online at --> Online Books... yes I know lowbrow shitty site, but the book is first rate)

This type of stuff is only going to make it happen faster. And yknow what? Im not sure its a bad idea.

Audacious Epigone said...


Thanks, I'll put it on the reading list.