The wind at our backs on diversifying the teaching profession

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There's likely never been this much energy behind diversifying the conspicuously white teaching profession. A headline-grabbing demographic might have jump-started it all, when the historically minority populations in schools crossed into becoming the majority—though their teachers remained mostly white. Then there was the remarkable body of research that doesn't just refute previous research on race (which found only modest advantages from matching teacher and student race) but pulverized it. The new findings, showing that a single Black teacher can significantly improve the learning and lives of Black students, was able to fall on highly fertile ground with credit to the Black Lives Matter movement. A perfect storm indeed.

No longer is it appropriate to decouple the goal of improving teacher quality from parallel efforts to increase the number of Black and Hispanic teachers—especially given that teachers of color now stand at just 18% of the teaching population, in spite of comprising 27% of the U.S. adult population, and falling well short of the considerably more diverse student population of 51%.

What's left to argue about is how we get there.

There are sharply divergent views on the matter. A sizable camp argues that the tremendous impact of Black teachers (and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic teachers with Hispanic students) justifies doing 'whatever it takes' to increase the diversity of the profession. This includes discarding traditional measures of teacher quality, largely because Black and Hispanic candidates don't often perform as well on such measures. Without much evidence, these measures are portrayed as biased or labelled as irrelevant to someone's success as a teacher. Take, for example, the fact that no fewer than ten state legislatures over the past five years have dropped their requirement that aspiring teachers must demonstrate literacy and numeracy skills before being admitted into a teacher prep program. Arguments casting these basic skills tests as "obstacles to diversity" proved all too convincing. 

Other academic measures of teacher quality are also under fire, in spite of a substantial body of research supporting the relationship of academic aptitude to future teacher effectiveness. For years, teacher preparation programs have successfully pushed back on efforts to raise academic standards for who gets into teaching. Citing the devastating impact such moves would have on teacher diversity, the tactic largely worked, successfully thwarting the effort to put the U.S. within hailing distance of admissions standards observed by higher performing nations.  

A strong 2017 report from the Center for American Progress looked at several states that chose to swim upstream, passing laws that required their teacher preparation programs to raise their admissions standards. Surprisingly, diversity among undergraduate education majors actually increased in all but one of the nine states, and, in some cases, exceeded the rate of growth in the student body overall.

In work NCTQ released this month, we dig in further to look at the important intersection between a program's diversity and its admission policies. Of the 420 programs (out of 1,200) earning high marks for diversity, almost half of them do so while maintaining reasonably rigorous admissions standards. We find no evidence that there should be a tradeoff between selectivity and diversity. 

These myth-busting findings should invite us to think differently, approaching ways to diversify the profession and advance teacher quality. While the "kill the messenger" strategy of eradicating any admission standard that produces disparate results sure seems to play well, the underlying message is insidious and untrue, that teacher candidates of color cannot meet high academic standards so it is necessary to change the rules. No amount of rhetorical window dressing alters that conclusion. 

Prima facie, a significant share of individuals of color appear to struggle to meet even relatively modest academic standards, such as passing a basic skills test. What doesn't get much airtime is how deeply skewed the sample of test takers is, as if the test takers were representative of the broader population and not the result of decades of policies designed to make the profession as unattractive as possible. Further, aspiring teachers who take the basic skills test don't even represent the pool of available teacher prospects, because prospects who do well enough on the SAT or ACT don't have to take a basic skills test. 

The U.S. is not attracting Black college students to teaching at nearly the rate as their white counterparts, making it even more misleading and harmful to generalize the results of tests to the broader population. If both groups were similarly interested in teaching, some 80,000 additional Black teachers would graduate each year. But Black college students (and, even more so, their parents) appear more mindful than white students about choosing a low status major that is open to any and all.

While low pay, negative experiences in school, and/or high student debt may all certainly play a role in why individuals of color don't pursue teaching as a career, we cannot ignore the impact of the perception of teaching as an "easy" job that high-achieving students are "too smart" to pursue. For every door that gets opened by the elimination of academic standards, another door is slammed shut by the very prospects we're trying to attract—be they white, Black, Asian, or Hispanic—eschewing a major of low reputation and all too notable for its easy A's. We need to lay bare the fallacy that when legislatures and school boards eliminate standards we attract more teacher candidates. The pool of available applicants doesn't expand; rather it tends to keep shifting toward the bottom end of the talent distribution.

The most glaring truth of all is that a profession without standards is a death blow to efforts to raise teacher pay—and perhaps the greatest impediment to our ability to recruit more Black and Hispanic teachers. It's not a winning proposition to market the profession in such schizophrenic terms, proclaiming easy access to teaching, while arguing for pay more akin to more selective professions.

The news that teachers of color can produce such incredible gains with students of color should have been welcomed as another tool, and quite a powerful one, in the teacher quality toolbox—and not as an invitation to dismantle hard-won battles addressing academic standards. Higher standards not only make the profession more attractive to diverse talent, but are the only viable pathway to higher salaries, and, most importantly, provide more students with high quality teachers.