Who Tells Teachers They Can Teach?

Published September 1, 2001


For which grade level would the following test questions be appropriate?

1. Which of the following is equal to a quarter of a million?
(a) 40,000
(b) 250,000
(c) 2,500,000
(d) 1 / 4,000,000
(e) 4 / 1,000,000

2. Martin Luther King Jr., [insert the correct choice] for the poor of all races.
(a) spoke out passionately
(b) spoke out passionate
(c) did spoke out passionately
(d) has spoke out passionately
(e) had spoken out passionate

3. What would you do if your student sprained an ankle?
(a) Put a Band-Aid on it
(b) Ice it
(c) Rinse it with water

4. Find the grammatical and spelling errors in this sentence:
“Only if our society realize that there are so many factors contributing to a student’s test score, then teachers will be willing to take the blam game. Who is to blam when students don’t do homeworks? who is to blam when pareants don’t care to come to the teacher pareant conference?”


Although none of these questions should tax the abilities of the average sixth-grader, the test questions in fact are not for students in grades K-12 at all . . . but questions that assess the abilities of prospective and current teachers of K-12 students.

The first two questions are samples from the Praxis I test for prospective teachers. The third question is from the 1999 teacher certification test in Illinois, and the fourth is a quotation from a recent letter to The New York Post sent by a certified high school social studies teacher in New York City. The Post ran a series of stories a few years ago about the poor spelling and grammar found in teachers’ written evaluation of students.

“We have some issues with teaching quality,” Board of Education President Ninfa Segarra told the Post. “An example like this shows it’s worse than we might have thought.”

New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy admitted to Post reporter Carl Campanile that the two exams used to certify teachers “are not difficult.” The content of the tests is easier than the questions on the SAT, according to one new teacher. Nevertheless, 31 percent of New York City public school teachers have failed at least one of the exams and the classroom skills test required for certification.

Why do so many teachers have such a limited base of knowledge? The surprising answer is that their teacher education classes and textbooks do not emphasize knowledge as being important.

Teachers as Facilitators

The traditional form of teaching is teacher-centered, where knowledgeable teachers transmit their knowledge and information to students. However, the teaching model preferred in schools of education is student-centered, where teachers function not as dispensers of knowledge but as facilitators assisting students in the discovery of knowledge for themselves.

Earlier this year, the Pacific Research Institute released a report by Lance T. Izumi and K. Gwynne Coburn, “Facing the Classroom Challenge,” on teacher training at a sample of the schools of education in the California State University system. After reviewing quantitative research studies, the report concluded teacher-centered methods are more effective in raising student achievement . . . but the CSU schools of education favored less-effective student-centered methods.

Nancy Ichinaga, principal of the renowned Bennett-Kew elementary school in Los Angeles, told Izumi and Coburn that student-centered teaching practices had a harmful effect, particularly on low-income students. Ichinaga said they had more trouble with teachers who were certified than those who weren’t.

She also admitted that 90 percent of the people she had hired in the last few years were “emergency-credentialed” and therefore had had no teacher training and no exposure to the following student-centered philosophy:

  • “Content knowledge is not seen to be as important as possessing teaching skills and knowledge about the students being taught.” (from a San Francisco State University pedagogy textbook)
  • “No longer can teachers expect to be fountains of wisdom and convey knowledge to passive students.” (from a CSU Fresno textbook)
  • Advocating less student “sitting, listening, receiving, and absorbing information” and more “active learning in the classroom with all the attendant noise and movement of students doing, talking, and collaborating.” (from a required text at CSU Dominguez Hills)
  • “We cannot afford to become so bogged down in grammar and spelling that we forget the whole story,” which includes “racism, sexism, and the greed for money and human labor that disguises itself as ‘globalization.'” (from a CSU Dominguez Hills multicultural textbook)
  • “There is no place for requiring students to practice tedious calculations that are more efficiently and accurately done using calculators.” (from a San Francisco State University math text)

Although the Pacific Research Institute study was conducted in California, similar studies in other states would find the same thing, according to John E. Stone, an educational psychologist and professor in the College of Education at East Tennessee State University.

For more information . . .

The April 2001 report by Lance T. Izumi and K. Gwynne Coburn, “Facing the Classroom Challenge: Teacher Quality and Teacher training in California’s Schools of Education,” is available at the Pacific Research Institute’s Web site at www.pacificresearch.org.