A letter to a teacher in Iowa

Dear Suzy:

You won't believe this, but the Senate President out here wants to offer $20,000 signing bonuses to new teachers. He figures we might attract better teachers if we spend some big bucks to get them.

I doubt you'd be interested, since you already have more than 30 years of teaching out there in Iowa. Come to think of it, if you'd been teaching here, you might be eligible to retire if we pass the Rule of 90. (Your years of teaching plus your age have to add up to 90.)

Anyway, it all started when the state required new college graduates to take competency tests in order to get their teaching credentials. You probably took them in Iowa, but Massachusetts was, until now, one of only seven states that didn't require competency tests for would be teachers.

Well, Suzy, almost two thirds of them, 59 percent to be exact, failed.

Some 600 of 1800 couldn't even pass the literacy skills part of the test. Literacy skills, Suzy! That's pretty scary! Others failed in specific academic areas.

I guess the results scared the Board of Education, too, because members decided, instead of passing only a third, they'd lower the grades necessary to pass. That meant only 44 percent failed; two thirds passed.

Then Board of Education Chairman John Silber, attacked the colleges, saying they'd lowered standards of admission, attracted the least talented students, inflated grades, churned out unqualified teachers, and graduated people who "are frequently illiterate and totally lacking in content knowledge appropriate to the subject they propose to teach."

Speaker of the House Tom Finneran simply called everybody "idiots."

Finneran ripped into the would-be teachers who flunked the test, saying they were "idiots" with worthless degrees. He added that the professors and teachers, who passed them, accepting shoddy work that shouldn't be acceptable for seventh graders, also were "idiots." Anyone who complained about having to take the test were "whiners and complainers."

Then, Silber, who said colleges better raise standards or shut their doors, and Governor Paul Cellucci, who pointed out that "it's amazing that these people get a college degree," convinced the Board to reverse their decision and maintain the higher standards. And, the board did, with a 6 to 1 vote. So once again two thirds of the test takers failed.

With everyone calling the Board of Education basically incompetent, Education Commissioner Frank Haydu got so upset that he quit, saying he didn't want to be part of a political game.

Every one is angry. Teachers and professors. Parents. College graduates. The Speaker, Senate President and Governor. The Commissioner, the Board, the college presidents.

And Jim Carlin, too. He's chairman of the Board of Higher Education. He told the college presidents they'd better get their act together and come up with a plan to fix the situation.

I guess he really meant business, Suzy, because he told them to cut the bull. I loved his words.

"I do not want to get involved in a six month intellectual debate over 'defining the problem' or preparing 'a thoughtful, deliberate process of establishing a dialogue pointing toward a solution'," he wrote, "or discussing whether your school is or is not doing things right or whether education school graduates are poorly prepared because their mothers didn't love them or they weren't chosen to be a cheerleader in junior high."

Suzy, you've known me for probably 50 years and you know I'd last in a classroom like yours about five minutes.

It sure seems to me that we've got a major problem here. As we come up with some solutions I'll send an update.

Meanwhile, hello to all. Hug Martha. And, enjoy your summer vacation.

Love, Cele

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