Does Your Child’s Teacher Know How to Teach?
This opinion article by AACTE Dean in Residence Leslie T. Fenwick was published in Politico and is reprinted with permission.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated harmful educational inequalities in the preK-12 public education system. The nation’s poorest students, Black and Latino students, and our disabled students have been the most negatively impacted by school closings necessitated by the pandemic. Black students in high poverty schools have been especially hard hit because of the racialized, historic, and ongoing disinvestment in the education of Black children and youth.
One of the most obvious—and dangerous—ways this inequality shows up is by channeling a proportionally larger share of less qualified or alternatively credentialed teachers to schools with higher percentages of Black, Latino and disabled students. Black and Latino students are more likely than their white peers to be taught by teachers in training who are in alternative teacher preparation programs. These alternative route programs differ from traditional teacher preparation programs in at least one significant way: Most alternative route teacher interns become teachers of record prior to completing any teacher training. This means that as teachers in training, they are not profession-ready on Day 1. They are training on the backs of our neediest students—the students who most need a profession-ready teacher.
The pandemic and racial unrest have revealed just how much further the nation has to go to fulfill children’s constitutional right to equal educational opportunity. State constitutions define this right to an education in beautiful and compelling language as a “democratic imperative,” “fundamental value,” and “paramount duty.” Yet, despite these powerful phrases, nearly 30 years of research shows that in schools serving students of color where 50% or more are on free or reduced lunch (one indicator of poverty status), these students are 70% more likely to have a teacher who is not certified or does not have a college major or minor in the subject area they teach. This finding holds true across four critical subject areas: mathematics, English, social studies, and science.
A review of the typical requirements for traditional teacher preparation and alternative programs—especially those that are not based at universities—reveals just how different the programs are in terms of substantive coursework and the length of time spent devoted to reflective and supervised practice under a fully certified and prepared preK-12 teacher (usually with at least three years of successful teaching experience) and university faculty member. It is clear that these two routes are not producing similar calibers of teachers and, even if they did, the alternative route program places an undue burden on the preK-12 students who are assigned a teacher-in-training as their full-time teacher of record.
This trend of placing untrained and uncertified individuals as teachers of record in schools serving the urban poor and disabled students is accelerating during the pandemic as states utilize more back door routes into classrooms through emergency certificates—in some states, these are granted to individuals with only a high school diploma. This practice is generating a new wave of uncredentialed teachers.
This reality is ill-matched to another circumstance: high stakes standardized tests and graduation examinations are more often used in states with higher percentages of Black and Latino students. How can we continue to educationally malnourish students, raise the bar on what they are expected to know and demonstrate on standardized tests, and lower the standards for the adults who teach them?
Teacher quality is clearly tied to opportunity to learn in four categories: the quality of resources, school conditions, curriculum, and the teaching that students experience. Yet the data about each of these opportunity-to-learn categories reveal alarming trends. According to the Schott Foundation, which researches and advocates for racial justice in the public school system, Native American, Black and Latino students have just over half the opportunity to learn, compared to white non-Latino students in the nation’s best supported and best performing schools. Additionally, the Schott study found that low-income students of any race or ethnicity have just over half of the opportunity to learn, compared to the average white, non-Latino student. Therefore, the availability and placement of fully credentialed, profession-ready, caring and effective teachers for students of color and poor students is especially acute.
As citizens and leaders, we can certainly tinker around the edges of the current order and attempt to return to a pre-Covid sense of normalcy, but this will not serve the nation well. One reason is that students of color are now the majority of our public school population, which means the majority of today’s public school students have probably not benefited from the prevailing order. In sustained and systematic ways, the new majority of public school students have had their education and life chances stymied by a social contract that consistently ensures lack of access to the best educational resources: namely, teachers.