Let me make it clear from the start that I have only limited faith in the ability of standardized tests to predict how well professionals will perform on the job. I have even less faith in their predictive value for minorities who, for reasons yet to be explained satisfactorily, tend to test poorly.
Thus, if we were talking about professional tests for prospective teachers -- written tests designed to disclose their ability to manage their classrooms, to motivate their pupils and to teach them -- I'd consider joining those who call for less reliance on the tests, if only because they work disproportionately against minorities.
But we are not talking about pedagogic esoterica, not even history and literature. We are talking about tests of basic skills in reading, writing and math: the ability to read a fairly simple paragraph and answer a few questions about it, to correct fairly obvious grammatical errors, to handle basic arithmetic.
And still minorities are flunking these tests at rates so high that there is a real threat that the percentage of minority teachers in the public schools may dwindle to a single digit, as more and more states move toward competency exams for teachers.
Take California, where teacher training is given only at the post-college level. More than three-quarters of the white applicants who took the California Basic Educational Skills Test in 1983 passed it. Only 58 percent of minority applicants did: 834 of 2,133 Mexican Americans; 637 of 1,259 Asian Americans; and 530 of 2,040 blacks -- 26 percent.
The California results are replicated across the nation. What is going on?
I put the question to Bernard R. Gifford, dean of the graduate school of education at the University of California, Berkeley.
"I'm in a delicate position," he began. "I'm black, and I have to be aware of the employment implications for black people. But there's no way I can argue in favor of a system that would perpetuate the very difficulties we are trying to address. To employ teachers who lack the most basic reading and math skills would be to cheat our children out of an education."
He is firm in his belief that the problem is with the educational background of aspiring minority teachers, not with their innate ability.
"I don't think minorities are working up to their capacity, in many cases. There are a lot of faculty members who won't demand from black students what they are capable of generating, and the students adjust their sights downward. Some aren't aware of how poorly they are performing because their teachers aren't expecting much from them. And others are cynically taking advantage of well-meaning liberalism that overlooks poor performance on the part of minorities."
But there is, he believes, another factor that is much harder to address: what happens at home. "If youngsters believe that education is a means to educational and social mobility, they work hard; if not, they don't. Somewhere along the line, we've lost our faith in education as a means of overcoming deprivation.
"When I was growing up in Bedford Stuyvesant, all my mother ever told me was that I would have to work harder, be twice as good (as whites) to make it. Some of us have stopped saying that to our children, and as a result they are not working as hard as they should -- although many of them think they are working hard," Gifford said.
He has proposed a three-step program to help stem the decline of minority teachers: early identification and special pre-professional help for minority and low-income students interested in teaching; intensive university and post-graduate training (including help in basic math, reading, writing and reasoning skills, and full graduate scholarships for those who maintain a B average in college); and some form of merit pay for outstanding teachers.
His proposals, though they could easily be adapted, are specific to California. His prognosis isn't:
"If we don't do the job on this cycle, when the interest in education is high, we are going to see a greater move to private schools and tuition tax credits and voucher plans -- not just by political conservatives but by a large mix of people, including black parents."