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Diversity in the Teaching Workforce: False Choices and Faulty Tactics

Kate WalshKate Walsh

We can all agree that building a more diverse corps of teachers is important. While only a few studies have examined the role of teacher diversity in student achievement, there’s some evidence that students may learn more when taught by a teacher of their same race and that, on average, Black teachers hold higher expectations for Black students. But just recently we learned the troubling findings from a Shanker Institute report that the number of Black teachers working in some of our largest school districts is on the decline.

Just how we can attract and retain a more diverse teaching corps is a conundrum every school district in America faces.

Many advocate that the answer is to keep academic standards low for entry into teacher preparation programs so that as many minority candidates as possible make it through the pipeline. That’s a “solution” fraught with problems. For starters, it’s insulting to minority teacher candidates as well as minority students, suggesting that what’s best for them is to have a teacher who merely looks like them, regardless of how well they may teach.

It’s also a solution grounded in a false dichotomy, arguing that we must choose between a diverse teacher corps and high standards, but we cannot have both. In fact, the National Council on Teacher Quality has found that is simply untrue. We estimate that there are some 60 teacher preparation programs that set a high bar for entry (based on criteria like SAT/ACT scores or GPA) and also do a great job recruiting candidates of color. True, we’d like that number to be much higher, especially given that we’ve just learned from the Shanker Institute of the declining numbers of minority teachers in many cities, but the fact that dozens of preparation programs meet both goals shows that it should be within any program’s reach.

What’s worth pointing out is that well-meaning efforts to lift various academic barriers, such as removing standardized tests from undergraduate admissions criteria, haven’t done much to increase diversity. As New America analyst Stephen Burd reported in his blog, researchers are taking a hard look at colleges that are going test-optional—and what they are seeing isn’t pretty. A group of University of Georgia researchers studied 180 selective liberal arts colleges and found that colleges that made ACT and SAT scores optional for admissions actually had lower proportions of minority and low-income students.

What did these colleges gain? Higher rankings on college scorecards. Since test scores weren’t required, more people applied, so the colleges were able to boast a lower admission rate, a critical factor in college scorecards. Furthermore, only students with high SAT and ACT scores had reason to submit their scores, so colleges’ average SAT scores increased.

Instead of trying to attract teachers by dropping standards for entry, let’s try a new tactic: Make teacher preparation programs an inviting place for college students who want to learn and work hard—no matter what their race—by making the professional coursework more rigorous and substantial.

Just check out the twitter hashtag #EdMajor if you want to learn what college students have to say about how easy the education major is.

That reputation attracts college students who want to coast to a degree but it’s a turnoff for more serious college students. Our recent report Easy A’s finds that teacher candidates are far more likely to graduate with honors than other students on the same campus. We also learned that course assignments in teacher coursework are often more subjective in nature, making it much easier to earn an A.

Programs also need to embark on a more aggressive recruitment of minority talent. Prep programs can take an active role in targeting promising high school students, offering scholarships, and giving additional support throughout college. In this instance, traditional preparation programs could learn from the efforts of alternative certification programs like Teach For America, whose own quite aggressive minority recruitment efforts have paid off: 49 percent of its 2015 teacher corps identify as people of color.

Yes, low teacher salaries are a hurdle to enacting high standards, especially when appealing to talented minorities who are heavily recruited. Yes, high student loans make anyone think twice about considering a career in teaching. However, these problems do not excuse colleges and universities from doing their part to raise the status of the teaching profession. Preparation programs cannot convincingly advocate for higher pay with one hand while ushering every applicant through an open door with the other.

We’re all for increasing teacher diversity. But let’s look at solutions that can be effective without sacrificing teacher quality for the students who most need great teachers. Rather than perpetuating the myth that teaching is a job that anyone can do, let’s increase recruitment efforts and seek out the people who have the academic aptitude to become our next generation of great teachers.

Kate Walsh is the President of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

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