America Needs More Teachers of Color and a More Selective Teaching Profession

A woman and her son walk across the property at a junior high school in South Ogden, Utah, May 2016. Photo: AP/Rick Bowmer

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Introduction and summary

For the past three decades, two concerns have dominated the national conversation about the teaching workforce: diversity and talent. The teaching profession is not as racially diverse as it needs to be. In most states, there is a large and growing gap between the percentage of students of color1 and the percentage of teachers of color.2 Efforts to increase teacher diversity have led to marginal increases in the percentage of teachers of color—from 12 percent to 17 percent from 1987 through 2012—but this positive statistic obscures other troubling facts, such as the decline in the percentage of African American teachers in many large urban districts and the lower retention rates for teachers of color across the country.3

Simultaneously, calls for raising the bar for entry into the U.S. teaching profession have grown more numerous in recent years, in part because of the nation’s middling results compared with other educational systems around the world. On the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment—an international study of 15-year-old students’ knowledge and skills—the United States placed 35th in mathematics, 24th in reading, and 25th in science.4 Many countries—such as Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea—have outperformed the United States on the assessment for years, while others—including Poland and Germany—have caught up to and surpassed the United States’ scores more recently.5 Countries such as Canada are high-performing due in part to their focus on teacher quality; countries such as Poland have improved their scores by focusing on the quality of the teacher workforce, which in turn influences the quality of instruction that students experience in the classroom. What all of these countries have in common is an intense focus on the quality of the teacher workforce, which in turn positively influences student achievement.6

This focus starts at the very beginning of teachers’ careers with their admittance into teacher preparation programs. High-performing countries tend to have more rigorous selection processes for admission into teacher preparation programs compared with the processes in the United States.7 A program can be selective in many ways: It can admit only a small number of candidates; it can set a high bar for admission; or it can include qualitative or performance-based assessments of a candidate’s knowledge and skills. High-performing countries vary in the extent to which they utilize these various selectivity measurements, but what they have in common is that they use one or more of them to set the standard that makes teaching a selective profession.8

Currently, America’s teaching profession is not selective enough. Traditionally, prospective teachers apply to teacher preparation programs during their second year of college, similar to declaring a major. In 2013, the average minimum GPA requirement for entrance into such a program offering a bachelor’s degree in education was 2.6.9 This requirement is well below the 3.24 average GPA of the students who are actually admitted into teacher preparation programs,10 demonstrating that programs are not adopting rigorous selection processes. Despite what the lack of action on this issue suggests, however, there is widespread public support for increasing the selectivity of teacher preparation programs: 60 percent of Americans believe that preparation programs should make their entrance requirements more rigorous.11 While there has been some recent evidence of a shift, the average SAT scores of college students pursuing education degrees have historically been lower than those of students entering other professions.12

Recent data suggest marginal progress in relation to the goals of increasing both the diversity of the new teacher pool and the academic profiles of those entering it.13 But a new question has emerged: Are the two goals compatible? Calls for making the selection process more rigorous have often been met with skepticism. Many educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders worry that increasing selectivity may lead to a less racially diverse teacher workforce, as minority candidates generally score lower on many of the current selectivity metrics used by teacher preparation programs.14 Others maintain that the diversity gap will only continue to grow in the decades to come, even with a focus on the recruitment and retention of the current generation of prospective teachers.15 Instead, those skeptical of the United States’ ability to attain both goals offer solutions such as increased cultural competency among the existing teacher workforce to inspire and encourage a more diverse generation of future educators.16

This report examines the case for making candidate diversity and ability equally important criteria in the recruitment and selection of teachers. Looking at available evidence, the report shows that rigorous recruitment and thoughtful selection processes can achieve increased diversity and selectivity simultaneously. It also includes examples of states, institutions, and organizations that have done an exemplary job of setting a high bar for admission and ensuring the diversity of their teacher candidates and the emerging teacher workforce.

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