Testing My Patience
After nearly 20 years of working as a television writer, I made a radical life decision: to teach English at an L.A. public high school. I felt it was time for me to make a difference, to share my passion for language and literature with the next generation. Sure, I knew that the pay would be abysmal and that the teaching conditions in gang-infested, impoverished communities might be tough. But I really wanted to try, so I braced myself to keep going even if there were times of struggle, of heartbreak, of feeling inadequate and humiliated, even if there were times when I wanted to weep from frustration, even if I sweated through dark nights of the soul overwhelmed by the futility of it all.
And indeed, I have experienced all that. But what's crazy is that I haven't even set foot in a classroom yet.
By state law, I cannot teach in a California public school without a credential from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. On the face of it, this requirement makes sense. Schools can't go around hiring any slob who professes a love of children and a burning desire to make $39,788 a year (the LAUSD starting pay scale for interns).
But just applying to a teaching-credential program has taken me months of pointless, numbing, bewildering toil. I've submitted stacks of applications, online and on paper, along with college transcripts and letters of recommendation. I've written a five-page letter of "self-reflection," completed 45 hours of early field experience, endured a TB test and had my fingerprints taken to prove that I'm not a convicted felon. And that was just to start the actual work: proving I am "highly qualified."
As mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act and interpreted by the Legislature, all teachers in public schools must be deemed "highly qualified." Again, fair enough. One of the notorious disgraces of our public school system is the way the best teachers are funneled into schools serving high-income students, while children from low-income families are often stuck with far less-qualified teachers.
I have a bachelor of arts degree in English from Bryn Mawr and have spent my entire adult life as a working writer -- and all I want is to sign up to take the education classes I need before I walk into a classroom. Won't my degree and my life's work qualify me at least to sign up for those classes? Not even close. First, I had to take the CBEST, a four-hour exam on reading, writing and math.
After taking the CBEST, I still had not proved "subject matter competence." For that, I would have to fill the apparent gaps in my transcript with five courses in linguistics, expository writing, adolescent literature and American literature -- or pass something called the CSET, an Orwellian, five-hour sequence of four exams with some questions so obscure I would defy most PhDs to answer them. What is a modal verb? What's an embedded appositional phrase? A grapheme? Can you pick the meaning of a poem from a list of answers a, b, c and d, none of which in any way capture the ineffable beauty of the poem itself?
By studying for weeks, I managed to pass the CSET. And by a miracle, I found a job teaching at a charter school in South L.A. as an emergency hire, or intern, through a program that gives a temporary credential to teachers willing to work in schools that would otherwise be hard to staff, while taking education classes at night.
To enroll in the intern program, I had to fill out more applications and then complete 40 hours of pre-service training in teaching English language learners, a course that in theory would have been very useful but in fact only entailed reading a stack of paperwork and writing essays I suspected would be stuck in my file unread. I also had to summarize what I'd learned in a page of sentences that began with "I used to think," and ended with "but now I know ... ." Whatever the actual purpose of this exercise, writing about my former state of ignorance felt deeply sinister, like some kind of forced confession by a totalitarian state.
And I had to pass an 80-question, unbelievably arcane and ambiguously worded test on the U.S. Constitution. I have wracked my highly qualified brain, and I cannot imagine any possible rationale for this test. Because if I hadn't memorized the Bill of Rights I might march into the classroom and try my students twice for the same crime? Or force them to quarter soldiers in their homes? What is being tested here? My patriotism? My sanity? My level of desperation? What's next ... eating centipedes?
Remember: This is not to finish my teacher education. This is to be allowed to enroll in it.
Meanwhile, a new study shows that 33% of California high school students drop out before graduating; Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has speculated that in particularly underserved Los Angeles communities, the dropout rate might be as high as 70%.
I understand the idea of "standards-based" education. I embrace the need to hold teachers in low-income schools to the same standards as teachers who work with more privileged children.
But the standards to which I'm being held here are not high standards; they are just a high pile of standards, a mountain of detritus generated by various acts of legislation whenever new statistics come out showing that California schools are failing, that teachers are fleeing the state, that high school students can barely read. In a system so broken, a system that already deters most applicants with its near-poverty-level wages and difficult working conditions, why are they trying so hard to weed out anyone who, in spite of everything, still wants to come in and change a child's life?
Ellie Herman has been a television writer since 1989. This fall, she will be an intern teacher at a charter school in South L.A.
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times