12/09/2014 05:20 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Why Johnny Can't Read -- Teachers' Literacy Doesn't Make the Grade in NY

Parents and politicians across New York and other states have been vehemently protesting the more stringent standards of the recently adopted Common Core curriculum, now enacted in 46 states. They wonder why their children are finding it so challenging. The answer might be in the questionable literacy skills of the very educators who are entrusted to teach them.

Beginning this past May, college students who are training to be teachers in New York are required to pass the Academic Literacy Skills test, designed to prove competency (not mastery, just competency) in the ability to understand and analyze basic reading material, and to write proficiently.

How Many Teachers Have Literacy Skills?

Only 68 percent of teacher trainees passed the test, where the minimum passing grade is 520 out of 600, or about an 80. A total of 11,371 potential teachers took the test. Since this is only the first year the test was required, we can only wonder how many hundreds of previous teachers graduated without the basic literacy skills necessary to effectively teach students. And of those who might have passed if the test had been administered in previous years, how many of those teachers truly mastered the necessary material?

Our American public school system is based on trust. We send our children off to school each morning with a blind faith in the protection of our local and state governments who set the standards. For the majority of us who don't home school, we simply trust that the public education "experts" are doing three basic things for us -- designing a proven, effective curriculum, hiring effective teachers, and keeping our children physically safe.

Due Diligence vs. Blind Faith

True, we might have a choice in the neighborhoods we live in and therefore, the overall quality of the schools our children attend, but we have absolutely no say in, and certainly no knowledge of, the qualifications of the individual teachers. To put that in context, think about how you might choose a doctor for surgery or a chronic illness. Do you blindly call the first name on the list your insurance company provides, or do you ask around or look up their backgrounds?

When I visit a new doctor for the first time, I can easily check his or her credentials -- what schools he attended, whether there have been any malpractice suits against her -- and I can get word-of mouth reviews from friends or recommending doctors. While that superficial evidence might not be conclusive, at least it gives me some starting information before entrusting my prized possession -- my body -- to any Tom, Dick, or Harriet with a medical degree.

Similarly, before we shell out $20 or $200 at a restaurant, many of us will check the restaurant reviews or ask friends what they think. But at even the most highly-regarded public schools, parents have no way of knowing whether their child's teacher previously graduated from NY's Boricua College (0 percent passing rate on the 2014 literacy test) or the University of Rochester (100 percent passing).

Astonishingly, we invest more time comparing TVs on Amazon than we do on the people we pay to ensure our children's education. Why? Because we have to, and because we trust the system.

Trust Must Be Reciprocal

In most schools, even if parents know a teacher's background, or hear "reviews" about a teacher from other parents, they usually have no recourse to choose which teacher their child gets. There are legitimate reasons for that, of course, most notably because of the logistical chaos that would ensue if the principal allowed every parent to choose their preferred teacher, but that is exactly why the trust we place in the system must be a two-way street.

The good news is, that at least in New York State, the system has finally stepped up to actually earn that trust, by ensuring that no teacher receives credentials without proving they possess the literacy skills needed to properly educate our children. The method is still imperfect -- there are some legitimate complaints from would-be teachers about the quality of the test itself, which is produced by Pearson, and about the expense of the test and other mandates, which some have estimated at $500 per student.

But with a New York State high school graduation rate of 75 percent and a national remediation rate ranging anywhere from 20 to 40 percent, our students need all the help they can get. And that help -- both the expectation and the delivery of higher standards -- must begin before teachers ever enter the classroom, while they are still students themselves.