For two weeks every summer, approximately 250 college students studying to be teachers descend upon the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ for the Philadelphia Urban Seminar. Representing 17 different institutions, the young adults work with students and learn from teachers in schools all across North Philly as part of their undergraduate teacher education program. Not everyone is cut out to be an urban teacher. Some need to learn the quick lesson that wanting to “save” kids in city schools won’t get them very far. Consequently, “Urban Sem” is an opportunity for prospective teachers at many of Pennsylvania’s rural and suburban institutions to show and prove in the city.
But “Urban Sem” has a way of showing and proving something else too. The first year that students from my university were there, only 15 of the entire 250 prospective teachers were African American. How many institutions were these 15 students from? Only one. Mine. Lincoln University, the nation’s oldest degree-granting Historically Black College and University (HBCU).
As in many other sectors of society, HBCUs, and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) more broadly, have put both talent and diversity into the teaching profession. About half of the African American teachers in U.S. public schools came from HBCUs. And STEM teachers? My dean at Lincoln, Judith Thomas, used to remind us that eighty percent of the math and science teachers in Pennsylvania were educated at an HBCU. Take away teacher education at MSIs, and the teaching profession gets so White it’s nearly clear.
As of 2012, over half of children under 1 year old are children of color. And states with student of color populations over 50 percent are no longer those bordering Mexico. Illinois just joined the club. A diverse country is a strong country, particularly if our teaching force follows these trends too. But will it? And will teacher education programs at MSIs continue to be a pipeline for teacher diversity? To answer this question, one has to look at the three main ways that policymakers gauge the quality of teachers today: tests, tests, and—wait for it—more tests. These include prospective teachers’ scores on paper and pencil licensure exams. Despite that these scores have a murky relationship with more direct indicators of teaching effectiveness, they remain key criteria for admissions into teaching programs. Yes, teaching is a major that students must test into.
The widespread policy of testing has immense implications for MSI teacher education programs. One component of program accreditation is how many students graduate from it. If a program has few graduates, it will be in jeopardy of losing accreditation and shutting down. Students cannot graduate from a program, let alone be admitted into one, without passing the test. While this puts all kinds of institutions (particularly smaller ones) in hot water, it can put MSIs in boiling water. HBCUs, specifically, are a case in point. Educational Testing Service – who creates the most widely used licensure exams – tells us that there is a ~40% pass rate gap between African American and White first-time test takers. This means that in addition to teaching students disciplinary knowledge and skills, HBCUs have the extra duty of preparing their students for licensure exams. Some institutions such as Delaware State have gotten ahead of the curve and done a great job. Others have not.
In the midst of big numbers and “passing gap” percentages, it’s important to keep in mind that many test takers of color easily pass the exam on their first attempt. I remember Brandon, an African American student of mine at Lincoln who passed the test on his first shot. “So how’d you do it?” I asked him after he received his scores. “Honestly, Doc,” he began, “I studied a little bit the night before, but that’s about it. I’m not the kind of person who stresses out before other tests. So why should I change who I am for this one?”
Brandon had a point. In fact, he signals a key finding from my own research on licensure exams and African American preservice teachers. I’ve found that for many test takers, there is more to the exam than knowledge and skills. The exam preparation and performance often taps into how they think about themselves as learners, test takers, and students. And for some African American test takers, the exam can become a deeply racialized event well beyond bubbling in letters. In light of this finding, efforts to prepare students of color for licensure exams must concern more than just knowledge and skills. They must also address students’ beliefs about their capabilities, develop their identities as test takers, and surround them with a network of success.
Policymakers and even test designers often fail to understand this component of the exam. Consequently, teacher education programs at HBCUs and MSIs more generally must continue to go above and beyond to sustain their programs and prepare their students. The diversity of the teaching profession depends on it.
Emery Petchauer is assistant professor of teacher development and educational studies at Oakland University.