Teaching's 'Endangered Species'

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Bu Blake Rodman

When Walter A. Mercer joined the education faculty at predominantly black Florida A & M University in 1963, the school was graduating more than 300 new teachers a year.

But today, despite growth in the university as a whole and the school's sound reputation for teacher training, it graduates fewer than 100. And of those, about 66 percent fail the state's new teacher-certification test.

"That leaves about 34 teachers a year," said Mr. Mercer in a recent interview. "And we are the largest producer of black teachers in the state."

The Florida A & M experience, far from unique among the nation's historically black higher-education institutions, provides evidence of what educators warn is a growing--if now largely unexamined--national problem: the long-term erosion of the minority teaching force.

And the eventual consequences of the problem, these experts say, may be incalculable. For as the minority teacher slowly vanishes from the nation's classrooms, legions of minority-group children--the fastest-growing segment of the nation's youth population--are poised to enter an education system that will be devoid of role models.

According to statistics from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the number of new teachers produced by predominantly black institutions like Florida A & M has declined by 45 percent since 1978. Because these schools have traditionally supplied the lion's share of the nation's black teaching force, declines of this magnitude are seen as significant indicators.

But assessing the full dimensions of the problem nationally has so far been hampered by the lack of timely and comprehensive data by race. As one Washington-based higher-education representative put it: "We take the hard data we can get and then speculate from there."

The statistics that are available provide much fuel for speculation, including these unsettling trends:

The pool of potential minority teachers is being narrowed by a general decline in college-going among minority youths.

Minorities "continue to be seriously underrepresented in postsecondary schools at the same time that their group as a whole continues to grow in number and proportion," said the American Council on Education last month, in its fourth annual status report on minorities in higher education. (See Education Week, April 17, 1985.)

Blacks have accounted for a smaller and smaller proportion of the nation's total college enrollment since the mid-1970's, according to statistics from the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights. In the latest year for which figures are available--1982-83--black youths made up 13 percent of the 18-to-24-year-old population but represented only 9.6 percent of those enrolled in college. Hispanics, who represented 7.1 percent of college-age youths, made up 4.4 percent of college enrollment.

And the college-going rate for high-school graduates in both groups has been declining steadily since the mid-1970's, the ocr figures show--for blacks, from 35.5 percent in 1976, to 27 percent in 1983; for Hispanics, from 35.8 percent to 31 percent over the same period.

The number of minority college students choosing education as their field of study is dropping.

According to the ocr data, the number of bachelor's degrees in education awarded to blacks declined by 52 percent over a seven-year period--from 14,209 in 1975-76, to 6,792 in 1982-83. The proportion of all undergraduate education degrees awarded to blacks in that period fell from 9.2 percent to 6.9 percent.

And though the percentage share of education degrees for Hispanics increased--up from 1.8 percent to 2.6 percent--they, too, lost ground in numbers. In 1975-76, 2,831 bachelor's degrees in education went to Hispanics; in 1982-83, the figure was 2,517.

For whites, the number of bachelor's degrees in education declined by 40 percent--from 135,464 to 81,650.

The impact of competency-testing for teachers is becoming apparent in state and regional studies showing wide discrepancies between the growth of minority segments of the teaching force and growth in the teaching force as a whole.

A recent survey of teacher statistics in 10 Southern states, for example, found that the number of black teachers had fallen by 6.4 percent between 1980-81 and 1983-84--from 77,932 to 72,910--while the total number of teachers in those states was rising by almost a percentage point--from 522,683 to 525,987.

In South Carolina, the total number of teachers rose by 2 percent, but the number of black teachers fell by 6 percent. In North Carolina, where the total dropped 1 percent, the number of blacks dropped 5 percent. And in Texas, only 95 of 11,495 teaching positions added during the three-year period were filled by black teachers.

The survey's principal researcher, Constance Carter Cooper, dean of the division of graduate studies at Coppin State College in Baltimore, attributes these declines "mainly to testing."

"How else can you explain it?" Ms. Cooper said. "There is no other event that occurred in the last four years in the Southern states that would explain this drop in the number of black teachers."

Bleak Forecast for 1990

G. Pritchy Smith, chairman of the division of curriculum and instruction at the University of North Florida and considered by many to be the nation's leading authority on the effect of teacher testing on minorities, paints a disturbing picture of future classrooms from these and other statistics.

Based on data he has gathered from the National Center for Education Statistics and from states using required teachers' examinations, Mr. Smith concludes that, if present trends continue, the minority representation in the nation's teaching force--at about 12.5 percent in 1980--could fall to 5 percent by 1990.

In graphic terms, he says, a minority teaching force of that size would mean that the average student, who has about 40 teachers during his precollegiate years, can expect at best to encounter only two teachers who are members of a minority group during his entire school career.

"If black students don't see black teachers in the classroom," says Florida A & M's Mr. Mercer, "they will feel they shouldn't be in the profession either."

And, adds Mr. Smith, "to establish healthy attitudes about minority groups in this society," white children also must be able to identify with teachers from other racial groups.

Opting Out of Profession

Yet many educators suggest that a complex blending of social, economic, and political forces has contributed to the reluctance of blacks and other minorities to enter teaching. Some of the same factors that have prompted white students to opt out of the profession--low pay, long hours, lack of professional status, and the field's bureaucracy--are also disincentives to minorities, they note.

But in addition, say the experts, academically able minority-group members who once found teaching one of the few professional options available to them are now being recruited for careers that promise greater rewards and advancement.

"Up until the late 1970's," says Reginald Wilson, director of the office of minority concerns for the American Council on Education, "the college major of the predominant number of blacks and Hispanics enrolled in postsecondary institutions was education." Now, he says, the choices made by these groups closely mirror those of white students, the most popular being business.

And for those few who do choose teaching, an additional roadblock has been placed in their career path: competency testing. Those who have studied the phenomenon of the vanishing minority teacher agree almost unanimously on this point: The broadening practice of testing teachers--prospective teachers entering training programs, graduates seeking certification, and even practicing classroom teachers--has greatly exacerbated the problem.

The tests represent, says Florida A & M's Mr. Mercer, "an academic electric chair" for would-be minority teachers.

"They are killing off the future supply of black teachers," he says. "I've looked at the statistics from all over the country and within the next six years the black teacher will be an endangered species."

Says Peter A. Garcia, dean for extended education and governmental relations at Pan American University in Edinburg, Tex.: "These tests are devastating for Hispanics as well as for blacks. A large number of Hispanic young people are being excluded from teaching because of them."

Tests 'Especially Untimely'

And as Mr. Smith notes in a recent study, "The Impact of Competency Testing on Teacher Education: Ethical and Legal Issues in Teacher Selection," this additional thinning of the minority teaching ranks is "especially untimely." The number of minority-group children in elementary and secondary schools is expected to reach 30 percent of the total student population by 1990, he says.

Minority public-school enrollment already exceeds 50 percent of the total in New Mexico and Mississippi, according to Mr. Smith, and is expected to approach 50 percent in California, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas by 1990.

In addition, he says, the minority enrollment in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina, which currently ranges from 30 to 40 percent, will be about 50 percent by the year 2000.

"All of these states are presently, or will soon be, engaged in competency testing for teachers," notes Mr. Smith. "This testing appears only to guarantee the elimination of minority teachers in a decade when they will be sorely needed."

High Failure Rates

In fact, evidence from states that have been using teacher-certification tests now documents what many have feared since the tests' inception: that a disproportionate share of minority students are scoring below state-set cutoff points and thus being screened out of the profession.

In the majority of states currently testing prospective teachers, education officials report that as many as two-thirds of the blacks taking the test fail, while the failure rates for white students are in the 10 to 20 percent range. The failure rates for Hispanics and American Indians tend to be high as well, the officials say, and the same holds true to some extent for Asians.

"Regardless of where you look at the figures, the results will be the same," says Mark Musick, director of state services for the Southern Regional Education Board. "And I don't see the thing turning around, and that's a real problem."

California's experience, says Mr. Smith, can serve as a good "barometer" of the situation nationwide, since that state does not have what he calls a "North-South identification."

According to recently released statistics from the state's commission on teacher credentialing, only 33 percent of the 2,287 black teacher candidates taking the California Basic Education Skills Test for the first time last year passed it, compared with 81 percent of the 32,110 white teacher candidates. Fewer than half of the 1,720 Mexican Americans tested--46 percent--and only 41 percent of the 653 other Hispanic candidates passed, and the pass rate for Asian Americans was 56 percent.

Richard W. Watkins, a examinations consultant for the teacher-credentialing commission, says the statistics disclose a further discouraging trend: those who re-take the test usually fail it repeatedly. Last year, for example, 73 percent of the first-time test takers passed, but the pass rate for those taking the test a second time was only 46 percent. 4Third-time takers passed at a rate of 32 percent, and only 25 percent of the fourth-time takers passed.

Furthermore, says Mr. Watkins, even though the percentage of minorities passing the cbest has increased since it was first given in 1982, progress is largely illusory, a result of declining numbers of test takers. The 39 percent pass rate for the 2,133 Mexican-American candidates who took the test in 1982, for example, represented 831 certified Hispanic teachers. But the 46 percent pass rate the group recorded last year represented only 791.

The Southern Experience

In some Southern states, the situation has been worse. According to Mr. Smith's research, which provides statistical calculations of the tests' impact on minority-group representation, only 15 percent of the black students from public postsecondary institutions in Louisiana who have taken state-required National Teachers' Examinations have passed.

The rate translates into a devastating numerical decline, he indicates. Louisiana has added a total of only 211 new black teachers from all state colleges and universities since the inception of competency testing in 1978. To have maintained the pre-1978 racial composition of the state's teaching force, Mr. Smith says, 580 black teachers would normally have been added each year.

And even in such Southern states as Florida, where the failure rates for minorities have been much lower than Louisiana's, the toll of competency-testing may be an ever-widening gap for minorities between their share of the population and their representation in the classroom.

According to Garfield Wilson, director of the state education department's office of teacher education, certification, and staff development, figures for the five-year period in which certification tests have been required show that only 4.4 percent of those certified have been black and 2.8 percent Hispanic. Yet the state's public-school enrollment is 23.6 percent black and 8.7 percent Hispanic.

And Asa G. Hilliard, professor of education at Georgia State University in Atlanta, warns that the number of minorities being screened out of teaching could grow even larger if other Southern states follow Arkansas' lead--as Texas and Georgia have already done--and decide to test practicing teachers as well.

"If this becomes a trend, as I think it will," Mr. Hilliard says, ''you will soon have a whole new group affected by the tests."

Arkansas, which began testing practicing teachers last March, has not released pass/fail rates by race. But the rates were released by county, and counties with the highest failure rates were predominantly black.

Impact on Black Colleges

Already, the high failure rates on certification tests are threatening the enrollments--and in some cases the very existence--of the education programs many Southern states have relied on for the production of minority teachers.

Officials at historically black colleges in the region say that not only are the failure rates associated with their institutions keeping students from entering their teaching programs, but they are also threatening the academic health of the institution.

At least four states--Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee--have passed laws that penalize colleges of education whose graduates have high failure rates. In Florida, for example, program accreditation will be revoked unless 80 percent of graduates pass the state certification test.

About 30 programs in 18 of Florida's colleges and universities--primarily the historically black institutions and others with high minority enrollments--lost state approval in 1983. (Approval was reinstated when college officials submitted plans to improve their pass rates on the test, according to a state education official, but the state has yet to assess the improvement.)

But if certification-test results have discouraged many potential minority applicants, the prospect of being tested for entry into education programs has been an insurmountable intimidation for some others.

When Texas began requiring that students pass a preprofessional skills test for entry into teacher-training programs, education enrollments dropped precipitously at predominantly black Texas Southern University.

According to Cherry Gooden, assistant professor of education, enrollment in the school's elementary preparatory courses fell from about 20 students to 7. And in preparatory courses for secondary teachers, the drop was even steeper--from 30 students to 3.

"We were told by the university's academic vice president that the school would no longer be able to offer the classes at that size," Ms. Gooden said."There just weren't enough students who passed the tests."

After a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction temporarily blocking the state's use of the test last summer, however, the professional-training courses were offered as usual--with 27 students enrolled in the elementary courses and 31 in the secondary courses.

"It may well be viewed that in some instances these tests are successfully doing what some states could not legally do after desegregation," says Ernest J. Middleton, dean of the college of education at Southern University in Baton Rouge. But though he points out that "the largest push" for competency testing has come from the South, Mr. Middleton says he does not believe the prime motivation for the tests has been racial.

"Accountability is an issue whose time has come in public education," he says, "and we are going to have to deal with it."

Indeed, as state legislators and policymakers rush to satisfy the public's growing demand for education reform, teacher-competency testing has become one of the most popular items on the political agenda.

From 3 to 38 States

By the beginning of this year, 38 states had passed laws or adopted regulations requiring some form of testing for teachers, according to J.T. Sandefur, dean of the college of education and behavioral sciences at Western Kentucky University, who has tracked the phenomenon. Seven years ago, he says, only three states had such mandates.

Among the 38 states that test, 21 require students to pass an examination to gain entry into teacher-training programs and 32 require prospective teachers to pass a certification test. (There is some overlapping, Mr. Sandefur notes.)

Five of the states that have mandated teacher-competency tests--Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Nevada, and Pennsylvania--have not yet implemented them, he says.

In addition, seven states with no testing requirement--Illinois, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin--currently are considering one.

Only five states--Alaska, Iowa, Idaho, Michigan, and Minnesota--have reported "no activity" on the matter, according to Mr. Sandefur.

"Virtually the only point on which all observers of the current trend in teacher testing can agree is that the use of such tests can be highly problematic," said Bernard R. Gifford, dean of the graduate school of education at the University of California at Berkeley, at a recent Educational Testing Service conference.

'Excellence' Over Equity

In fact, critics of the tests say "problematic" is an understatement. They call competency testing nothing more than an inexpensive, "quick-fix" approach to improving s that ignores deeper values. "It is the cheapest way to approach reform," says Georgia State's Mr. Hilliard. "True reform costs much more."

A former dean of education at San Francisco State University, Mr. Hilliard believes the testing movement is a hasty response "made without any empirical evidence to show that the test scores will actually improve the quality of instruction."

"To follow this practice, one should be able to say that the people who do well on these exams also do well with children," he notes. "And I don't think we can say this at all."

Many other teacher educators join Mr. Hilliard in his opposition to using the tests as "the sole criterion to determine whether an individual is qualified to work with children."

"Let's look at something other than what the students score in a single day on a single test," says Texas Southern's Ms. Gooden. "Let's look at a series of things. To put all your eggs in one basket is very dangerous."

But it is the social consequences of this "largely pencil-and-paper test movement" that should be examined most closely, writes Mr. Smith, in an analysis of such tests' ethical and legal implications.

"The issue of excellence has taken precedence over the issue of equity," he says. "With little protest from the public or the community of professional educators, definitions of excellence that are inclusive of equity have fallen by the wayside."

Widening Endorsements

But a wide array of education groups and authorities has offered support for the concept of teacher-testing, including both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

And the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which approves the nation's postsecondary teacher-education programs, has included in its upgraded standards a provision requiring that students entering an ncate-accredited program pass a standardized basic-skills test.

"What the profession is crying out for is good teachers who will prevent another generation of minority youngsters from not being able to pass these tests," says Bella Rosenberg, a spokesman for the aft "In our view, to take this position is to take a position for disadvantaged youngsters in this country."

Albert Shanker, president of the aft, has even proposed the establishment of a rigorous national certification test and has criticized some states already testing teachers for setting low passing standards on what he says are essentially easy basic-skills tests.

Both unions, however, oppose the testing of practicing teachers.

This widespread acceptance among educators and a growing public enthusiasm has convinced even those who oppose competency-testing that it is here to stay. And despite lingering court challenges to the practice, most legal authorities doubt that the tests will be overturned, except possibly in isolated cases in which they can be shown to extend a pattern of past discrimination. (See related story on this page.)

Urgent Tasks Ahead

For both critics and proponents, however, the institutionalization of the testing concept raises vexing questions for which there are not yet suitable answers.

Before the education community, they point out, lie the tasks of understanding and reversing the trend away from teaching as a favored career choice among minorities and of devising educational remedies for the deep-seated problems that have produced high minority failure rates on the teacher exams. (See related stories on page 13.)

But the most urgent task, say most in the field, will be dealing with the disruptions and lost opportunities resulting from the growing imbalance between the size of the minority school enrollment and the number of minority teachers.

"If unchecked by dramatic interventions," says the University of California's Mr. Gifford, a proponent of testing who thinks much more must be done to aid minority teacher candidates as early as high school, the situation "could result in a high degree of conflict between minority parents and a largely nonminority teaching staff, similar to the one that plagued public education during the 1960's in many of the nation's larger cities."

And, warns William C. Brown, director of an sreb project on the problem, the cycle of lowered educational expectations among minority children cannot be broken by a largely white teaching corps. "We have to provide black youngsters with black role models who have become successful through education to show that education can pay off," he says.

But the aft's Ms. Rosenberg, echoing the views of a growing number of educators, argues that solutions cannot come at the expense of standards. "What kind of a role model is a teacher who can't write and spell?" she asks. "Minority parents don't want teachers in the classroom who don't have the basic skills."

Vol. 05, Issue 12

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories