teacher diversity

This top-rated black teacher may lose her job over one test. Are ‘high standards’ working?

PHOTO: Tamika Peters

In her first year teaching fourth grade in Baltimore, Tamika Peters earned the highest rating possible on her official evaluation.

Peters brought a deep well of experience to her work: over a decade at her school as a long-term substitute and paraprofessional. More recently, she had earned a master’s degree in education and completed the Baltimore City Teacher Residency training.

This the second story in a three-part series on the relationship between certification and teacher diversity in America. Read parts one and three here.

Peters, now in her second year teaching, is also at risk of being kicked out of the classroom.

The hang-up: a math exam she has taken and failed four times. If she doesn’t pass it by the end of this school year, she will have to leave the job she loves.

“I don’t want to lose my career,” she said. “I wish there was a way that that didn’t determine who I was as a teacher or as a person.”

The certification rules that might halt Peters’ career have high stakes both for individuals like her and for the states that have bet on improving education by “raising the bar” for entering teaching — increasing GPA requirements and adding tests in a bid to make the profession more prestigious and attract top talent.

Because candidates of color are less likely to get over the certification hurdles, the policy risks excluding teachers of color, like Peters, even as there has been heightened attention on the lack of diversity in the teaching profession.

Nationally, less than 7 percent of teachers are black, a share that’s actually fallen since the federal government started tracking that 30 years ago. Maryland, for one, has a declared a “shortage” of minority teachers.

But to some, the approach helps ensure kids of color have equal access to qualified teachers, including those with a strong knowledge base.

“Individual stories make bad policy,” said David Steiner, a professor at Johns Hopkins and a member of the Maryland State Board of Education. “Policies by definition draw lines.”

“What’s racist is the way we put the least well prepared teachers in the classrooms of our most disadvantaged students,” he said.

A costly, challenging certification process

Peters, who is 38, began working as a substitute teacher 13 years ago at an elementary school in west Baltimore, the city where she spent most of her childhood. She often took over for teachers for extended periods; over time, she took on a number of different roles at the school.

“I loved it,” she said. “It was never about titles for me. It was more like I was in a school working with kids, made a difference, and my strengths allowed me to do a lot of different positions in the buildings.”

After a while, Peters’ principal pushed her to become fully certified so she could have her own classroom. She initially hesitated, but her boss persisted. Eventually, she agreed.

That’s when she hit the first roadblock. Her college grade-point average from over a decade earlier was one-tenth of a point below the state’s cutoff for teachers, a 2.75. So she enrolled in a master’s degree program, which allowed her to take additional classes and boost her GPA.

From there, she enrolled in the Baltimore City Teacher Residency, which trains aspiring teachers over the summer.

Both programs, Peters said, were of only marginal help to her as a teacher, particularly as someone who had been working at a school for so long. They also came with hefty price tags. She went into debt to pay for the master’s program; the residency cost about $6,000, and required taking on an intensive, unpaid workload over the summer.

That gave Peters an initial teaching certification, valid for two years. But to keep teaching her own class, she needs to successfully complete the battery of standardized tests Maryland requires of teachers. If she doesn’t, she can only teach as a substitute, which would put her back where she started.

Peters quickly passed three Praxis exams in reading, writing, and elementary education, but she struggled with math. The first time she took the math test, she failed by a large margin, though more recently she fell short by just eight points. She is now preparing to try for the fifth time.

“These eight points are scaring me senseless,” she said. “I’m studying every chance I get. It’s kind of difficult when you’re focused on doing things and you’ve got life and you have this nervous energy about taking this test.”

Meanwhile, the costs of the exams have accrued. Each additional math test costs $90; she’s now shelled out hundreds of dollars on the required assessments.

Measuring a teacher’s value

The goal of the certification tests and rules is to screen out teachers who aren’t likely to succeed on the job. But is performance on the exam a good indicator of how Peters — or any other teacher — performs in the classroom?

Peters argues that it’s not.

“In this profession, I don’t think you can judge a person by what paper says,” said Peters, who got high marks on her first-year teacher evaluation. “You actually [have] got to see a person doing it.”

Andy Smarick, the president of the Maryland Board of Education, said he couldn’t comment on specific cases, but that the issue highlights an important tension.

“What that scenario forces policymakers to do is ask what is going on here: Is there something wrong with the evaluation system or the certification system? Because it could be either,” he said.

Peters said the Praxis exam emphasizes algebra and geometry concepts that are not integral for her fourth-grade teaching, which focuses on place value, arithmetic, fractions, and how to use a ruler.

Steiner, though, said that requiring teachers to have a level of broad knowledge makes sense. “It’s reasonable to ask that a teacher know more than her students, otherwise she can’t understand their mistakes,” he said.

Peters says being a black teacher of predominantly black students matters, too.

“The Freddie Gray riots literally started less than a four-minute drive from where I teach,” she said. “When my kids come in and they want answers or they have questions … I can give them the heart of the answer because I’ve lived in the city.”

Research backs Peters up to some extent. Studies have found that black students in particular benefit in a variety of ways from having a black teacher, leading to better test scores, more positive views of school, fewer suspensions and expulsions, more referrals to gifted classes, and lower dropout rates. Black teachers, research has found, also have higher academic expectations for black students than other teachers.

At the same time, research has generally shown a positive but modest link between someone’s scores on standardized exams and their effectiveness as a teacher — but these exams may be less predictive for teachers of color. A study looking at Praxis scores in North Carolina found that black students performed better with a black teacher who had failed the exam than with a white teacher who passed the test.

America’s teaching force, by race

America’s teaching force has grown only marginally more diverse over the last 30 years. (U.S. Dept. of Ed)

Weighing competing factors

Steiner agrees that teacher diversity is critical.

“We know that all else being equal, minority students … do respond to teachers who share their ethnic background,” he said.

But Steiner argues that general cognitive ability is associated with teacher performance, and students of color shouldn’t be taught by teachers with the lowest academic skills.

“There’s a vicious circle here,” he said. “We need to break the cycle of the worst-prepared teachers teaching our most-needy students.”

Still, Steiner says, nothing — including a teacher’s test scores — is a guarantee of performance. Much of what makes an effective teacher is hard to see before someone reaches a classroom.

He imagines an extensive redesign of teacher training to more closely resemble systems in other countries, like Finland, that perform well on international tests.

“We’ve got to redo the whole teacher pipeline: effective preparation, effective induction, real career ladders, an attractive profession that can have serious challenges to entry, as top professions do,” said Steiner, who noted he recently joined the Maryland school board and wants to address the issue in the future.

Peters, for her part, said she has seen a number of effective teachers of color lose their jobs because of the certification exams. She’s also watched teachers with high test scores struggle in the classroom.

“There was a lady in my [residency program] who bragged about her test,” Peters said. “She didn’t last in Baltimore city [schools] through January.”

Peters is going to keep taking the math test until — she hopes — she passes it. But the process has been demoralizing.

“I get discouraged, I do,” she said. “I’m not a dummy.”

teacher diversity

Efforts to ‘raise the bar’ for becoming a teacher are running headlong into efforts to diversify the profession. Now what?

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

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.”

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

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.”

teacher diversity

Certification rules and tests are keeping would-be teachers of color out of America’s classrooms. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Becoming a certified teacher in America usually means navigating a maze of university classes and certification tests — and paying for them.

The goal is a high-quality teaching force, and an array of powerful advocates have been pushing to “raise the bar” further. But the rules likely come with a hefty cost: a less diverse profession.

This the first story in a three-part series on the relationship between certification and teacher diversity in America. Read parts two and three here.

A Chalkbeat analysis has found that virtually every step in the common teacher certification process risks disproportionately excluding prospective teachers of color. The requirements for entering schools of education, passing teacher-prep exams, and a host of other factors each hit black and Hispanic prospective teachers hardest.

And while researchers have examined these steps independently, the results together show how multiple roadblocks make it harder for the teaching force to grow more diverse.

“What we know about the different components of certification certainly suggests that it reduces the diversity of the potential teacher pool,” said Dan Goldhaber, a professor at the University of Washington and an expert on teacher certification.

Today, 80 percent of America’s public school teachers are white. That figure has declined only modestly in the last 15 years, even as the share of students who are not white has grown sharply — and as recent research has shown that students of color benefit from having teachers of color.

Chalkbeat’s analysis doesn’t definitively prove that licensure rules hurt teacher diversity, since the consequences of changing or removing them are unclear. It’s also not clear how helpful these requirements are for improving teacher quality. Research has generally found a modest link between certification and teachers’ success in the classroom.

But as more states try to “raise the bar” to enter the teaching profession, it is clear that the brunt of tough certification rules are borne by teachers of color. Here’s how.

1. It starts with an undergraduate grade-point average.

Thirty-four states have GPA requirements either for individuals entering teaching or for cohorts of students in teacher training programs. National accreditors have pushed education schools to adopt those requirements.

The most common requirement is a 3.0 GPA, which would exclude nearly half of black college graduates and over one-third of Hispanic college graduates, according to a 2012 federal report. (A note of caution: this data is somewhat old, covering students who graduated in the 2007–08 school year. There does not appear to be more recent comprehensive data.)

2. When they take traditional teaching exams, black and Hispanic candidates fail more often.

Virtually every state in the country requires teacher candidates to pass standardized tests, often a basic skills exam and specific content assessments. The modern incarnation of teacher competency tests began in the South in the 1970s, coinciding with extensive court efforts to integrate schools, and spread quickly; critics at the time said their purpose was to exclude black teachers.

Regardless of motives, it remains the case that pass rates on these tests are substantially lower, on average, for prospective teachers of color.

An analysis by the Education Testing Service, which produces the commonly used Praxis exams, found that candidates of color were dramatically more likely to fail the Praxis I, a basic skills test. Black test-takers were about 40 percent less likely to pass than white test-takers, and Hispanic candidates were about 20 percent less likely. Gaps were also seen between white and Asian-American and Native American test-takers.

Every single Praxis II exam, which cover subjects from elementary instruction to chemistry, has a similar disparity.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the requirements are racially biased. Some say they simply reflect larger societal inequities.

“Those performance differences are not the results of bias in the test but rather a reflection of factors in society that lead to different educational opportunities,” said Christine Betanelli, an ETS spokesperson, who said extensive efforts are made to ensure tests are fair and free of bias.

State-specific exams exhibit similar trends. In California, according to data from 2010 to 2015, white candidates are much less likely to fail the basic academic skills exam.

Some states even hold teacher prep programs accountable for those passing rates. North Carolina, for instance, threatens sanctions for schools where fewer than 70 percent pass the Praxis. Three of the four schools that failed to meet that benchmark in consecutive years were historically black colleges and universities, according to recent data.

3. A new kind of test has shrunk the gaps, but black candidates continue to fail at higher rates.

What many see as flaws of paper-and-pencil teacher exams — specifically, that they fail to measure teaching skills — have fueled the creation of assessments designed to judge teachers in action.

The most popular, the edTPA, has candidates submit a portfolio of work, including teaching videos. Twelve states and hundreds of teacher education programs use it.

A national report found that there was no difference in performance between Hispanic candidates and white candidates. But black candidates performed substantially worse than average. In New York, black test takers are nearly twice as likely to fail the edTPA as white or Hispanic candidates, according to the state.

However, the edTPA black–white disparity, while substantial, tends to be significantly smaller than the Praxis exams’ gaps. Andrea Whittaker, the national director for the edTPA, says a forthcoming report will show that differences between black and white candidate performance has shrunk even further.

4. All of those teaching exams cost a lot, especially if you have to retake them.

Another way certification exams may deter potential teachers of color — and others from low-income backgrounds — is through their cost, though no one appears to have quantified the effect.

Praxis exams range from $60 to $170. At $300, edTPA is substantially more expensive than traditional tests. In states like New York that require multiple exams, costs can quickly add up, and they become more substantial for those who have to retake an exam. (Some states, districts, and training programs subsidize these fees.)

5. Alternative pathways attract more teachers of color, but some states limit them.

Prospective teachers anywhere in the country can get a teaching certificate at a university, usually accompanied by student teaching. The vast majority of states allow for alternative routes, often with substantially shorter training periods.

National data show that black and Hispanic teachers are about twice as likely as white teachers to have to been prepared through an alternative program. Teacher diversity might suffer in states with limited alternative routes, ones that maintain similar training requirements as traditional programs, or simply places where alternative options are scarce.

That’s what a 2009 study that compared the share of teachers of color relative to the adult population in all 50 states found. States with expansive alternative licensure options had much more diverse teaching corps than states with limited or no alternative certification.

Data sources and notes for graphs: GPA cut-offs, California basic skills exam, edTPA in New York, and alternative certification.