A Nonacademic Plea for Common Sense

                      by Barbara Pierce
     Anyone who depends on the ability to read and write

Braille or who needs strong Braille skills and does not have

them undoubtedly finished reading the preceding article

frothing at the mouth. To those unused to digging through

reports of research findings, the striking point in the

authors' argument would appear to be that they surveyed

teachers of blind children in Florida and learned that very

few of them ever prepare class materials for their students

using the slate and stylus. Therefore there is no reason to

demand that such teachers learn to use the slate and stylus,

and states using the NLS National Literary Braille

Competency Test (NLBCT) as part of their certification

process for teachers of the blind may eventually be

instructed by the courts to throw out this instrument.
     A close reading of the article reveals that the

argument being presented is actually somewhat more complex

but equally disturbing. I do not pretend to comprehend the

professional jargon completely, and neither did several

academics to whom I showed the article in the hope that they

could explain it to me. But I would like to comment on a

couple of disturbing things it seems to say.
     The authors object to the original decision to

construct the Braille competency test to measure knowledge

of Braille rather than focusing on the teacher's mastery of

teaching methods for working with blind students. They seem

to think that assessing teacher mastery of the code somehow

means transcription skills are being assessed. Their words

are: "The recommendation by peer reviewers to assess only

knowledge of the Braille code and not methodology raises

particularly the question of the need for teachers to

demonstrate ability to transcribe materials using a slate

and stylus. There is agreement in the literature that

teachers should teach slate and stylus to students. However,

if the NLBCT is designed to assess demonstration of the

Braille code and not teaching of Braille and related

communication skills, the requirement of slate and stylus

writing is questionable." Unless I am missing something,

this reasoning seems astonishing to me.
     The concept of a competency test was first proposed

because so few special education teachers of blind students

truly knew the Braille code and could use it with any

facility. As far as I know, the evidence is anecdotal, but

blind people with a good mastery of Braille reading and

writing consistently point to a teacher or other adult whose

instruction and personal skill enabled the blind youngsters

to learn Braille effectively. Teachers who don't know

Braille well are typically unenthusiastic about teaching it,

avoid doing so as much as possible, and make errors when

they are forced to prepare Braille materials.

     There is nothing extraordinary about this phenomenon.

It pops up in human nature all the time. My children had two

different French teachers in high school. One had a

beautiful accent, had been to France, and clearly loved the

language. Her students were excited about French, spoke it

whenever they could, did extra-curricular projects, and

enjoyed themselves thoroughly. I suppose the other teacher

liked the language well enough to teach it, but no one could

ever be certain. Her accent was very poor, and her ability

to inspire enthusiasm in her students was nonexistent. When

students expressed interest in taking French at the local

college, she did what she could to discourage them on the

grounds that they would find it too difficult. Everyone

assumed that she was really afraid that her own shortcomings

would be exposed more obviously if the French faculty saw

the results of her instruction. To my mind this is the same

set of very human responses at work that we find in the

teachers who resist having their Braille skills tested.
     The NLBCT was developed, not to predict how successful

a Braille teacher would be in teaching Braille reading and

writing, but to determine whether that teacher possesses the

body of information and skills he or she must teach. A sound

knowledge of Braille reading and writing is a necessary, but

not sufficient, prerequisite to effective teaching. I am

mystified as to why this point seems so difficult for many

in education to grasp.
     Another place where ordinary common sense and

researcher logic seem to part company is in the section

titled "Issues Surrounding Content Validity." Specialized

terms are discussed in this section, and in the following

passage I do not pretend to understand the term "criterion

referenced tests," but it's pretty clear the researchers

believe that the best way to test the skills of teachers or

would-be teachers is to compare their abilities to those of

actual teachers doing the work in the classroom, which seems

to be content validity. In other words, if you construct a

valid test that measures the skills of the test-taker

against the job being done in the field, you can predict how

well the test-taker is teaching or will teach in the future.

Here is the relevant passage: "Validity of

criterion-referenced tests is widely discussed in the

literature, but content validity is generally recommended as

the primary validation of interest. For teacher

certification purposes, test content validation is generally

determined through an investigation of practitioners who

either report or demonstrate the skills tested while on the

     What follows this foggy little passage is a long

discussion, complete with citations of court cases, to

support the concept that generalized notions of what should

be taught and assessment of the test-taker's knowledge of a

body of material are unimportant or at least less important

in the certification process than assessment of the

teacher's mastery of methodology.
     Having conducted no research myself and knowing nothing

at all about test theory and test validation, I can only

comment based on common sense. Surely no one would argue

that anyone who has mastered a body of knowledge can

necessarily teach it. All of us have endured teachers who

knew their stuff but who could not communicate it to the

class. We are not arguing that knowing the Braille code well

and having the ability to write it with Brailler or slate

guarantee that one can effectively teach a blind child to

read and write Braille rapidly and effectively. But it seems

self-evident to me that one who does not have those skills

and that knowledge will very seldom be able to teach others

mastery of Braille and will be unlikely to believe in its

importance. One must understand algebra before teaching it.

A violin teacher must be able to produce music on a fiddle

if his or her students are to learn to play.
     Some years ago my local NFB chapter invited the teacher

of the visually impaired in our county to come to a meeting

and talk to us about the education of blind children. With

pride she told us that she had been teaching in the system

for eleven years, and never in all that time had a single

student in her class needed Braille. She had assured us at

the beginning of the meeting that she knew Braille and that,

if a student really needed it, she would teach it. What she

did not know was that we had been working with the parents

of several students in the county who had requested Braille

for their children, and all the students had eventually left

the school where this woman taught and gone to the school

for the blind, where they could receive Braille instruction.

When teachers like this one are not teaching what their

children need to learn for success in life, how can they

possibly provide a reliable reference for determining the

standards for teacher competency? This teacher genuinely had

not noticed that her prejudice against Braille was actually

preventing her from recognizing her students' needs.
     Of course, the teachers in Florida surveyed about their

teaching do not transcribe much material for their students

using the slate and stylus; teachers haven't done much of

that sort of thing for fifty years. First grade teachers

don't prepare worksheets for their students using pencils

either. Yet first grade teachers do use handwriting and are

expected to teach their students to write as well as read.

The authors give lip service to the concept that slate and

stylus instruction should be given to blind students. In

their survey, however, the authors did not ask how many

teachers taught the use of the slate and stylus, and they

certainly made no attempt to ascertain how effective such

teaching was. Those questions were beyond the purview of the

research, which focused on Braille transcription only.
     But I can tell you that very few blind students today

are being taught effective and enthusiastic slate use. The

Ohio affiliate conducts a Braille-writing contest each year-

-or at least we try to. We have just changed the contest

rules. We used to present a Braille 'n Speak to the middle

or high school student who wrote the best essay about the

importance of Braille in his or her life. The essay was to

be written using a slate and stylus. Last year we had no

contest entrants because, as the teachers told us, their

Braille students could write with a Perkins Brailler but not

the slate. This year we will award extra points for

submissions written with a slate and stylus, but so far none

have appeared.
     I recently received a report from a Federationist whose

affiliate had just completed a daylong trip to the state

capital during which teams of Federationists talked with

legislators about important bills coming up for action. Six

high school students took part in the event, which was

wonderful, but not a single one could take notes of the

meetings in Braille. It was not that they could not take

good notes or make a complete and legible record; these

students were unable to take Braille notes at all! It would

be hard to assemble a group of six sighted high school

students interested in attending and able to take part in

such an event who were, to a person, unable to take notes at

     These are anecdotes admittedly, but they are stories

the truth of which I can vouch for, and they have occurred

in the past year. In fact, I know only one high school

student who is enthusiastic about using the slate and

stylus, and she is being home schooled by members of the

Parents Division in Ohio and has attended the Buddy Program

at BLIND, Inc., for the past three summers. In other words,

her exposure to the poor attitudes of many teachers of blind

students in Ohio has been minimal, and her absorption of

Federation philosophy has been steady and constructive.
     Is this little essay of mine merely one more

indiscriminate attack on the abilities and attitudes of

teachers of blind students? Absolutely not! In my experience

no one is more enthusiastic about the importance of Braille

reading and writing than those teachers who do know the code

well and teach it whenever and wherever they can. They have

seen more clearly than the rest of us can how important it

is and what a difference it can make to their students at

every ability level.
     We can only hope that legislators and education

officials will depend on their own common sense and the

experience of blind adults and those teachers who actually

know and effectively teach Braille to their students. If we

have our way, most blind students will be learning Braille

in the future, and most of their special education teachers

will actually be required to know the code they are

teaching. We can only work and hope for the best and trust

that in the meantime ill-conceived research does not do our

children in.