you oughta know

Many months ago, I spent a snowy and freezing Sunday (and almost $200) sitting for my Multi-Subject Content Specialty Test to qualify for New York State teacher certification. Here are some reflections on that experience, dedicated to all those making the slog through certification requirements.

I knew showing up to a triple-header NY state teacher certification examination that it would be an exercise in double consciousness.

“Welcome to this sterile and lifeless testing center! For the next four hours, you’ll sit down and assume against all pedagogical training and experience things like: phonics instruction is the BEST form of early reading instruction! Teacher-designed assessments are frowned upon! Silent independent reading? WORTHLESS because it’s not backed by research [gasp!].”

Willfully forgetting my commitment to things like blended literacy, authentic assessment, and building a love of reading in my students was probably the most difficult thing about this test. The other daunting and aggravating angle was that for a test that spans language arts, math, science, fine arts, and technology, there is absolutely no way to cram. Your best bet is to know a little bit about everything.

In theory, though not in practice, that could be the best thing about this test when it comes to folks who want to be teachers.

Based on my experience, apparently as a teacher I should know:
– the causes of the American revolution
– how the phases of the moon work
– the math behind car depreciation
– the physics behind playground swings
– how to make a wood block print
– the connection between agriculture and the development of cities
– how to gauge improvement in a person’s cardiovascular health

This is leaving aside the advanced algebra and literature questions that are far above what I am responsible for teaching in third or fourth grade.

From a subject matter perspective, I support the idea that elementary teachers must be generalists: we are intellectual omnivores and jacks-of-all-trades. This is particularly true in a constructivist classroom where our comments and questions need to spur students in the right direction, not quickly dish up a googled right answer. However, I have to offer a few caveats.

Caveat 1: Teachers can’t and shouldn’t be expected to know “everything.”

Perhaps because facilitating is our main goal, I would like to remind the test creators that we can’t be expected to know everything. In fact, as teachers we should be able to both acknowledge and model that we are learning all the time. As Alfie Kohn suggests, there is great power in telling students what we don’t know!

teachers can emphasize the ideas in a given field that they are still personally struggling to make sense of. The passion they probably feel about such issues is likely to facilitate students’ engagement even as it communicates two equally important messages: that people continue to be genuinely curious all their lives and that adults, including teachers, may be uncertain and even clueless about some things. The latter point can also be made by focusing a discussion on what even the experts still don’t understand — that is, on what isn’t known — in a given field.

(from the excellent essay Challenging Students… and How to Have More of Them)

You can imagine the looks on kids’ faces when you tell them that grownups have no idea about how something works. And it’s true! We still don’t understand basic things like the science of yawns, anesthesia, or something as everyday and vital as sleep.

Caveat 2: A “general knowledge” test is, by default, biased in favor of white, economically privileged test takers.

This is a big one. In some ways, the test I took was a better measure of my own primary and secondary education than my qualification to be a teacher. This is probably best illustrated by the fact that some questions straight up made me think of my own teachers, like Dr. Herbert who insisted in tenth grade that we know about the Norman invasion and its impact on the English language.  (I guess he’s had the last laugh on that one.) As a young white teacher coming from considerable privilege, this test was pretty much written for me.

New York State teacher certification examinations have been ruled racially biased in multiple iterations over the years, in court battles that have been going on since 1996 (when I was in elementary school). For the LAST (Liberal Arts and Sciences Test, since rewritten and re-branded), pass rates for black and Latino test takers were sometimes half that of white test takers. This is a huge problem when the teaching profession already skews white.

Given those two caveats, I’ll say this: before we even begin to wade into the question of what content knowledge teachers should have, let’s acknowledge that we first need an equitable, unbiased, comprehensive way to assess teachers’ pedagogy, not their content knowledge. And that will still leave some educators holding their noses and doing their best to give the answers that are wanted, not the ones they believe are right.

Caveat to the caveats: Don’t let go of that content question just yet.

What would happen without any content-based teacher tests? Lots of well-meaning and inevitably biased white women (that’s me!) continue to enter the teaching profession. They continue to teach what they know — a combination of what they themselves were taught and the information available in corporation-written curricula. Where and how does the profession hold us accountable for addressing our own biases, de-centering our own whiteness, and helping the youngest Americans learn what they will need to know to participate in civic life?

When E.D. Hirsch published his “need to know” list as part of his 1988 book Cultural Literacy, it was in the service of cultural access. It was a list that could in theory help Americans understand the discourse of the culture of power. As Eric Liu pointed out in a 2015 Atlantic article, such a list should not remain stagnant, or even hierarchical. And as Lisa Delpit would undoubtably point out, the list comes with a responsibility to remind students that this is what’s powerful, not what’s most important or what’s inherently “right.”

My high school education didn’t include Japanese Internment, American Indian [sic] boarding schools, or the Young Lords. I didn’t know about Claudette Colvin or how Mahalia Jackson prompted King’s “I have a dream” speech as we know it. We need a content list for teachers because not knowing something doesn’t let me off the hook for teaching it.

The last thing I want is a deep-pocketed corporation making a fortune peddling a white, Eurocentric gatekeeping test. At the same time, I still believe that to teach well, teachers need to know a little bit about many things, and be able to prove it.

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