Cepeda column: We need to make it easier for teachers of color to lead our classrooms
CHICAGO — What if there were a relatively simple way to add more than 8,000 teachers of color to public schools to raise academic achievement — but no one really cared enough to actually change the status quo?
It wouldn’t surprise me one bit.
As in so many industries that vow to diversify their ranks, a case is made year after year for why it’s important for more teachers of color to stand before classrooms of increasingly Hispanic, Asian, black and mixed-race students.
But not much happens. Meanwhile, the statistics show that not only are there not enough teachers of color interested in education careers, but the subject-matter tests they’re required to take for state licensing continue to weed out promising candidates by the boatload.
This isn’t due simply to economics and systemic racism — although it’s tough for bright, civic-minded people of color, often the first in their families to attend college, to commit to a relatively low-paying job in environments where they would be an ultra-minority.
It’s also due to “the profound lack of alignment between preparation program coursework and the content knowledge that states have determined an aspiring teacher needs to be an effective elementary teacher,” according to a new analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).
The tests for student teachers are rigorous and, theoretically, provide a decent picture of what subject matter has been mastered. But the education programs themselves fail their teacher trainees, according to the NCTQ report, “A Fair Chance: Simple steps to strengthen and diversify the teacher workforce.” The report’s key points are a disgrace:
— While most programs require teacher candidates to take a course in composition and writing, they seldom require a germane literature course. Notably, only half require a children’s literature course that corresponds to curricular expectations for elementary classrooms.
— Only one in four programs covers the breadth of mathematics content necessary for elementary grades. (And if you’ve seen today’s first-grade math curricula, with its algebraic concepts and higher-order thinking exercises that require real mathematical expertise, you’d be shocked that any programs make the grade.)
— One in three programs does not require a history or geography course aligned with the needs of elementary teachers and their curricula.
— Two in three programs do not require a single science course that could be considered parallel to curricular expectations for elementary schools.
As if this weren’t bad enough, the impact of this lack of alignment between what is taught in teacher-preparation programs and what is tested has an outsize effect on potential teachers of color. And, by extension, the very students who would benefit most from teachers who look like them.
It’s shocking that, according to NCTQ, even in professions with a reputation for requiring challenging qualifying exams — bar exams for lawyers, boards for psychiatrists and nurses, tests for civil and nuclear engineers — first-time pass rates on those entry exams far exceed those achieved by elementary-teacher candidates.
This really puts potential teachers of color at a disadvantage. Only about 38 percent of black and 57 percent of Hispanic elementary subject-matter test takers pass, compared with 75 percent of white test takers. NCTQ estimates that approximately 8,600 candidates of color each year are likely not to qualify to teach because of low test performance.
The answer is definitely not to lower the testing standards for teachers — but to demand that teacher-preparation programs adequately train candidates to demonstrate mastery of the subject matter that their states deem necessary for students to achieve high academic performance.
It also wouldn’t hurt to publish the test-pass rates for all candidates enrolled in a teacher-prep program. Why not give prospective teacher candidates the information they deserve to choose a program where they are more likely to be successful?
There are no easy, systemic ways to ensure that the most vulnerable students — those from nonwhite cultures who are attempting to fit into the mold of an overwhelmingly white teaching corps — get a fair shot at an excellent education.
But simple solutions for public education to steer these students in the right direction are clear: Demand that college and university education programs provide transparent reporting standards for pass/fail rates on licensing exams so prospective teachers can pick good programs.
Such calls for accountability should naturally incentivize college and university teacher-training programs to better prepare their prospective teachers — especially ones of color — to actually pass their licensing tests.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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