There's a big push in many states and among the edu-policy crowd to do away teacher licensing tests. That advocacy is predicated on an assumption that there's no evidence that licensing tests predict classroom effectiveness (false), that licensing tests keep aspiring teachers of color out of the classroom (true, but the solution is a more equitable education and better teacher prep, not to shoot the messenger), and—my personal favorite—a whole lot of passionate testimony about this or that teacher who was the best teacher in a school but who couldn't pass her licensing test.
This isn't the first time a few well-told anecdotes drove sweeping changes in state legislatures and it won't be the last.
As a practical matter, I have no doubt that there are teachers who have failed their content tests but end up doing just fine in the classroom—though keep in mind they aren't necessarily representative. Something about them made them an attractive recruit in spite of poor test performance.
No test, in fact, no criterion used to decide if someone is professionally ready, is foolproof. Look no further than that shorty Steph Curry or diploma-less Bill Gates, for example.
I'm thinking that the push to do away with teachers' content knowledge was perhaps inevitable, the last gasp in the gradual emptying of content from the standard elementary school curriculum. Why ask teachers to know any history if no one cares if it is taught? Elementary grades are now for the most part full of dry and dreary stuff—even though it's putting students to sleep.
Textbook publishers, state and district curriculum specialists, and well-meaning academics long ago eradicated the more interesting content knowledge from elementary grades—wrongly believing that reading comprehension is built by skills, not content. In the process, we deprive children of some pretty great stories, erecting road blocks for appreciating our shared human experience. Why read stories about the building of the Great Wall of China, Joan of Arc, the Trail of Tears or, tee hee, "The Miller's Tale" when Jose Goes to the Supermarket or Angie's New Puppy are on offer?
It's no wonder then that there are teachers who can excel even though their grasp of content knowledge is sadly weak—even as measured by some of the more notoriously easy content tests. But it also explains why students' reading comprehension remains stuck in the basement.
District curricula grossly underestimate the importance of content knowledge, treating it as a fun little way for teachers to exercise their creativity. The frosting, not the cake. They also grant far too much latitude for what little science and history gets taught—even though those two areas are where teachers generally get the least preparation and perform poorly on their licensing tests. In its worst manifestation, it leads to excessive repetition. In second grade, my own kids were thrilled to learn about dinosaurs, but a little less so when it came around in 3rd grade. By 4th grade, they were pleading to be taken down by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. My point here is not to bash dinosaurs or my kids' teachers—but to show what happens when we're agnostic about content.
Mathematics is a somewhat different story. Instead, it illustrates the unfortunate combination resulting from many elementary teachers' self-professed weak grasp of math with low expectations. We've not just accepted but embraced the idea that elementary teachers and mathematics go together like oil and water. Few teacher prep programs take it upon themselves to teach aspiring teachers the math they need. Since we've grown comfortable with the idea that the math we're teaching our fifth graders was mastered by 2nd graders in Asia, this all works out pretty well.
All this leads to a choice. RIP knowledge, where we buy into a system which doesn't require elementary teachers to know very much to stand out (ignoring the relative nature of such judgments).
Or we can recognize that this is the stuff that makes schooling worthwhile. We don't throw out the teacher tests. Instead, states make sure they are as good as they need them to be and we look to teacher preparation programs to take responsibility for filling in gaps in teacher knowledge. That's the future I thought we were going for when we, however briefly, embraced college and career readiness standards. In any case, if I were a teacher, I'd much rather children's eyes brighten than their mouths open wide for a yawn.
Next week, NCTQ will release a report that provides a plausible—and preventable—reason behind the high failure rate by teacher candidates on their elementary licensing tests with evidence that teacher prep programs are missing opportunity after opportunity to fill gaps in teacher candidates' knowledge.
P.S. And no, I am not really advocating that elementary kids read "The Miller's Tale."