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What Everyone Can Do To Diversify the Teaching Force

Among all the talks, efforts and research directed at increasing the numbers of Black and Brown teachers in the United States, it has long struck me as odd that the first and most fundamental step to doing so is simultaneously the most overlooked step.

Here’s a hint: “You may open your test booklets … now.” In most states, one must pass an initial battery of “basic skills” teacher licensure tests before one can be admitted into a teacher education program. The Praxis Series, created by the Educational Testing Service, is the most widely used test for this purpose. This is the initial entry point to the profession, the first of many important gatekeepers that young adults will experience on their ways to becoming professionals.

Though teacher education and development happen most often in departments devoted to such purposes, each faculty and staff member at a given university can be a stakeholder in the development of teachers. In my years of working with Black, Latino and multiracial teachers in training, I have come to understand that it is often the subtle words and actions of faculty and staff (unbeknownst to them) that have a large influence on students’ testing mindsets. In other words, what each faculty and staff member says and does around students can have a tremendous effect on licensure exams performance, both positive and negative.

For those faculty and staff who understand this reality and embrace their stakeholder status, I outline below four specific things they can do to support their teacher candidates who are preparing to pass the initial gatekeeper to the profession.

Tell the facts. In almost every case, students hear information about licensure exams from other students long before they receive any information from faculty, staff or the official testing agency. In many cases, much of the information from classmates can be inaccurate and, unfortunately, extremely damaging to both their preparation efforts and actual testing event. Consequently, it is very important for faculty and staff to tell students the facts about licensure exams. These facts include that required passing scores in most states are around 55 percent and that there are multiple combinations of scores that students can achieve in order to pass. Students can also re-take exams with no fear that a lower score will replace a higher score. Telling basic facts such as these often counters the opinion-based information that students get from classmates, puts them at ease, and establishes a firm foundation upon which to prepare.

Tell success stories. Along with telling the facts, it is essential that faculty and staff create structures to disseminate the success of students who pass their exams. I often see students who have failure experiences with licensure exams be much more vocal about their experiences compared to the many students who pass. Students who struggle are often very vocal (understandably) in order to solicit affective support, get advice, or sometimes just complain. In the midst of students who are vocal about struggles, students who pass are less likely to share their own experiences because they might appear as conceited or braggadocios. Consequently, they keep quiet, and this gives the impression that few people pass. In light of these actions, faculty and staff must put successful students in comfortable positions to tell their stories so that other students will see that, indeed, many people pass. In my own program, we’ve partnered with our campus television station to record interviews of passers—telling their stories and giving advice to the next group of test takers (see link below). When faculty and staff create these kinds of structures for students, they are less at risk of seeming braggadocios and more likely to share. With these success stories, it is important that they consist of students who have passed very easily and students who have passed though much challenge. This array of examples conveys the important assumption that people are not “born” good test takers but become good test takers through hard work and practice.

Tell less, show more. Faculty and staff often encourage students who are preparing for licensure exams by saying things such as, “You can do it” and “I know you’ll do well.” While these are kind sentiments, encouragements like these generally do not make a significant difference in performance. In fact, for students who harbor doubts about their abilities, an excessive amount of encouragement can actually heighten their doubts. What is significantly more helpful than verbal encouragement is giving students vicarious models of success. Here, drawing from Albert Bandura’s work on self-efficacy, students are more likely to believe in their own abilities when they see people “like them” successful in given tasks. The thought process goes, “Well, if they can do it, and we’re pretty similar, then I probably can do it, too.”  To some, this may seem like an insignificant cognitive shift. However, a wide body of educational research suggests that small shifts like these are incredibly powerful and have clear effects on immediate tasks and long-term educational trajectories. This type of thinking makes people more likely to prepare before tasks and persist during challenges. Conversely, when people do not think in this way, they tend to prepare less and not persist through challenges.

Tell/show the full story. When people struggle in certain areas and believe that other people do not experience similar struggles, they tend to isolate themselves and not receive help. Stated another way, when people perceive their struggles to be unique to an aspect of whom they are (i.e., their race, gender) and not shared by all different types of people, they are more likely to adopt behaviors that decrease their success. Unfortunately, this circular path can often be the case with licensure exams. The real statistics indicate that Black and Latino test takers do not pass at as high a rate as White test takers. But, many Black and Latino test takers do pass. And, White, Pink, Purple, and Green people also struggle and sometimes fail. These Black/White statistics, however, along with real and imagined ideas of testing bias, produce an overly-simplistic picture that “Black students don’t do well.” This idea, wedged into test takers’ psyche, can undermine virtually all parts of preparation and performance. The real story is that struggling to pass licensure tests is not limited to any specific demographic—and neither is passing. As I stated above, showing is always more powerful than telling. So, it is important to show test takers an array of students who have struggled with and passed their licensure tests.

In closing, some may read these four areas and see that none of them explicitly address the skills that teacher licensure tests are designed to measure. Should preparation efforts address these, too? Of course. In instances where students have not yet developed these skills, interventions should address these skills as early as possible, most likely right after students express interest in being admitted to a teacher education program. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the acquisition of these skills and the demonstration of them will be supported if these other four areas are also addressed. In other words, addressing skills alone is not enough. Faculty and staff also must address the other cognitive and affective dimensions of licensure exams for students to be successful and bring to fruition efforts to diversity the teaching force.

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The Academy Speaks Blogger:

Dr. Emery M. Petchauer is an Assistant Professor of Education at Lincoln University.

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