Three Ways to Diversify the Teaching Profession (If We Really Wanted To…)

Recently, Dan Weisberg, CEO of TNTP, spoke at a hearing on teacher diversity hosted by the New Jersey Senate Education and Higher Education committees. He discussed the urgency of diversifying the teaching profession, and concrete steps state policymakers can take to make it happen. These were his prepared remarks.

We’ve known for a while now that a teacher’s impact is partly a question of skill: as with all professionals, some teachers are better at the job than others. New Jersey and many other states have taken important steps over the last few years to acknowledge and act on that fact.

But a wave of recent studies has shown how much a teacher’s background and life experience matters, too—especially for students of color, who find themselves shortchanged at every turn in our education system. When they have teachers of their same race, students of color are less likely to be suspended, more likely to be referred to gifted programs, and more likely to enroll in college. Our own research has found that teachers of color have higher expectations for students of color—and that those higher expectations correlate with more learning.

Yet the racial disparity between students and the teacher workforce is large and growing: while more than half of K-12 students in the U.S. are people of color, more than 80 percent of teachers are white. The numbers are nearly identical here in New Jersey. If you’re a Black or Latinx student, there’s a real chance you might go through your entire K-12 career without ever having a teacher who looks like you.

It’s tempting to put the onus for closing this diversity gap on school districts, or even individual principals: after all, they’re the ones who decide which teachers to hire. But they can only choose from the teachers that preparation programs send them—a group that is overwhelmingly white, year after year, especially those from schools of education. According to the U.S. Education Department, almost three-quarters of teacher candidates in traditional education schools are white.

In other words, we’re never going to diversify teaching until we diversify teacher preparation. To do that, we need to overcome three obstacles.

First is the high cost of becoming a teacher: in New Jersey and most other states, it’s upwards of $20,000 in tuition and other fees. This price tag keeps untold numbers of talented people from even considering teaching, and lowers diversity in the profession—because the group that can afford it is disproportionately white. The size of your checking account has nothing to do with your ability to help kids learn, and it shouldn’t determine whether you become a teacher.

The second roadblock is a lack of real commitment to diversity in the teacher preparation space—and especially in higher education. It stems from the wrongheaded but pervasive excuse that we can’t enroll more people of color in our programs unless we lower our standards. In fact, there are enough Black and Latinx college graduates who’d be perfectly qualified to pursue teaching. The problem is we’re not doing the work to recruit them into the profession—meaning our kids are missing out on being taught by thousands more teachers of color every year. When I look at large universities whose education schools enroll only 10 or 15 percent people of color despite all the resources at their disposal, it’s hard for me to believe they’re truly making diversity a priority. And we’re not holding them accountable for doing so.

Finally, we need to fix certification rules that routinely screen in ineffective teachers and disqualify effective teachers—exactly the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. We’re relying on standardized tests that disproportionately screen out people of color: pass rates for the Praxis, one of the most common exams, are 20 percent lower among Latinx test takers and 40 percent lower among Black test takers compared to whites. It would be one thing if your score on a certification exam strongly predicted how well you could teach. But research shows scores on these tests are weak predictors of classroom performance.

I understand the cognitive dissonance that might cause—after all, if you’re a great teacher, why would you ever fail a math or reading test? Still, it happens all the time. Every year in our own programs, we see teachers who earn top marks from their principals and lead their kids to big academic gains—but who are at risk of losing their jobs because of their Praxis scores. And we see plenty of teachers who pass their exams with flying colors but struggle to do the real work of teaching.

The proper response isn’t to blame people who fall short on a test, no matter how reassuring that might feel. Instead, we need to acknowledge the system is broken and fix it, so that great teachers who haven’t passed certification exams can continue to serve our children—and so we can move past the false choice between high standards and diversity. We can, and should, work toward both at the same time.

There are steps you can take at the state level to help solve all these challenges. You can reduce the financial barriers to teaching by supporting innovative, lower-cost pathways into the classroom. For example, several school systems are developing programs that would allow paraprofessionals to become full-time teachers—mostly through on-the-job training. It’s an approach that could fill shortages in key subject areas with experienced educators and double as an investment in workforce development—all while boosting teacher diversity.

You can help education schools and other programs prioritize diversity goals by weaving them into accountability systems, as states like Louisiana and Delaware have begun to do. More immediately, you can collect and publicly report enrollment data by race; ask tough questions of higher education leaders who aren’t focusing on diversity, and share success stories from those who are.

And you can create fairer, more meaningful teacher certification rules that support the twin goals of high standards and diversity. That means supplementing certification exams with assessments that focus on the best predictor of great teaching: a teacher’s actual performance in the classroom.

We’ve seen all these ideas make a difference in our own programs in recent years. We set clear goals for enrollment, completion, and placement of candidates of color. We changed our recruitment strategies to specifically target qualified people of color. We subsidize master’s degree costs and keep tuition as low as possible. And we certify teachers based on a combination of classroom observations and hard evidence of student learning. As a result, about half the teachers we train each year are people of color, even as we’ve raised the bar to earn certification.

Dan Weisberg’s original post can be found on the TNTP website.

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