Short-changed by grade inflation | PostIndependent.com

Short-changed by grade inflation

Cepeda
Staff Photo |

CHICAGO ­— My two sons have been indoctrinated by their well-meaning public schools to believe that college is a punishingly difficult pursuit of knowledge. Around the dinner table, however, they get the skinny from their parents: “It all depends on your major.”

A business degree with a concentration in a discipline such as economics or finance can be a bear to attain. Yet in the field of education, you’re likely to spend a lot of time in trivial pursuits, even in grad school.

Throughout the 10 or so courses required for my graduate-level teacher training program, there were tedious sessions of “mini-lessons” and “group work,” which usually required only talking about our feelings.

Instead of endless chapters of required reading, lengthy research papers and nail-biter exams, there was a lot of coloring, cutting and pasting, watching syrupy videos about how to be culturally adept, and reflecting about, yes, our feelings.

Do not misunderstand the circumstances: I was not studying to become a kindergarten teacher. My training was in secondary education with concentrations in special and exceptional education and English-language learners — students requiring specialized knowledge and skills — and a sub-focus in math.

Much research has shown that the standards to get into a university education program are, generally, quite low. Yet the issue is regularly ignored by policymakers. That’s why we’re still asking why our schools are failing and our students can’t read, write or do simple math.

Now, from the National Council on Teacher Quality, comes another report highlighting the ease with which mediocre students can skate through teacher-education programs with A grades.

Among the report’s findings:

— Of the more than 500 higher education institutions that turn out nearly half of the new teachers annually, 58 percent exhibit lower grading standards for teacher candidates than for students in other majors on the same campus.

— There is a “strong link between high grades and a lack of rigorous coursework, with the primary cause being assignments that fail to develop the critical skills and knowledge every new teacher needs.”

The authors of “Training Our Future Teachers: Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them” offer any number of startling statistics about grade inflation — which has been well-documented for years — in the teaching profession.

But even though these findings require our attention, fixing the cause of this grade inflation should become an immediate priority.

The source of the problem, according to this analysis, is that students in teacher training programs are more often and more likely than students in other majors to be given assignments that cover a broad scope of content. Worse, these assignments tend not to be knowledge- or skill-based, and often put an outsized emphasis on students’ opinions.

It trickles down.

Anyone who has checked out a child’s homework or projects in the last few years has seen a shift from research, content testing and skill acquisition to subjective, opinion or feeling-based interpretive “work.” For instance, if a student in a history class was learning about people who sheltered Jews in their homes during the Holocaust, the student might be asked to write five paragraphs about a time he or she had to keep a secret.

Compare this to assignments that focus on a clearly circumscribed slice of knowledge or skill-based material — such as writing an essay comprised of a 10-point timeline of factors leading up to World War II — and require teachers to determine whether the content is correct or incorrect and then address specific areas of deficiencies in the acquired knowledge of the students.

Yet how could taxpayers ever expect their public schools to pump out students with quantifiable knowledge when the teachers themselves are trained to get top grades through fluffy assignments and “assessments” that don’t actually test knowledge or skill acquisition?

The answer is obvious: Make teacher education more rigorous by upping admission criteria, identifying the standards that can define teacher excellence — like, say, a higher minimum number of hours in the subject an instructor is certified to teach — and more rigorous coursework, plus knowledge and skills assessments.

These remedies are not rocket science. Yet teacher training remains the big blind spot in any discussion about why students are graduating from high school woefully underprepared for just about everything. But if we don’t take off our blinders to this issue, there will be very few American rocket scientists to speak of in the not-so-distant future.

     Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.


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