Monday, April 28, 2014

How is it "too easy"?

On April 25th, Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, announced a new focus on improving teacher-preparation. This announcement coincided with the release of the U.S. Department of Education's (USDOE) infographic shown on the right. Problem is, this infographic is surprisingly short on information.

For example, as I pointed out in the first post of this series, the claim that "62% of NEW TEACHERS say they graduated from education school UNPREPARED for the classroom" is missing a lot of detail. Had the infographic included references for the statistics behind this claim, then interested readers could find out more about the data and draw their own conclusions. Instead, we only have the USDOE's damning interpretation, which conveniently supports its narrative.

Then there is this statement:
The lack of source leaves me with several questions. Which exams are we talking about? In Michigan, a teacher-candidate might take three different certification exams. Also, does the 96% represent first-time exam-takers or all exam-takers? Again, in Michigan, all teacher-candidates are expected to pass a basic-skills exam before beginning professional education coursework. The goal for my department is that 100% of our teacher-candidates will pass the test. In fact, our program is evaluated based on our success rate.

However, this can result in a Catch-22 because a high success rate seems to suggest to the USDOE that the test must be "too easy." Where does this interpretation come from? A similar argument was made for "beefing up" Michigan's Test for Teacher Certification:
the basic exam and various other tests for teaching specialties screen out almost no one, with four out of five passing on the first try.
That 79 percent initial pass rate for the various tests – 88 percent pass after retaking the tests – is a similar pass rate to license exams for cosmetology.
It is interesting to me that the author of the article decided to compare the results to cosmetology (a profession, like teaching, that has a high population of females), and does so with such derision. What if we compare "That 79 percent initial pass rate" to the first-time taker pass rates from the American Board of Internal Medicine?
No one seems to be saying that the Internal Medicine exams are "too easy." Could it be some tacit assumption about teachers' academic ability that leads to this double standard? If so, then making the test "harder" is a no-win situation for teachers and the programs that prepare them. Should teachers continue to pass at such alarmingly high rates, then the tests remain "too easy." Lower pass rates, on the other hand, reinforce the belief that teachers are less academically able than other professionals and that Schools of Education are not doing their job to adequately prepare candidates for the test.

Maybe the USDOE is right and the current test do not accurately represent the foundational skills teachers need to be effective in the K-12 classroom. If that is the case, then show the actual evidence that supports this claim. Otherwise, what is being provided is not information; it is propaganda.

(4/30/14) The US DOE has provided this document as the source for the 96% pas rate. It also includes the following:
shortcomings with the use and calculation of passage rates make them a misleading and untrustworthy indicator and should not be used to make cross-state comparisons or assumptions of program rigor, student success, or other similar measures of quality.


  1. You know, as long as we're at it, I'd bet that upwards of 90% of new *parents* would say they graduated from pregnancy unprepared for parenthood. Also, close to 100% of new "people" would say they graduated from their birth process unprepared for life. Duncan's whole line of analysis seems to be a cautionary misuse of statistics and of surveys.

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  2. It's a damn shame that the institution that should be leading the charge to bolster the profession of teaching has resorted to such tactics. This only furthers my view that education and its policies are being unfairly utilized as a weapon in political battles. That helps no one in the long run.

    - Chris (@absvalteaching)