Ed Schools and Affirmative Action

Education policy rarely—hell, let’s say never—results in anticipated consequences. But usually, this acknowledgment turns our thoughts to bleak, dark places.

So let’s think of the one time when an education policy’s unanticipated consequences actually had a reasonably positive outcome—and opportunity for a chuckle. I speak, of course, of the 1998 Higher Education Act, specifically Title II, section 206: “Increasing success in the pass rate for initial State teacher certification or licensure, or increasing the numbers of highly qualified individuals being certified or licensed as teachers through alternative programs.”

The plan: force education schools to report their students’ licensure pass rates.

The pass rates were widely expected to be dismal. According to Sandra Stotsky, the 60% failure rate seen in Massachussetts, which had instituted a similar requirement a few years earlier, had provoked the federal law. The Democrats behind the bipartisan bill expected to see a tiered system result, with ed schools ranked by their licensure test pass rates. Those schools with pass rates below 80% would improve or be shot and put out of their misery. It’d be like law school.

The Republican politicians and reformers of all denominations saw this as a means of destabilizing the evil cartel. They were certain that all the ed schools would have low pass rates. It was not a coincidence that the 1998 law required states to provide alternative certification paths to a credential. Alternative certification was actually the secret sauce of the 1998 law which would, its advocates fantasized, enable an organic move from ed schools to alternative certification programs. Parents would learn that ed schools turned out students with abysmally low pass rates on simple tests, so they’d demand that their children’s schools hire from only those schools with high pass rates. Faced with the realization that traditional ed schools turned out simpletons, parents would join reformers in a push for alternative certification.

So you can imagine the anticipation back in November, 2001, when the first Title II report was released online. It got 7000 hits—no doubt all of them from ed school critics, eager to curate a list of dismal passing rates, looking for a high-profile target.

and…what’s this? They all passed?

Well. I laughed, anyway.

Ed schools had been accepting and graduating students who they knew wouldn’t pass the licensure test, in the name of affirmative action. Faced with a threat, they sacrificed their ideology and commitment to collect money from underprivileged students wanting a college degree, and made a new rule: No pass, no diploma.

And so, the much-anticipated Title II reports showed that most ed schools had 100% passing rates. All but a very few easily bested the 80% barrier. Far from showing a picture of unprepared, low quality candidates, the Title II reports gave a glowing picture of competence.

The “tiered” results dreamed of by the law’s supporters? Useless. As an example, just one of Kentucky’s 25 ed schools that first year had a low passing rate of 55%, while the others were all above the minimum. So schools with 93% passing rates were in the third tier. Definitely not planned. Several states reported 100% passing rates—California, for example, which doesn’t credential teachers with an undergraduate education degree, simply required all candidates to pass the tests to gain admission.

A simple policy change rendered the law irrelevant. And expensive, alas–states spend lots of money turning out largely useless reports.

(Here’s a more measured account of the law’s intent and why it went off the rails.)

Much gnashing of teeth ensued, much castigation, many claims that the tests were incredibly easy, testing just basic skills, so of course the passing rate was so high. They accused ed schools of gaming the requirement, states of lowering the pass rate. They castigated ed schools for having such low standards, for cheating, for wasting the government’s time. For a taste of the frustration and near rage of the enjoy this 2002 Edtrust diatribe or the NCTQ wishlist.

Critics regrouped. Subsequent retoolings of the law attempted to thwart the ed schools—for example, ed schools now have to report their student score average against the state average– and lord knows NCTQ knows how to push for meaningless requirements, but it’s been pretty much game over ever since. While alternative teacher certification programs have grown, ed schools aren’t worried about their market share. It still takes a lot of work and education to become a teacher. (Before you wave TFA at me–they all still go to ed school, Relay or otherwise.)

But the attempt to destabilize or “improve” ed schools was lost, and the proponents knew it. How extremely annoying. No differentiation, no high profile targets, no rationale to get the public pushing for alternative certification programs.

Ed schools were angry right back, of course, but you have to figure they had a whole bunch of smug in there. I mean, seriously, who could get mad at ed schools for requiring their candidates to pass the licensure tests? Wasn’t the point to raise teacher quality? In your face, Snidely. Foiled you again.

That’s the end of the funny part.

The strategy wasn’t free. Ed schools couldn’t commit affirmative action, at least not as most colleges do.

Ironic, really, that the profession notorious for its supposedly lax standards, is the only profession that denies itself the opportunity to give underrepresented minorities a chance at a good government job. This reality is utterly obscured liars or fools like Arne Duncan (your choice) complaining that a 95% pass rate shows the lack of rigor.

Reality: most of the tests are appropriately rigorous, and the pass rate is considerably less than 95%.


When people refer to the “high passing rate” of licensure exams, they’re either deliberately deceitful or extremely ill-informed. The exams leave carnage in their wake when all testers are considered, not just ed school graduates, and a substantial portion of that carnage is black and Hispanic.

We all know that many college students, indeed, many college graduates, lack basic skills. We all know that these individuals are, overwhelmingly but not exclusively, black and Hispanic. Colleges let them in and then graduate them anyway, both out of ideological zeal and a reasonable fear of lawsuits.

But alone among all the professions, the majority of prospective undergraduate teachers are now required to demonstrate that they have a given skill set (set by each state, much to the feds’ chagrin) at some point before they graduate. At the graduate level, they have to pass the test just to get in. Ed schools can’t use a different standard to accept black and Hispanic candidates. They are limited to those blacks and Hispanics that can both pass the tests and want to be teachers. And most ed schools aren’t selective, so those candidates are in, anyway.

I’m oversimplifying. Some ed schools are dedicated to underrepresented minorities: HCBU ed schools , and some smaller colleges who swallow the low pass rate on their Title II report for the tuition. Alternative credential programs, once envisioned as the elite corps of folks too good for traditional ed schools, are more commonly a means to produce black and Hispanic teachers, as they are immune from the Title II reports, and passing the tests is their primary curricular objective.

But traditional ed schools, both public and elite, the ones producing the bulk of all teachers, can’t realistically provide that extensive training for a small number of students, so they “counsel out” those who don’t pass the Praxis by a certain date–or require passage for admission.

But, you say, the tests have cut scores, set far below the average. Well duh. That’s because the states don’t want to shut out blacks and Hispanics. That’s where the affirmative action sneaks in—not by ed schools, but by the states, in setting the cut scores.

I don’t know the specifics of the math involved in setting the cut score. But it seems obvious that the bulk of whites (and Asians determined to infuriate their parents) are easily clearing the cut score—or the mean would be lower. It seems equally obvious that very few blacks and Hispanics are easily clearing the cut score—or the cut score would be higher. I suspect the cut scores for elementary school are letting through more than optimal, but I can’t find any data on this. The cut score is lower than the average, but not that many people are scoring far below that average—and they are disproportionately black and Hispanic, just as the states want.

Not only did most ed schools begin to require a passing score prior to graduation, but states raised the cut scores (still below the average, though) in response to No Child Left Behind. The mean scores jumped dramatically, both as a group and by race:

ETSsatpraxisverbal ETSsatpraxismath

The average scores by race, coupled with the average SAT scores for each type of teacher, suggest that the bulk of Hispanic and black passing the test are elementary school teachers.

Before the 1998 Act, many blacks and Hispanics ed school graduates who didn’t pass the test got an emergency license, which doesn’t require a test, and hired by schools on that basis, using the fiction that they were working towards their credential. No Child Left Behind cracked down on emergency credentials and closed this loophole. The ETS report points out that a disproportionately high number of Praxis testers from 2002-2005 were employed teachers who either had an emergency or otherwise unqualified credential, and these testers were disproportionately black. The Clarence Mumford ring’s clients were often black teachers with emergency credentials, as well as clients who couldn’t pass the original test.

This may be why there wasn’t a huge fuss about the failure of many black candidates to pass the Praxis in the 90s–they were able to get teaching jobs. Or maybe there was a fuss and google just doesn’t like me.

So most public and elite ed schools can’t commit affirmative action, can’t accept wholly unqualified candidates in the name of the diversity, take their money, push them through classes they don’t really understand, pressure professors into giving passing grades, graduate them, and let them figure out after it’s all over that they can’t pass the licensure test.

In other words, ed schools can’t be law schools.

This all came about because reformers and politicians had this bizarre delusion that the quality of the ed school had something to do with the licensure test pass rates, when in fact the licensure pass rates have everything to do with the quality of the student body.

So the 1998 law and the follow-on restrictions of NCLB, restrictions based on a profound underestimation of an average teacher’s intellect, didn’t even come close to having their desired impact. Meanwhile, the laws inadvertently took away the dream of teaching for many black and Hispanic teachers. The media steadfastly ignores this and wonders gravely where all the black and Hispanic teachers went.

I can’t see the change as a bad thing; while some of the black and Hispanic ed school grads who couldn’t pass the test found jobs with emergency credentials, I doubt they all did.

This way, eventually, the feds and the states will be forced to realize they need to lower cut scores, at least for elementary school teachers, if they want to have more black and Hispanic teachers. This, too, I see as a good thing.

But as I started with a chuckle, so I shall finish: the idea that Teach for America’s “diversity” is in some way comparable and thus superior to ed schools. That’s really, really funny.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’re wondering how the hell TFA recruited so many blacks capable of passing the license tests. Yeah, me, too. I have some ideas. Another post.

About educationrealist

31 responses to “Ed Schools and Affirmative Action

  • mrtallhk

    Excellent analysis here; I’m looking forward to the next installment.

  • Mark Roulo

    Why do the pictures (figures 20 and 21) think that the SAT V+M for “all college graduates who took the SAT” is 543+542, but the average SAT score is 496+514? Is this showing that the kids who score lower on SAT are less likely to graduate?

  • Michael Hart

    From “What Accounts for Finland’s High Student Achievement?”
    “Along the way, two interesting things happened. The first is Finnish citizens held teachers and school principals in the highest esteem. Those who graduate at the top of their class are the only ones who can consider a career in education. It is the most competitive field, more so than medicine and law. The average acceptance rate into schools of education is a mere 10%.
    The second thing happened in the 1980s: Finland abolished standardized tests. Instead of test-based accountability in schools, the country—because of the high quality of its teaching force—had a trust-based system to allow teachers a certain freedom to teach with creativity. Students, too, had autonomy to learn in different ways.”


    One can debate curriculum and method, but there is no defense of a less competitive and selective teaching profession over one that is more.

    • educationrealist

      Oh, nonsense. Pointing to Finland isn’t research. On the other hand, a great deal of research here at home has revealed minimal to no impact of teacher IQ. Which suggests we’re above the basement.

      • vijay

        I never got this Finland obsession either. Have any of these people been to Finland? It is like Vermont, Wisconsin, Minnesota or north Dakota without any minorities.

        Why not just go to Vermont and learn how they teach in schools? Will be much cheaper.

        Only thing I saw special in Finland is Elementary school kids have a lot of outside classroom time in August, September; I thought it was due to the horribly long winter.

      • Michael Hart

        Yes, disposition may be important when dealing with people, but, it can be reasonably argued that the right disposition with academic success is better than without it (“above the basement”). But, people like Hanushek and Malcolm Gladwell would certainly reject the idea, implied or not in this quote about Finland, that people be selected simply by their class ranking. The best workforce is obtained by continuous selection and deselection, best done for better or worse by people with expertise and experience and the power to do so. That’s what professionalism and successful institutions (like my non-union hospital) are all about. All education reform discussion either resists this (like you folks, I think) or tries to circumvent that resistance. If the best people were selected to teach people, we wouldn’t have to worry about how the curriculum debates came out. That’s what happened in Finland it seems.

      • educationrealist

        I’m not a reformer. And anything Malcolm Gladwell or Rick Hanushek think is a good idea probably isn’t. Except maybe tiramisu.

  • Hermy

    All the jabber about Finland makes me laugh. Finland has one clear advantage over our country — homogeneity.

    Take a look at Finland’s demographics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Finland

    Finns + Swedes = 99 percent of the population! And the genetic distance between those groups is negligible. Essentially, Finland is one of the most homogenous and white countries in the world.

    It is much easier to teach a group of students with a similar social and cultural background as well as a small(er) range of ability. That’s why Finland scores well on international tests.

  • retired

    How smart does one have to be to teach? Aren’t mid 400’s on SAT scores roughly equivalent to mid 50 percentiles in IQ? You have said if I recall that 2ndary teachers need to be smarter than grammar school ones. Or does a teacher simply need to be a little smarter than the students? Doubt that.

    • educationrealist

      Mid 400s is probably smart enough for elementary school. Remember, research has not shown any correlation between SAT and student results.

      • vijay

        I do not comprehend how the schools of education have been taking students, at least since 1998. I explain how the normal process works for a small private or large state school.

        The school gets a large pile of applications. They are grouped by some combination of SAT scores + GPA ( do not believe this crap about tough high school courses; at this time, they have not gone through the transcripts). Then, the essays are read. The essays + ethnic descriptions give schools 3 or 4 piles. They cherry pick clean the higher scoring minorities and then work down from the highest scores+GPA for Non-minorities. Here, the NAM pile has a different GPA+SAT score profile than the Non-NAM piles. They work through the piles and make offers at 1.5-3 times the total number of seats, knowing fully well close to 2/3 (or some X/Y) of the offers will be turned down.

        With this in mind, How is it possible education schools avoid or limit the AA picks? Does this happen after they join the education school. What prevents the admitted students from moving into school of education?

        My model of what happens is as follows: Most reasonably well established private and state schools cherry pick the small minority pool. After one or two years of college, even after all combinations of remedial classes and grade shocks, the schools kind of weed out 1/3rd of NAM picks. Whoever gets through the double screening, are not willing to attend the education colleges in the university.

      • vijay

        Sorry I wanted to post another point here.
        “Mid 400s is probably smart enough for elementary school. Remember, research has not shown any correlation between SAT and student results”.

        I think the correlation (if any) depends on the grade level. Whereas, MID 400s is more than sufficient to teach elementary school, Honors HS physics, AP Physics, MVC etc will need teachers at 6XX level, at last in SAT math.

      • educationrealist

        Well, yes. That’s why I said Elementary School. HS, I’d say a low 500 is about as low as you can go, and that’s only for English & History.

  • vijay

    Since the year 2008, there has been a change in education majors; they have had the same STA scores as the rest of the majors. WP says ” Average SAT performance of first-year teachers in 2008-2009 was at the 50th percentile, compared with the 45th percentile in 1993-1994 and 42nd percentile in 2000-2001.”. I looked t 2013 grads they had 54th percentile of college SAT scores. I wonder how the colleges did this without braking some AA goals.

  • Roger Sweeny

    The whole point of this post is that most ed schools have willingly sacrificed affirmative action goals.

    “the 1998 Higher Education Act … force[d] education schools to report their students’ licensure pass rates. … Ed schools had been accepting and graduating students who they knew wouldn’t pass the licensure test, in the name of affirmative action. Faced with a threat, they sacrificed their ideology and commitment to collect money from underprivileged students wanting a college degree, and made a new rule: No pass, no diploma.

    “So most public and elite ed schools can’t commit affirmative action, can’t accept wholly unqualified candidates in the name of the diversity, take their money, push them through classes they don’t really understand, pressure professors into giving passing grades, graduate them, and let them figure out after it’s all over that they can’t pass the licensure test.

    “In other words, ed schools can’t be law schools.

    “This all came about because reformers and politicians had this bizarre delusion that the quality of the ed school had something to do with the licensure test pass rates, when in fact the licensure pass rates have everything to do with the quality of the student body.”

    • vijay

      This assumes that Ed schools drive their students school choice, SAT scores, etc.

      I think there is something more than Ed schools having sacrificed affirmative action goals. I believe teaching and government employment has become more lucrative, and has been able to attract students with higher SAT scores, etc over the last 15 years. Not that grads with higher sat scores will be able to impart a better education. I think it is an outcome of economic situation of the nation, than the ability of the education schools to drive this process.

      I say this as someone who has seen the way university admissions work; the entire admissions racket is stuck in cuckoo land of holistic admission, “a complete student”, and so on. see this rference “http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/education/edlife/lifting-the-veil-on-the-holistic-process-at-the-university-of-california-berkeley.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&”.

      To think that the admissions deans and their cronies giving a hoot about the ability of Ed school grads and their licensure pass rates, is , at the best a stretch. I do not know how it happened, and I give some suggestions of how it happned, above.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Perhaps our host can settle this 🙂

      The way I read what he wrote … Ed schools are not attracting smarter applicants. Rather, the schools are no longer accepting applicants who won’t pass–or haven’t passed–the state licensure test. (The 1998 Higher Education Act now forces them to report their students’ licensure pass rates.) These are generally the applicants with the lowest SAT scores. So the average SAT score of their students goes up.

      Why are they doing this? Otherwise, they open themselves to the criticism, “See how useless ed schools are. Lots of their graduates can’t even get licensed!” There were certainly a lot of education reformers who felt that way. Perhaps ed schools feared losing their market as gatekeepers for the teaching profession. Perhaps they feared the rest of higher education would look down on them.

  • educationrealist

    Roger is correct. I’ve written about this before: https://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/teacher-quality-report-lacking-a-certain-quality/ (towards the end):

    “So, here’s what I think, but can’t prove: our teachers are pulled roughly from the same pool as always, which is the 35-50% for elementary and special ed teachers, and 50-75% for secondary content teachers. But the bottom quintile or so is gone because of higher licensure standards, so the average has increased. This has resulted in far fewer black and Hispanic teachers, particularly black teachers. Existing black teachers are also being forced out of the profession by new requirements (hence the Mumford impersonation fraud ring). ”

    And yes, Roger’s roughly correct about the why. I would say rather that no one wants to admit that the failure rate is caused primarily by African Americans and Hispanics. I’m not sure that reformers even knew, because they are continually shocked that teachers are not morons.

    I have another piece coming out soon explaining why the pass rate is low. Because there are actually a number of blacks and Hispanics who could pass the tests. They aren’t the ones taking the tests.

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