Testing Teachers

January 17, 1995|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Congress is rightly acting to have the laws it enacts for others apply to itself. By the same admirable principle, teachers should submit to what they prescribe for others -- tests.

For years teachers have been truants when it came to testing their own knowledge of the subjects they teach.

When Governor Bill Clinton tried to get Arkansas teachers to take qualifying exams, the teachers' union fought him in strident ways that only Hillary Rodham Clinton finally overcame with a patient campaign of public education.

Critics of the Arkansas program said it was too easy to be meaningful. But some teachers flunked it anyway -- and Mrs. Clinton provided makeup courses to let the teachers try again.

Whatever the difficulties of implementing the program, establishing its principle was a valuable first step. Pilots have to take continuing tests of their ability. College teachers have student assessments to keep them aware of their perceived shortcomings.

Grammar and high school teachers should have ways of proving their continued capacity.

The Roman poet Juvenal asked a famous question, ''Who is to guard society's guardians?'' We have to ask, ''Who is to teach America's teachers?''

When I was in college, I thought I was going to become a priest, which would have involved a period of teaching in Jesuit high schools. So I took teacher-qualifying courses under the Missouri state system of that time.

We studied the history of public education in America, surveyed 20th-century teaching theories, and had some practical tips given us by ''master teachers.'' But none of this really helped much when at last I did get into a classroom.

At the college level, the principal influence on teaching technique is the behavior of one's own favorite teachers, especially in graduate school.

That is not a sure system, but at least it gives better guidelines than most grade school or high school teachers receive.

The first step to remedying this situation is the national teaching certification now being offered by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a joint program of private foundations and government money, following up on the recommendations of several major studies done in the 1980s (by the Carnegie Foundation and the Department of Education, among others).

With great fanfare, the first 81 teachers have qualified in this program. They underwent a thorough examination in the fields they teach; they solicited student evaluations; and TV tapings of their classroom performance were used.

This procedure is as intimidating to some teachers as the tests they give are frightening to their students. All the more reason to encourage its use.

Some say that such requirements will scare people off at a time when we need more teachers.

But the lack of standards has deterred others, and some of the best, from entering a field where excellence is too rarely recognized and rewarded, where mere job security is sought.

The way to reform schools is to professionalize their staffs. This should not be done on a hit-or-miss basis, state by state. Job security should be connected with the federal certification good for teachers applying in any state.

It is up to state boards now, and their citizen constituents, to encourage teachers to undertake this certification -- which not only tests but improves skills, opening new opportunities to those who want to make their lives more meaningful. Then a mere policing of unruly charges as they pass through our schools, with too little going on in their heads, may be remedied.

Here is an opportunity too good to let slip.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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