‘Diversity’:  The Major Obstacle in Strengthening Teacher Quality

Printed from: http://newbostonpost.com/2017/10/24/diversity-the-major-obstacle-in-strengthening-teacher-quality/

As Dan Goldhaber noted in his article in the Spring 2016 issue of Education Next:  “Of the characteristics [of teacher quality] that were measured in the still-revered 1966 Coleman report titled Equality of Educational Opportunity, those that bear the highest relationship to pupil achievement are first, the teacher’s score on the verbal skills test, and then his educational background.”

Why then, all parents might ask, shouldn’t all teachers be expected to have high verbal skills on tests of these skills, as well as a strong academic background? Why should the desire for diversity in a school’s teaching staff lead to some teachers having low or uninterpretable scores on basic licensure or other tests of academic competence? Why should some parents get low-scoring teachers for their children as a matter of public policy?  That is what seems to be happening, although no one is saying this out loud.

In addition, attempts to strengthen admission criteria for teacher preparation programs have run into many buzz-saws. Probably the biggest buzz-saw is concern for the “cash cow” — the tuition money that the typically large number of college students in teacher preparation programs, especially early childhood or elementary programs, bring in, together with the marginally extra costs of preparing them for a career in teaching. Even teacher licensure tests (tests designed to protect students from academically incompetent teachers) are called “obstacles” by economists and others. No one but parents seems to worry about low academic competence in our teachers.

A recent buzz phrase in education is “excellence in teaching.” Sounds good, but what does it mean?   According to a 2016 report from the Center for American Progress on “strategies to help low-performing schools,” it means:  “… teachers who are resilient, hardworking, and dedicated, and also able to work with diverse populations, have a thorough understanding of high-quality instruction, and maintain high expectations for students.”

Excellence in teaching low achievers seems to mean that the students get higher test scores. But this Center doesn’t address what the Coleman Report noted — that the most effective teachers have high verbal skills and strong academic backgrounds.  Why don’t our leading NPOs (non-profit organizations) talk about that?

Unfortunately, for 60 years, the academic demands of prospective teachers’ undergraduate education in the Arts and Sciences have been declining. At the same time that academic or content courses were declining in demand, the requirements of undergraduate (or post-baccalaureate) programs for teacher preparation (usually in an education school) were increasing to address the various social, cultural, and linguistic issues that education faculty saw as necessary for pre-service teachers.

These new requirements have resulted in a typical training program whose content Arthur Levine described as “unruly and chaotic” in “Educating School Teachers” — a highly critical report on teacher education released in 2006. After visiting or conducting surveys in hundreds of institutions across the country, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and his research staff concluded that most teacher training programs suffer from low standards, out-of-touch faculty, and poor quality control.

Among Levine’s recommendations was the suggestion that this country needed to reduce the number of teacher preparation programs to those located at universities where the qualifications for admission were the most demanding. (See Recommendation Five on page 111.)

This idea is similar to what Finnish reformers did in the 1970s when they first began education reform in Finland.

Most if not all of the recommendations in Levine’s report have been studiously ignored since it was issued. The nation’s colleges seem to want to enroll as many low-achieving students as they can entice, so long as they are deemed “college-ready.” And no one wants to point out that there is nothing to keep low-achieving college students from becoming teachers. Moreover, there are no monetary incentives in school salary scales:  1) to hint that an Arts and Sciences major in a subject taught in K-12 is more desirable for any prospective secondary school teacher than other kinds of majors; or 2) to reward the practicing teacher who seeks a master’s degree in the Arts and Sciences instead of a master’s degree in education.

Although most rational people in this country want academically competent teachers in the classroom, there is a dilemma. Illinois may be the first state to confront the dilemma. Many students failed a new test in Illinois required before admission to a teacher preparation program (called Test of Academic Proficiency or TAP), and many of those failing the test were black and Hispanic. Instead of calling those who failed the test “low scorers,” they were called “minorities” or black and Hispanic.  

(For a description of the test, see “Test of Academic Proficiency (TAP) (400).”  For current pass rates, see “Illinois Licensure Testing System Best Attempt Pass Rate by Test of Academic Proficiency Subtest, January 1, 2017 and March 31, 2017.”)

The dilemma stems from calling students who fail a teacher-licensing test black or Hispanic rather than simply low scorers. The issue in Illinois became not why students admitted to a public college failed a basic skills test (an academic issue) but rather the pass/fail score that should be set to enable the right proportion of blacks or Hispanics to be eligible for admission to a teacher preparation program (a political issue). No one in a “leadership” position suggested letting parents have a say about this.

K-12 schools want and need teachers from any demographic background. But most are unlikely to want to hire teachers who couldn’t pass a basic skills test — to teach either their low- or higher-achieving students. If prospective teachers who fail a licensure test are identified as black, Hispanic, or some other protected class, then policy makers, legislators, or school administrators trying to raise academic achievement are accused of bigotry in opposing the hiring of low-scoring teachers.  

If a case is also made that diversity is reduced by keeping out test-takers who have failed a licensure test designed to protect the students of future K-12 teachers, then those making the case have equated diversity with low achievement and have unmoored teacher licensure from its traditional role of protecting students and their parents. If pursuit of diversity in a teaching staff requires hiring teachers who would have failed their licensure tests, then the pursuit of diversity in a teaching staff becomes anti-educational. Equating failure to pass a licensure test with the reduction of diversity degrades the concept of diversity.

A test-taker who scores low on a basic skills licensure test is unlikely to be an effective teacher of any subject. By allowing the substitution of other measures (such as their high school SAT or ACT score) to enable otherwise low scorers on a basic skills test to get into public teacher preparation programs, Illinois policy makers temporarily disguised the basic problem in Illinois but did not solve it. It is no longer clear what the scores on the SAT or the ACT now mean after both tests were “aligned” to Common Core’s standards — controversial and vague K-12 standards in reading/English language arts and mathematics with pass/fail scores on aligned tests set by unknown wizards behind a green curtain.

The consequences of having to admit students into teacher preparation programs who might have been low scorers on a test of basic skills but who have chosen to submit high school scores that are now uninterpretable fall on the faculty in the education school and in the public school where student teaching occurs. The consequences no longer fall just on the school personnel that once hired prospective teachers after they had passed measures based on the lower standards in place earlier.

Now school and education school faculty must figure out how to pass low-scoring and low-performing student teachers (or student teachers with uninterpretable SAT or ACT scores) in their coursework and in their student teaching. Otherwise, the faculty and co-operating teachers themselves will be accused of bigotry.

Needless to say, the chief and first victims of low performers in teacher preparation programs are all the K-12 students in the student-teacher’s classroom. Nothing legally prevents them from student-teaching the full range of young students in subjects or at grade levels covered by the license they seek even though such student-teachers are unlikely to be able to teach any subject effectively.

Opening of the Silly Season

The bandwagon is already rolling. Licensing teachers is being declared tantamount to excluding “teachers of color.”

It’s even being implied that licensing was part of Jim Crow. Chalkbeat’s reporter Matt Barnum asserts, erroneously:  “The modern incarnation of teacher competency tests began in the South in the 1970s, coinciding with extensive court efforts to integrate schools, and spread quickly; critics at the time said their purpose was to exclude black teachers.”

Barnum also got the purpose for licensure wrong. “The goal of the certification tests and rules is to screen out teachers who aren’t likely to succeed on the job.” What can black and Hispanic parents do when they’re not even asked by the media what they most want in their children’s math teacher?  Would most parents prefer that teachers of their children have knowledge of the math to be taught at their grade level (and several above or below that grade level)? … or matching skin color and ethnicity?

Ensuring that diversity means academic quality in a teaching force requires speaking up. The best example comes from a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education when it was faced with approving a pass/fail score for a new elementary mathematics licensure test proposed to replace the then-existing Praxis test, with the understanding that approving the new test would that mean that only 27% of the test-takers (prospective teachers of children from birth to grade 6) would pass.

The official minutes of the May 19, 2009 meeting containing the indented paragraph below don’t capture the tension (or the exact words spoken) at this point in the meeting. The discussion then was about the effect on diversity of a recommended pass score that amounted to getting 60 percent of the items correct on a 40-item test of elementary mathematics.

The new test had been developed and vetted by the state’s own mathematics educators and mathematicians. The state’s mathematics organizations were all in favor of the test as well as the recommended cut score. No one in these organizations testified against the test or recommended cut score, but one Board member tried to raise an argument against them. (The members mentioned below are Harneen Chernow, Jeff Howard, and Sandra Stotsky (the author of this column).)

Vice Chair Chernow said her concern is that teacher licensing is already overly complex and bureaucratic, and additional tests complicate it further. She said that 46 states use the Praxis test, and asked whether using a different test [the new test] impedes reciprocity and teacher mobility. Dr. Howard said he appreciated the expressions of concern about the diversity of the teaching pool, but standards should be set based on what students require from their teachers. Dr. Stotsky said the Praxis test [for elementary teachers] is weak on mathematics (pages 6-7).

Dr. Howard, whose undergraduate and graduate degrees were both from Harvard University, said something in my recollection of the discussion closer to:  “Quality comes first. Then look for diversity.” (I attended the meeting in my capacity as a Board member.)  He is an African-American, and there was no further discussion of this issue by the Board. The recommended cut score and test were approved unanimously. About 50 percent of the test-takers across test administrations on average now pass the test. No information is available on race or ethnicity.

Scare Tactics Omit What’s Truly Scary

A major question in Illinois or in any other state today is why parents can’t contribute to the decision on where the pass score should be for children’s teachers. Why can an education school professor threaten a teacher shortage in Illinois if low scorers aren’t able to get licensed? And he is not the only one threatening a teacher shortage based on self-interest. A well-funded organization trying to influence the public purse is also saber-rattling, while a teacher research organization tries to get the facts out to the public.

This conversation lacks parents’ perspectives. What might parents’ priority be in a teacher for their own children — a match of race/ethnicity or clear evidence of the teacher’s academic competence? Why are non-parents making the decision for parents?


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.