Legislative committee hears from national expert on building and keeping a strong, diverse teacher workforce

Published October 6, 2022

By Greg Childress

Lowering standards to attract people of color to the teaching profession is bad policy, a national education expert told state lawmakers on Monday.

Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality(NCTQ), said that relaxing standards for passing licensure exams “perpetuates the myth that racial diversity is equivalent to less skill.”

“So, when folks say we’re getting rid of licensure tests or that we’re lowering the bar because we want to diversify the workforce and this action is described as a tool to increase racial diversity, the tacit message there is that somehow people of color are incapable of meeting the standard,” Peske said. “This message is simply untrue and unacceptable.”

Peske made her remarks virtually during a meeting of the House Select Committee on an Education System for North Carolina’s Future in Cullowhee, in western North Carolina. The Republican-led committee is examining the state’s public schools.

Tough schools require well-prepared teachers

It’s critical to maintain professional rigor and ensure new teachers are well prepared, Peske said, because they are often assigned to economically disadvantaged schools where students historically struggle academically.

“When we look at the data on which students are getting access to which teachers, we see repeatedly that students who are living in poverty, or so-called disadvantaged students, don’t have the same access to teachers who are demonstrably strongest.”

Peske shared findings from “How Did It Get This Way: Disentangling the Sources of Teacher Quality Gaps Across Two States” and “Has it always been this way? Tracing the evolution of teacher quality gaps in U.S. public schools” that included:

  • North Carolina has inequities in students’ access to effective teachers, largely because of within-district sorting, rather than differences between districts.
  • Disadvantaged students — those from under-represented minorities and those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch — were 2 to 4 percentage points more likely to have a novice teacher.
  • Disadvantaged students were 5 to 8 percentage points more likely to have a teacher with a lower score on licensure tests.
  • The biggest driver behind these gaps is hiring teachers into new positions; ensuring that novice teachers are effective is critically important.

See the PowerPoint Peske shared with the committee.

A recent study by nonpartisan researchers at the nonprofit RAND Corporation found that few administrators or teachers support ending or reducing certification requirements or eliminating preparation admission standards to recruit teachers of color, Peske noted. Policy Watch recently wrote about the study.

Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality

The survey findings are from a section of the 2022 “State of the American Teacher” survey that focused on the racial and ethnic diversity of the nation’s teacher workforce.

NCTQ identified Meredith College in Raleigh and Queens University of Charlotte as “equitable and excellent” institutions, Peske said. Schools receive the distinction when students of color pass licensure exams at rates higher than the state average with little or no disparity to white takers, she said.

“So, lowering standards in response to a real need to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of the teaching force ignores the hard work that we need to do,” Peske said. “We need to look at existing institutions and see where we are falling short and where we need to better support test takers, all test takers, but especially those of color, to make sure that they have access to the content knowledge they need to be successful as students.”

Racial bias shouldn’t be ignored

Still, Peske added, licensure exams must be scrutinized for evidence of bias.

“We also know that our nation has systemic inequities that may be the real culprit behind disproportionate low pass rates for test takers of color,” Peske said. “So, if we drop this guardrail for teachers before they go into classrooms, we simply perpetuate the problem rather than actually solving the inequity.”

In 2021, test takers who were Black passed 43% of the licensure exams they took, compared to 72% for those who were white. Meanwhile, Latino test takers passed 66% of exams. The pass rate for all test takers was 66%.

North Carolina has 56 approved educator preparation programs. They consist of public and private colleges and universities and alternative licensure programs.

Despite alarms about teacher shortages, first-year enrollment in educator prep programs grew from 4,386 to 6,210 between 2015-2021, a 41.5% increase, Peske said, citing data from the NC Educator Preparation Program Dashboard. In 2015, there were 3,625 “completers,” compared to 3,748 in 2021. There was a slight first-year enrollment dip between 2020 and 2021 during the height of the pandemic.

More program completers are coming from alternative programs, Peske said. From 2015 to 2021, North Carolina saw a nearly 50% increase in program completers coming from alt-route programs, Peske said. That is far higher than the national rate of 12%.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina there was a 10% decrease in prospective teachers coming from traditional educator prep programs, close to the national average of a 9% decrease. Nonetheless, most students are enrolled in traditional prep programs.

New teachers need assistance

Peske questioned North Carolina’s wisdom in allowing educators to teach for up to three years before passing licensure exams.

She explained that a typical Kindergarten teacher, for example, could be asked to teach about 75 students to read over three years without demonstrating the skills needed to do so.

“Would you want your child or grandchild to be taught by teachers who don’t demonstrate that they have the method of teaching reading under their belt? Peske asked. “This is a concern.”

The state must focus on improving the student teaching experience, Peske said. It’s the part of teacher prep that aspiring teachers find the most beneficial, she said.

“A large amount of research demonstrates that student teachers who are paired with an effective, cooperative teacher or mentor teacher are more effective in their first year of teaching,” Peske said.

Given the importance of learning to read in the early grades, Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, asked if it would make sense to “drive” the state’s best teachers to grades 1-4.

“If we’re putting teachers that don’t quite have that full complement yet on the best way to teach, why not capture the ones that have that and … direct them to the first early years of [a child’s education]?”

Peske said the state must take a strategic approach to figure out how to assign teachers. She said the state must consider compensation to attract the best teachers to districts, regions, and grade levels that need them most.

“Particularly in a place like North Carolina, you’re sitting in a more rural area than some of the urban regions, so could you be using strategic compensation to … drive teachers more to the places that need them,” Peske said.

Peske’s remarks come as the state is considering controversial revisions to licensure and pay for its teachers. Many educators argue that recently proposed changes amount to an unwarranted move to “merit pay,” because they place too much of an emphasis on standardize tests.

The proposal would create a system of entry-level certifications to bring more people into the profession. One certification under the plan would serve essentially as a learner’s permit. It would allow aspiring educators with associate’s degrees to teach for two years while they earn a bachelor’s degree. Teachers working under that license would receive a base salary of $30,000.

Veteran teachers in leadership roles could earn an advanced teacher license. A National Board certified teacher working under that license with a master’s degree and more than 25 years of experience could earn more than $80,000 a year.