Thursday, June 29, 2017

Supt. Reykdal, please do something sensible

June 29, 2017

Chris Reykdal
Superintendent of Public Instruction 
Old Capitol Building
PO Box 47200
Olympia, WA  98504-7200 

Dear Mr. Reykdal,

I’m writing to explain a situation that I hope you can change.  I’m an 8th grade English teacher, and a part-time college professor of political science, in which I hold a PhD.  I recently applied for a high school social studies position in the district where I live, and the district office did not forward my file to the school for review, because my certificate did not have a social studies endorsement.  
As I understand it, the new policy is that everyone must take the West-E exam for Social Studies in order to get endorsed.  Under the old “highly qualified” procedure, I was thus designated, but now I must have an endorsement.
So I looked at some sample material from the West-E, and, frankly, I’m embarrassed, because we deem someone qualified after passing a multiple choice test, study guides for which make the whole thing into a mere memorization activity.  
At a time when we’re emphasizing “college readiness” in high school students, we’re endorsing their teachers by way of a process that would be wholly inadequate for even the most rudimentary college social science course—I know, because I teach those courses.  In other words, we are expecting more of our high school students than we are of their teachers.  To put it in the language of education, the test demands little more than Depth of Knowledge 1 or 2, while teachers are to push students to DoK 3 and 4.
Is it any wonder that anybody who pays the least bit of attention regards the education bureaucracy as practically farcical?
I say this not simply because I have a PhD, but because that PhD—like an endorsement—serves as a reasonable proxy for readiness, preparation, capacity, training, or whatever else one thinks necessary to serve as a high school teacher.  
Further, I think that even a cursory glance at my CV indicates that I have a wealth of social science experiences that transcend many of the narrow requirements of the West-E.  Moreover, my record—particularly publishing—reflects that I understand the idea of social science argument, how to make arguments, and how to undertake the learning necessary to do so effectively.  
No doubt, the bureaucrats who hold the keys to the kingdom are sure they’re serving all of us well by making certain everyone follows the rules, to the letter…there’s no basis for questioning their judgment that way.  They just followed the rules, after all.
Well, I’m calling somebody’s judgment into question.  Unfortunately, the nature of the “system” precludes discerning just who that should be.  
So I’m going right to the top.  
Will you make some sense of this ridiculous system?


Andrew K. Milton, PhD

P.S.  I’ll take the test, and I’ll do just fine.  (I got 10/10 on the sample test described below.)  But let me evaluate a few sample questions as a means to highlighting the silliness of the West-E.  I took this test at  They give away three sample tests, in an attempt to entice you into buying more.  

Which of the following were the primary commanders of the armies fighting at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781?

Benedict Arnold and Simon Fraser. 
Robert Howe and Archibald Campbell. 
George Washington and Charles Cornwallis. 
Nathanael Greene and Alexander Stewart. 

Correct Answer:
George Washington and Charles Cornwallis.

(What the test company called an) Explanation:
Correct Answer:
George Washington and Charles Cornwallis.

Washington commanded the American forces and Cornwallis, who eventually surrendered, commanded the British forces. The Battle of Yorktown was the last major battle of the American Revolution.

This isn’t really an explanation, of course.  It’s just a recapitulation, with greater detail.  And, frankly, correctly answering the question does not necessarily reflect understanding of what the war was about, why it was fought, how remarkable it was that the upstart beat the reigning world imperium, or the consequence of American victory.

The Great Lakes region is most accurately characterized as:

A humid continental, warm summer climate zone. 
A highland climate zone. 
A humid continental, cool summer climate zone. 
A semi-arid steppe climate zone. 

I got this one just by knowing the Midwest is hot and humid in summer.  Didn’t really take any special abilities, skills, knowledge or preparation.  Helped that I’d been there, but I wonder if someone hadn’t been, what does it really show that they understand about social science that they would have memorized this question and answer?

One factor that enabled the transition from feudalism to market economies in Europe was:

The code of chivalry. 
The three-field system of farming. 
The introduction of Arabic writings on algebra and geometry. 

I understand feudalism enough (I also have a degree in Economics) to know that chivalry and primogeniture stood in the way of markets, and three-field farming is irrelevant.  So I had a pretty good sense that Arabic math—and their use of zero—made accounting possible, which is fundamental to market operations.  Again, someone’s having memorized this off a study guide means little.

Also note that a good college social science class (that covered this topic) would require a student to explain how chivalry and primogeniture sustained feudalism, how nascent market actors overcame those legacies, and why feudalism gave way to markets in different patterns in different places throughout Europe.  Unfortunately, this question does not indicate that the tester could explain these things.

The Constitution of the United States provides which of the following instructions regarding the selection of the President?

The President shall be elected by obtaining the majority of the popular vote. 
The President shall be elected by the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. 
The President shall be elected by an institution whose members are appointed by the states. 
The President shall be appointed by a joint committee of the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

Cheeky to describe the Electoral College without using the name.  Really functions as something of a trick, then.

The lowdown on baguettes in Philadelphia is this: There are not many bakeries that make them, they vary in price from $1.50 to $4.00, and the bakeries that do sell them, sell out pretty quickly. Paris, by contrast, is a baguette lover’s heaven. There is no end to baguettes in Paris. There are bakeries on every street corner, and they only cost from $1.00 to $1.50; and best of all, there is also no end to baguette lovers. Which of the following statements most accurately describes the economics of the baguette market in Philadelphia in comparison to Paris?

The baguette market in Philadelphia seems to be an oligopoly with collusion, while the market in Paris is a non-colluding oligopoly with price ceilings. 
The baguette market in Philadelphia seems to be in a state of immature perfect competition, while the market in Paris is a subsidized oligopoly. 
The baguette market in Philadelphia seems to be in a state of mature perfect competition, while the market in Paris is a natural monopoly subsidized by the government. 
The baguette market in Philadelphia seems to be in a state of monopolistic competition, while the market in Paris is in a state of mature perfect competition. 

It isn’t actually necessary that Philadelphia be monopolistic competition.  Could be lots of things.  Could be segmentation in the market, with constraints on factor mobility, or with significantly different characteristics in each segment (e.g., in wealthy neighborhoods, higher pricing generates a socially desirable luxury good aspect)  Could be oligopolistic.  Such a price variation doesn’t look like monopoly, after all.  Why aren’t the monopolists charging closer to $4 everywhere, or skipping those areas of the market where they can only get $1.50?  (That’s one of the critiques of monopoly—they won’t bother to serve markets where the monopolist’s profit isn’t available to them.)

Of course, the word seems does offer something of a qualification.  And explaining those qualifications would be a worthy endeavor.  But answering the question may or may not reflect one’s ability to do so.

In the United States House of Representatives, the tenacious task of overt partisan advocacy falls to:

The Speaker of the House. 
The Majority Leader. 
The Majority Whip. 
The Conference Chair. 

You either know this, or you memorized it from the study guide.  And, again, somewhat useless either way, at least in so far as it doesn’t necessarily show the tester has a capacity to make interesting analyses of important political processes because they got the question right.

Cotton grows best in areas with a high amount of rainfall, but not too much, because cotton also needs a lot of direct sunlight. Also, from the time the cottonseeds are planted to when the bolls are plucked, there should not be any periods of frost or freezing temperatures. Which of the following regions of the United States meets these requirements?


Trying to pass as a geography question?  But if you’ve spent 15 minutes studying the Civil War, you’d get this.

During the Heian Period, diaries such as the Pillow Book and novels such as the Tale of Genji were written by:

Japanese noblemen. 
Japanese noblewomen. 
Chinese noblemen. 
Chinese noblewomen. 

I had no idea, except that Genji is Japanese not Chinese.  And it would be just a little tricky to have it be the women (Pillow Book, helps too), not the men, so I took my chance on that…and I was right.

Now, the big question…what does this prove about someone’s capacity to teach social studies?  Really?

During the Middle Ages, feudalism was an economic and social system binding rulers, landowners, farmers, and warriors into codified relationships of vassalage, patronage, and labor in which of the following regions of the world?

New Spain and New Guinea. 
Polynesia and Mali. 
China and North America. 
Japan and Europe. 

One of the first things you learn about feudalism is its prevalence throughout Europe.  Must choose the only answer with that in the set.  And, again, doesn’t mean the tester could say anything about what feudalism was, what’s its legacy was, what it begat and how.

In short, answering such questions isn’t the kind of proof that demonstrates a relevant readiness or preparedness to teach high quality social studies courses in high school, so I’m disappointed to know that the West-E is the measure we use for endorsing teachers to do just that.

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