Commentary - Practice What you Teach

By Jay Seville

     A precedent has been set that could impact tens of millions of children and working adults in the coming decades. The Massachusetts Board of Education adopted regulations this month requiring teachers at schools where 30 percent of the students fail the statešs math tests to be tested by taking the exams themselves. How could the Massachusetts Board of Education be so insensitive?

     The brouhaha stems from the 1999 test scores in Massachusetts where 40 percent of the 8th graders and 53 percent of the 10th graders failed the math section.1 Perhaps it is no surprise that a lawsuit and teacher boycotts were among the first responses by the teachersš unions. One could almost hear the protesters, "How dare the Massachusetts board require me to demonstrate competency in my subject area!"

     Stephen E. Gorrie, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, was quoted in the Washington Times, "We not only believe it is illegal, but it is unnecessary. We think it is going to damage the quality of schools by driving good teachers out of our system."2 From his illogical statement, one would conjecture he received his math training from the teachers he endeavors to defend. How would "good teachers" be driven out the school system by taking the tests themselves? If the teachers are qualified there is nothing to worry about, right? They will pass the tests.

     Others opined that low-income schools could theoretically be targeted. Given the recent polling showing the majority of black Americans support school choice, this would be something most minorities in the United States would applaud: an opportunity to rid their communities of incompetent teachers. However, it would not be responsible to merely focus on inept teachers when trying to solve the quandary of American education today: America ranks among the highest of industrialized nations in per pupil spending yet remains among the lowest in math and science scores. The often quoted TIMSS scores (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) placed American senior high school students 19th out of 21 countries in mathematics. In science they scored 16th out of 21 countries.3

     Is the answer more money? Reason magazine reported that spending per pupil more than tripled from under $2000 to over $6000 and salaries for instructional staff increased from $25,206 to $39,451 in 1996 dollars. Even class sizes declined from 26 to 17.4 Yet after all this increased spending, what have we gotten in return for our investment?

     To blame incompetent teachers would be the easy way out, but would not solve Johnnyšs test scores. To a large degree the teachers are merely the products of and bound to the rules of a dysfunctional system: monopolized education. The teachers tend to be very hard working men and women that had to play by the pre-determined rules of the centralized educational bureaucracy. College students majoring in education spend significantly less time studying their particular subject area in the universities than other majors due to the exorbitant number of psychology and methods courses required of education majors by federal bureaucrats.

     Many of the capable school administrators are bound to the "rules" of this bureaucracy when it comes to making curriculum decisions, determining the length of the school year, exactly where to invest the money allotted their schools to get the most return on their expenditures and hiring and firing teachers based on their performance. With the NEAšs membership at 2.3 million it remains the largest union in the country with over $200 million in dues on the national level. Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute noted an NEA staff member boasting that "wešre the only union with our own cabinet department" in reference to the Department of Education.5 It quashes school choice and voucher programs at every opportunity.

     The lack of return on our investment from the public education is disappointing, especially for the economically disadvantaged. But when one observes how much more indispensable an excellent education is becoming in the information age, one begins to see the issue as not merely a political but ethical one. Each passing year the evidence increases the support for school vouchers, school choice programs, home-schooling and religious schools. To prevent these reforms borders on immoral, at least that is what most inner-city mothers would probably tell you.

1 Washington Times, June 2, 2000. "Massachusetts Teachers Fail Competency Tests," page A1.

2 Washington Times, June 2, 2000. "Massachusetts Teachers Fail Competency Tests," page A1.

3 Stephen Moore, The Institute for Policy Innovation Newsletter, Insights, September 1999. "Struggling With an Education Crisis," page 3.

4 Michael W. Lynch, "Just Send Money," Reason, April 2000.

5 Stephen Moore, The Institute for Policy Innovation Newsletter, Insights, September 1999. "Struggling With an Education Crisis," page 5.


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