Ellie Herman, a professional writer for 20 years, set out to become a high school English teacher in Los Angeles. It’s not easy, she found. Her years of experience were irrelevant. So was her Bryn Mawr English degree. After passing the CBEST, a test of basic reading, writing and math skills, she was told she needed to prove “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 â€” or pass something called the CSET, an Orwellian, five-hour sequence of four exams with some questions so obscure I would defy most Ph.D.s to answer them. What is a modal verb? What’s an embedded appositional phrase? A grapheme?
She passed. Then she was hired as an intern by a charter school.
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 â€¦.” 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. . . . 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? What is being tested here? My patriotism? My sanity? My level of desperation? What’s next â€¦ eating centipedes?
These aren’t high standards, she argues. They are “just a high pile of standards.”