First Person

Why creating opportunities for students of color to become teachers is important

The Colorado Department of Education recently published a study to explore the current landscape of teacher diversity in the state. The report, Keeping up with Kids: Increasing Minority Teacher Representation in Colorado, is a call to action.

The highlight of the report is the list of specific strategies to increase the recruitment and retention of teachers of color and why this is an important issue to address.

I sincerely hope that all stakeholders, from legislatures and policy makers to school district leaders and teacher preparation programs are planning to respond to that call.

I know I am.

Why? Teacher diversity matters for all students. As an associate professor at CU Denver, my scholarship centers on issues of diversity and equity in urban schools. Whenever I present my research at professional conferences around the country, I ask conference participants to think about and respond to this question, “what message is conveyed regarding the authority of knowledge and positions of power when students experience school with a predominantly white (and mostly female) teacher workforce?” Our conversations are lively and center on a few important themes including: students’ perceptions of whose voice matters and whose views count, students’ sense of belonging in school, and the need for all children to learn from and interact with teachers who bring a variety of perspectives and lived experiences to their classrooms.

A sad reality exists. Given that 90 percent of Colorado teachers are white, it is entirely possible for a Colorado student to go through her entire K-12 public school education and never have a teacher of color. The same student can continue her education and complete her BA, MA and PhD and still never have a teacher of color.

For these reasons and many more, I created the Pathways2Teaching program in 2010.

Pathways2Teaching is a concurrent enrollment program designed to engage high school students of color in exploring the teaching profession as an avenue for engaging with, giving back to, and righting wrongs within their communities. In collaboration with the University of Colorado Denver and high schools in Denver Public Schools and Adams County School District 14, the Pathways2Teaching program has served over 300 high school juniors and seniors over the last five years.

Our potential future teachers look vastly different from the current teacher demographics in Colorado. Nearly 60 percent of our current and former students are Latino/a, 35 percent African American and 42 percent male.

As the authors of Keeping up with Kids: Increasing Minority Teacher Representation in Colorado point out, there are a number of early outreach programs aimed at recruiting high school students into the teacher workforce. Not all, however, focus specifically on recruiting students of color. If we really want to diversify our teacher workforce and build effective early outreach programs, these programs must be culturally responsive. They must feature a curriculum specifically designed to engage students by explicitly pointing out why they are desperately needed as our future teachers – not just because of the color of their skin, but because of their lived experiences in the same communities that need them the most.

How? It is not always an easy sell. For many students of color, particularly those who live in poverty, schools do not always feel welcoming or safe. This is especially true for African American, Latino and Native American males. One only needs to examine national or state data by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status to see the disproportionate rates of school disciplinary actions, suspensions, special education placements, and lower graduation rates for students of color to better understand the level of disenfranchisement often felt by these students.

The marginalization students experience can become the catalyst for helping them understand how they can disrupt the inequities they have experienced. The Pathways2Teaching curriculum has an explicit focus on having students critically examine the complex educational issues and inequities that exist in poor, urban communities- the very issues that have contributed to the marginalization that they’ve experienced in schools.

Through the Pathways2Teaching program, students also learn about the importance of dedicated, culturally responsive teachers who come to school each day to empower students and make a difference in students’ lives. Students gain a better understanding of the important roles teachers of color play for all students as they read the published work of national scholars (and sometimes have the opportunity to interview these scholars via video conference calls).

Beyond the scholarship of effective teaching for diverse learners that students study, they get to experience it firsthand. The program incorporates a weekly field experience where students work in local elementary one day a week throughout the year. In fact, our research indicates that this experience is a significant factor in motivating high school students of color to seriously consider becoming a teacher. Students better understand that effective teaching is a complex task – one that involves content knowledge, culturally responsive pedagogy, and unwavering dedication – but above all “revolutionary love.”

The call to diversify our teacher workforce is clear and urgent. I know we have a lot of work to do. The Pathways2Teaching program is one small contribution to answering this call.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.