Education advocates and policymakers want to have it both ways: they want more teachers of color and to “raise the bar” for the profession with measures that disproportionately screen out certain groups.
The two aims, both widely popular in the education policy circles, aren’t just on a collision course. They’ve already collided. In Baltimore, for instance, a highly-rated black teacher may lose her job because of a licensing exam.
This the third story in a three-part series on the relationship between certification and teacher diversity in America. Read part one and part two
But there has been only limited discussion of the fact that these two objectives — diversifying the profession and making it harder to enter — are often at cross purposes, although certification rules are hardly the only reason for limited diversity among teachers.
“You need to think pretty comprehensively if you’re going to accomplish both those goals,” said Dan Goldhaber, a professor at the University of Washington and a leading researcher on teacher certification. “Some of the things you do to accomplish one goal work against the other.”
A report released Thursday by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, acknowledges the tension but argues that it’s possible for schools to have it all.
It suggests states confront the issue on multiple levels, investing more in recruiting potential teachers of color while also making the profession more appealing to everyone by raising salaries and subsidizing training. All of that should coincide with the development of better tools for judging whether a prospective teacher will be effective, which could replace current requirements like GPA cut-offs, CAP argues.
“Rigorous recruitment and thoughtful selection processes can achieve increased diversity and selectivity simultaneously,” the report says.
The paper offers one blueprint for policymakers. Others say states ought to take the opposite approach and actually lower the bar for entry into the profession, then carefully measure teachers’ performance once they’re in the classroom.
But right now, there isn’t much obvious political will to implement any of it, or clear research on the best approach.
Some states really have raised the bar
Between 2011 and 2015, nearly half of all states have ratcheted up testing or GPA requirements for entering teacher training programs. The raise-the-bar message has become policy, and teachers of color are the most affected.
At the same time, the push to increase the diversity of the overwhelmingly white teaching force has grown more urgent in the wake of recent studies.
“There’s clear qualitative and quantitative research that points to the added value for students of color when taught by a teacher of color,” said Travis Bristol, a professor at Boston University.
States have created an array of task forces to figure out how to recruit more teachers of color; the federal government has repeatedly made the case for doing so. Think tanks and policy groups have issued reports and held panel discussions. Many of those same groups have also called for raising the bar to enter the profession.
Meanwhile, states continue to grapple with how many hoops teachers should have to jump through before reaching the classroom. New York recently eliminated one exam required to become a teacher largely because of concerns about its impact on diversity, and is also considering dramatically reducing requirements for teachers at certain charter schools.
CAP offers a variety of solutions
The CAP paper points to a handful of states and teacher training programs that have prioritized both teacher diversity and high standards, like the Boston Teacher Residency.
It concludes by recommending improving recruitment for teachers of color, increasing teacher pay, using multiple measures for evaluating prospective teachers, and researching better metrics for predicting teacher effectiveness.
Goldhaber says a comprehensive approach is necessary.
“If you only [raise the bar], that’s going to be probably harmful to workforce diversity,” he said. “If you do that in connection with some other things, like raising salaries and reaching out to different kinds of people — those initiatives in conjunction with one another could work to both increase the diversity of the workforce and raise the bar.”
Of course, many of these ideas, like paying teachers more, cost money. As of 2014, many states were spending less on education than they were prior to the Great Recession.
Finding better measures for predicting who will be successful in the classroom may also be challenging, as existing metrics have proven limited and there isn’t a consistent definition of quality teaching.
Some research suggests that using a combination of metrics may be a useful tactic. Catherine Brown of CAP says teachers should be judged on a greater variety of skills without as much weight put on one test.
“One single test is not enough to tell you who will be a good teacher,” she said. “You need to look at the entirety of the candidate and that includes their interpersonal skills, and their ability to control a classroom, and their cultural competency with students.”
New tests and new kinds of training
Some are optimistic about a new breed of exam, including the edTPA, for directly measuring teachers’ effectiveness and reducing racial disparities in performance. The edTPA aims to examine a teacher’s practice, and it shows smaller racial gaps than paper-and-pencil certification tests — though substantial differences still exist between black and white candidates.
“I think that performance-based assessments [like edTPA] really give us an insight into how someone is able to perform on the job,” said Bristol.
Research on whether edTPA predicts effectiveness is only in its infancy. One analysis in North Carolina had promising results: a score on the performance assessment was a moderately strong predictor of teachers’ ability to raise student achievement, as well as how they were rated by their principals. Another study in Washington state was more measured — the ability to pass the edTPA was modestly related to effectiveness for English, but not math, teachers.
Another potential solution, favored by CAP and Bristol, are teacher residency programs, which offer intensive, practical training and the cost is usually heavily subsidized.
Indeed, research has found that teacher residency programs do attract and retain more teachers of color. But one aspect of the model that makes it especially attractive — generous funding to ensure candidates don’t have to go into debt — also makes it difficult to sustain and scale.
A different approach: lower the bar for entry, raise it for staying
To some critics, a better solution is to simply stop trying to divine which teachers will be effective before they reach the classroom — eliminating the possibility of incorrectly screening out qualified people, including prospective teachers of color.
“The current rules end up preventing a significant number and a disproportionate number of candidates of color from being able to teach kids, in spite of their demonstrated ability to do so in the classroom,” said Dan Weisberg, who argues that existing rules are poor proxies for performance.
Weisberg, whose group TNTP runs fast-track training programs for teachers, argues for observing teachers in action and looking at their impact on student test scores instead.
Whether teacher certification status and the associated tests actually predict teacher effectiveness is the subject of a lot of debate. Some educational economists have floated the idea of essentially eliminating certification requirements and focusing on initial performance instead.
Some studies find that certified teachers, and those who score higher on licensing exams, perform somewhat better in the classroom, though the differences are often quite small. (These studies measure teacher performance by their impact on student test scores.)
One advantage to traditional certification: teachers who go through that pathway are much more likely to stay in the classroom. If a different system increased teacher turnover, that could bring its own negative effects.
Goldhaber is not sure it makes sense to simply eliminate certification rules.
“I think you’d likely get more uneven outcomes,” he said. “There are places where that might benefit school systems … but then there are also places where they would not and might select people who are quite ineffective.”