NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE
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Sen. John Kuehn

Sen. John Kuehn

District 38

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Imagine a scenario where 4 out of 10 bridges collapsed from improper engineering. Or, if only 22% of hospitalized patients met all benchmarks for standard of care. The engineers responsible for the failed design and the health care providers who consistently breached the standard of care would be subject to sanctions of their license, civil liability, and even face possible criminal charges. In both, public outrage would demand immediate improvement. In neither case would anyone entertain the notion of lowering the standards on the engineering licensing exams or health care practitioner board exams in light of systemic failures in performance.

Such scenarios seem too extreme to ever occur in reality. However, in Nebraska only 22% of 2018 high school graduates met all four college readiness benchmarks established by the ACT exam, while 39% did not attain any. The greatest asset of Nebraska, our children, are being failed by the current educational system. The vast majority of Nebraska high school graduates will require remedial coursework, paid at their own expense and often with borrowed money, to be successful in either two or four year college programs.

Ignoring years worth of alarming evidence, the State Board of Education and Nebraska Department of Education adopted a rule change lowering the standards required for admission to teacher education programs in Nebraska. The test, called the Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators, evaluates skills in math, reading, and writing of potential teachers. Fortunately, Governor Ricketts did not sign off on the rule change, citing the need for high standards for teacher proficiency in Nebraska. It was ultimately withdrawn.

There are many outstanding teachers throughout Nebraska and teacher quality matters. A 2012 study by a Columbia and two Harvard professors, cited by President Obama in his 2012 State of the Union address, quantifies the major earnings impact of even slight improvements in teacher performance. The study found that replacing a teacher in the bottom 5% of their performance measure with only an average performing teacher raised the average lifetime earnings of the class by $250,000. Replacing an average teacher with a top 5% performer raises the lifetime earnings by almost $1.5 million.

In addition to the increase in earnings, the study identified students in classes with high value-added teachers got higher quality jobs, lived in better neighborhoods, and girls were less likely to become teenage mothers. Each of these is a marker of upward social and economic mobility. This is not the only evidence supporting the impact of teacher quality on learning outcomes.

Finland is often cited as the model of a successful education system, with some of the highest academic achievement in the world. You have likely seen videos on social media describing the extra emphasis on recess and unstructured play time for students. Teachers are among the highest paid professions in Finland. What is left out of the narrative are the extremely rigorous requirements to become a teacher in Finland, specifically that they must be among the top 10% of their high school class. It is more difficult to graduate with a Finnish teaching degree than to become a physician. Amanda Ripley, author of book The Smartest Kids in The World, puts it this way: “To get into education college in Finland is like getting into M.I.T. in the United States. And imagine what could follow if that were true here.”

Lowering the bar for academic proficiency for teachers is contradictory to evidence-based recommendations for improving student performance. The response of the Nebraska Department of Education Director of Teacher Certification to poor pass rates of teacher ed program applicants is equally baffling. Kevin Peters told the Lincoln Journal Star “We had a lot of kids not doing well on that test for whatever reason.” Rather than explore the underlying cause for lack of academic skill proficiency and developing a plan to fix it, the proposed alternative was to just lower the standards.

It stands to reason the skill deficiencies measured in sophomore college students by the Praxis Core Academic Skills Exam may be the same deficiencies identified by the ACT among high school graduates. Without aggressive remediation, high school deficiencies remain throughout college. It is unlikely K-12 students will develop the skills and passion for rigorous academic achievement if the people they spend the most time with outside of their parents, their teachers, don’t have a respect for and record of high academic achievement themselves.

Sen. John Kuehn

District 38
Room #12th Floor
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2732
Email: jkuehn@leg.ne.gov
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