The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
You can observe a lot by watching. ...  ...Yogi Berra.

Commentary of the Day - Oct. 9, 2000:  Is Big Al a No-account on Accountability?

Last week we cast a skeptical eye on George W. Bush's voucher plan.  This week we take a close look at Al Gore's proposals for more accountability in public education.

A quick look at the education proposals listed on on Al Gore's web page shows that "accountability" plays a central role in his plans to improve education in the United States.  Gore focuses on four areas of accountability: holding teachers accountable, holding schools accountable, holding states accountable, and holding students accountable.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests would play a central role in Gore's plan to hold states and students accountable.  These exams in basic subjects such as reading and math would be administered at the 4th, 8th and 12th grade levels.  In contrast to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) tests that are used in Dubya's home state, the NAEP tests are fairly rigorous and nationally normed.  Using the NAEP tests to measure progress nationally would, in the IP's opinion, be a real step forward.

The weak point in Gore's accountability proposals seems to be in his plan to hold teachers accountable.  At present the plan calls for a "rigorous test" of subject matter knowledge and teaching skills for new teachers, and periodic "peer reviews" for credentialed teachers.  The problem is that neither of these processes are defined in the Gore program.  The examinations that currently are used to assess the knowledge and teaching skills are weak at best.  Here in California students seeking to enter a credential program are required only to take the California Basic Education Skills Test (CBEST).  This test supposedly examines reading, writing, critical thinking, and mathematics skills.  In truth, the level of the test is so low that a bright seventh grader could pass it.

After passing the CBEST candidates for a K-8 credential can either pass the MSAT (Multiple Subject Assessment Test) or take an approved sequence of college-level courses.  The MSAT is a little more difficult than the CBEST, but not particularly challenging.  The students who pass the MSAT or who complete the approved sequence of undergraduate courses with a C+ average can enter a credential program, which focuses on teaching methods and skills.  The real weakness of this approach is that the standards applied can vary markedly from one credential program to another.  At the IP's home institution standards for admission to the credential program are rather high.  Students who complete the program are at least minimally qualified to teach in the elementary schools.  However, the standards for entrance to the credential programs at some other California State University campuses are not nearly so high.  Worse yet, some "storefront" operations allow almost anybody who has passed the CBEST to enter a credential program.

Gore's plan for teacher accountability will work only if those exams for new teachers are truly rigorous -- much more rigorous than the present system.

The real weakness in the teacher accountability plan, however, is the lack of serious periodic review for already credentialed teachers.  This is really a union issue.  Teacher unions generally favor tenure for public school teachers and oppose periodic testing of those teachers who have tenure.  Gore receives strong support from the unions.  So far, his proposals for teacher accountability don't challenge union positions in any serious way.

On the other side George Bush's education programs seems to avoid the issue of teacher competence altogether.  This likely is a consequence of his emphasis on "local control".  As it stands now, the states control the teacher education and certification process.  Gore's plan, if it ever comes to pass, at least has a chance of instituting some national minimum standards for teacher certification and licensure.  However, there are powerful forces opposed to such national standards for teachers.  Bush seems unwilling to address the issue at all, while it remains to be seen if Gore can break free from union influence long enough to put his plan into place.

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