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:
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.