Wanted: Teachers! No reading or writing required

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Over the last few months, a whole bunch of states -- including Arizona, Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, New York, and Wisconsin -- have tried to lower their requirements for becoming a teacher, even if not all succeeded in doing so.

New York's decision to lower its entry standards is the most disturbing—in part because the state previously had made such exemplary progress on this issue under John King, its former education chief, and Merryl Tisch, former chancellor of the State Board of Regents. They not only improved and expanded New York's licensing tests to more accurately reflect the skills every teacher needs, they also put in place a top notch accountability system on a public NY State Data website. This enabled consumers to find an array of educational data, including which institutions of higher education were doing a good job preparing their teacher candidates for the state's licensing tests.

One of the safeguards New York had installed was a literacy test, measuring teachers' ability to read critically and write using evidence. Yet the new state leadership recently elected to throw out this test.

And that new accountability system? First the state wiped all the data, leaving the sad bones of the once informative site (as shown above).

These moves have about as much justification behind them as the rationales put forward for exiting the Paris climate accord.

Unlike other states, New York's decision wasn't inspired by a panic over teacher shortages. Quite the reverse. Routinely, only about one in five people in New York who qualify to be teachers actually takes a teaching job in the state, a level of overproduction that's been going on for years.

The sorry truth behind the move is that too many teacher candidates were failing the test (the pass rate in 2013-14 was 68 percent), raising awkward questions about the quality of aspiring teachers and embarrassing many of New York's colleges and universities charged with training these candidates.

Talk about killing the messenger.

From the get go, higher education institutions have been putting a lot of pressure on the state to abandon the test. Even my good friend and colleague TNTP head Dan Weisberg (also a big provider of teachers), in this op-ed, publicly opposed the test for being "unproven" and for its harsh impact on diversity, arguing instead for a system that puts up few hoops at the point of entry.

I wonder which poor kids get to be the guinea pigs while unscreened teachers prove their mettle. Anyway, I will concede that Weisberg wasn't exaggerating about the impact of tests on the diversity of the teaching pool. The already low pass-rates on the New York test plummet for Hispanic (down to 46 percent) and black teacher candidates (down to 41 percent).

But those drops are not unusual. Every standardized test taken by American school children reports similarly distressing gaps, largely the result of a far higher percentage of students of color who lack equal access to quality educators. In most instances, educators work hard to close the gap in educational opportunities that give rise to the Achievement Gap. In New York's case, it just kills the test.

New York officials defended the decision, asserting that the test was biased and that its content was not related to the skills teachers need -- because apparently we now have to prove that teachers need to be able to read and write to teach! It was a risky stand as a federal district judge had issued a ruling that the literacy test did in fact evaluate necessary skills for teaching, ruling out a charge of bias.

Mostly, opponents of the test are going with this stock answer: the test was simply "unnecessary." A bachelor's degree, they argued, should serve as enough evidence that the graduate is literate. I certainly wish that it were so, but given the low pass-rates on this test as just one data point among many, that's an assertion that's hard to defend.

Perhaps the test was too difficult? In fact it was no more difficult than the state's English language arts test for high school students. This is a dizzying, Kafkaesque argument: the notion that teachers don't have to possess the same skills as those demonstrated by their own students.

Currently, providers and school districts are facing enormous pressure to recruit and hire teachers of color, pressure that is exacerbated by the very short supply of such teachers, as we have written about here. The wrong response is to lower standards. The right response is to overhaul teacher pay structures and elevate the status of education as a choice of college major from its current sorry state. That happens by making it harder, not easier to enter the profession.

While there is good research describing the benefits of matching teacher and student race, let's remember that those benefits are based on studies involving black and white teachers of otherwise comparable ability. Any benefits from matching race are erased when we no longer make our first priority the effectiveness of a teacher or our best estimates about who will be effective. While it's uncomfortable to push back for fear of appearing insensitive to real problems of educational inequity, we must insist on prioritizing what's best for students—having the most skilled teacher.