Plotting the Course for Greater Centralized Control

(Guest Post by James Shuls)

As a child, I spent several years in the Cub Scouts. That experience taught me many valuable lessons, like how to carve a car out of a block of wood. More importantly, I learned a bit about orienteering. There is really one thing you must know about plotting your course — where you are in relationship to where you want to be. This is true in all areas of life. At first blush, it seems this lesson was lost on the folks at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Unfortunately, it was not the only lesson lost on Missouri’s education department.

DESE recently revamped the state’s teacher licensing process. They jettisoned the widely used Praxis teacher licensure exams and instituted new standardized exams. Among the new tests is one called the Missouri Educator Profile. The profile “is an assessment of work style preferences used to support the development of effective educator habits.” Pre-service teachers take this exam upon entering a college education program and again just prior to exiting their education program. Though teachers are expected to “develop” in their preparation programs, the Missouri Educator Profile website tells us that “there are no right or wrong answers.”

Progress, development, growth, improvement; these things cannot happen unless you know where you are in relationship to where to want to be. You must have a goal.

There are no pass/fail scores on the Educator Profile; but as a point of fact, this new Educator Profile does have right and wrong answers. When designing the test, DESE officials had “exceptional teachers” take the assessment. These exceptional teachers became the norming group for whom all prospective teachers will be compared.

The initial results will provide the student and advisor with information about how the student’s work styles match the work styles of successful teachers. The results also suggest ways in which the students can improve their work styles. This is an important step in helping the students choose whether or not professional education is the right career choice.

This highlights another important lesson that was apparently lost on the folks at DESE—selecting on the dependent variable is a poor research strategy and a poor way to identify effective teaching practices. This represents more of a Cargo Cult mentality than true scholarly research. We cannot identify what makes a teacher successful by only looking at successful teachers. We need a comparison group at the very least. Emulating the habits of others will not necessarily bring about the same results and you simply cannot make causal claims by selecting on the dependent variable.

DESE officials were wrong when they said “there are no right and wrong” answers on this new exam. Teachers whose attitudes, dispositions, and habits don’t match DESE’s preconceived notion of a good teacher will have wrong answers. They will be counseled out of their education major or they will be encouraged to fall in line and conform to the DESE standard. This can have a devastating impact on ingenuity and creativity in the classroom.

At first blush, it seemed DESE officials had not learned the lesson about orienteering. But perhaps they have learned the lesson all too well and they know exactly where they want to go. In Missouri, DESE is implementing new licensure exams, Common Core Standards, new requirements for teacher preparation programs, new Pre-K standards and tests, a new K-12 evaluation system, among other reforms. I think they know exactly where they are going: they have plotted a course for greater centralized control of Missouri’s education system.

James Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute.

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