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Efforts to diversify the teacher workforce have long relied on the unfair and unproven belief that admissions standards for college teacher training programs had to be lowered in order to attract people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, according to the National Council for Teacher Quality.

Ten states have eliminated a basic skills test requirement for aspiring teachers to enter preparation programs just in the last five years in an effort to increase the number of Black and Hispanic candidates, a new report published today by the council said. Policy makers’ decisions to drop the tests were due to a “problematic narrative” backed by federal regulations published by the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama in 2016, the report said. The regulations permitted states to lower the selection requirements “to allow programs to recruit a more diverse student body” as long as the programs “maintain a high bar to exit.”

Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ, said it's time to set aside such notions and practices.

“There’s a disturbing trend in the U.S. to drop any academic standards for getting into teaching,” Walsh said. “We need to put to rest the idea that you need to achieve diversity by putting to rest standards for academic aptitude.”

The new report from NCTQ, a national policy and research organization that advocates for improving teacher effectiveness, aims to debunk this narrative. It found that nearly 200 of 1,256 elementary teacher preparation programs in the U.S. were able to achieve high levels of diversity comparable to the cities or counties in which they are located while also maintaining “selective” admissions standards by drawing candidates from the top half of the college-going population based on GPA and standardized test scores, such as the SAT and ACT.

The nearly 200 programs make up about half of the 420 programs that NCTQ found to have high diversity marks. The findings have led the group to conclude that “academic selectivity and diversity are not mutually exclusive,” an NCTQ press release about the report said.

Walsh said a Center for American Progress report also backs the idea that high selectivity does not always damage program diversity. A 2017 report by the center said it’s possible to achieve both selectivity and diversity despite existing test performance gaps between white and Black and Hispanic or Latino students “due to educational inequities” that start in the K-12 system and persist throughout college.

The NCTQ report drew criticism from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which represents teacher preparation programs. The association issued a searing letter that called the study’s evaluation methods “superficial, subjective, and short-sighted” and the report “potentially harmful.” The NCTQ ratings for admissions standards based on SAT and ACT scores are institutionwide and “are not necessarily the scores of students in the teacher education programs,” the letter said.

The association has had a “long-standing belief” that NCTQ evaluations of programs lack appropriate “measures necessary to assess teacher preparation program quality legitimately and accurately,” the letter said.

“We believe NCTQ’s superficial evaluative methods can have potentially counterproductive consequences,” the letter said. "Given the quality of NCTQ’s previous work, we do not anticipate that any ratings assigned in the newest report will accurately reflect the work being done by programs to address these challenges.”

Walsh defended NCTQ's methodology.

She said in a written statement to Inside Higher Ed that the council considers standardized testing score requirements of both the overall institutions and their undergraduate teaching programs. She explained that a final grade for program selectivity is determined by “the higher of the two” requirements.

“NCTQ gives programs credit for the most favorable measure -- whether it's their prep program’s admissions requirements, or the institution's overall selectivity,” Walsh wrote. “We invite criticism and suggestions on how a racial diversity measure might be improved upon, but we remain committed to its importance and relevance.”

The NCTQ report measured the diversity of 1,256 elementary teacher preparation programs by comparing the percentage of students of color in the program to the percentage of teachers of color in the state’s workforce and to the percentage of people of color in the program’s community, Walsh said.

One-fifth of programs met or exceeded both of these benchmarks and were awarded an A or A-plus rating, and the 13 percent that received a B nearly reached those marks, according to the report. Some “encouraging news” was that two-thirds of the programs have a more diverse enrollment than their state teacher workforce, the press release said.

Only 7 percent of the programs met the diversity levels of their institution over all, which Walsh said is noteworthy and illustrates “how unattractive the education school is to candidates of color.” Part of this lack of interest is due to low teacher pay levels, which for students exiting college with large amounts of loan debt is a serious concern, she said. Research has shown that students of color, and Black students in particular, are more likely to be saddled with more student debt and have a harder time paying it off over their lifetime compared to white students.

But Walsh also argued that making a program less competitive by reducing admissions standards is counterintuitive to the goal of attracting more students of color. Opening programs to “all comers” causes the best and brightest students of any race to turn away, she said.

“If you set up a major that says, ‘We’ll take anyone, and especially if you're Black,’ you’re shooting yourself in the foot, and the teachers are being shot in the foot,” Walsh said. “It’s so unproductive.”

Richard Ingersoll, a leading national expert on the teacher workforce and professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, said that admission standards for elementary teaching programs are already low, certainly compared to other professions such as medicine and law. The solution presented to address shortages in the national teacher workforce has been to “widen the gate and lower the bar,” but lowering academic standards “any further doesn’t make much sense,” Ingersoll said.

“Let’s say you don’t have enough supply of candidates coming into your program or occupation -- one way to fix that is to open the gate, lower the bar, but the other is, make the pay more attractive,” he said. “The low pay of teaching and low reputation of ed schools are not motivators to get your best and brightest to apply and come in.”

Additionally, the teacher workforce has been steadily diversifying over the last three decades, which Ingersoll called "an unheralded victory." The profession is a long way off from racial and ethnic parity with the students being served, but it is a trend worth celebrating, he said.

Walsh said a “favorite” and perhaps surprising detail of the NCTQ report was that teacher preparation programs in rural areas were more likely to score high on diversity metrics than those in other geographic areas. Thirty-four percent of rural programs received an A mark for diversity, compared to only 8 percent of suburban programs, she said. But an important note is that the report measured program diversity against the diversity of its local community, so programs in heavily white areas weren’t penalized for their location, Walsh said.

However, the high scores for diversity in rural programs did not extend to high scores for selectivity, according to NCTQ data provided by Walsh. None of the 17 rural programs that earned an A or A-plus for diversity earned an A or even a B for selectivity, meaning that even fewer teacher candidates come from the top half of the college-going population, rather than programs where “all” or “most” candidates are in the top half of students, according to the report.

“It absolutely suggests that rural schools face some unique challenges, primarily that they have a much more limited pool of students from which to draw,” Walsh said in an email. “There's a broader problem at play here regarding the state of rural education in the U.S. K-12 schools can't find their fair share of high-quality teachers who will stick around.”

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