Push for teacher quality in Illinois takes toll on minority candidates

Push for teacher quality in Illinois takes toll on minority candidates
Nearly all the students at south suburban Roosevelt Elementary School in Riverdale, IL, are African American. Principal Shalonda Randle says she’s made deliberate efforts to hire more teachers of color because her students identify with their success. WBEZ/Odette Yousef
Push for teacher quality in Illinois takes toll on minority candidates
Nearly all the students at south suburban Roosevelt Elementary School in Riverdale, IL, are African American. Principal Shalonda Randle says she’s made deliberate efforts to hire more teachers of color because her students identify with their success. WBEZ/Odette Yousef

Push for teacher quality in Illinois takes toll on minority candidates

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Across the nation, states are considering ways to make teaching a more selective profession. The push for “higher aptitude” teachers has often come from the nation’s top education officials. “In Finland it’s the top ten percent of college grads (who) are going into education,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said to an audience of educators in Massachusetts last year. “Ninety percent don’t have that opportunity.”

Education leaders in Illinois have taken up that call, but the way they’ve done it has raised some red flags. That’s because tougher standards are coming at a cost: fewer minorities are on track to become teachers. The data have state officials talking about whether they should do things differently.

The issue became a key point of discussion at last month’s regular meeting of the Illinois State Board of Education. Though it wasn’t on the board’s agenda, a handful of outsiders showed up to bring it to the board’s attention during the public comment portion of the meeting. Linda Wegner, a teacher in Rochelle, IL, spoke on behalf of the Illinois Education Association. “I want to encourage my minority students to be teachers. I try to, I always have,” she told

Wegner warned the board that unless it intervenes, Illinois’ teaching force will become whiter. That’s because the number of African Americans and Latinos in teaching schools is way down. She and many others attributed this to a change in the Test of Academic Proficiency, or TAP, an admissions test for colleges of education. Anyone who wants to be a teacher in Illinois must pass the TAP.

“We’re seeing a diminution in the number of minority candidates who are passing this exam, so we’re worried about it,” said Gery Chico, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education. Chico told Wegner he is seriously alarmed about data that show that fewer African Americans and Hispanics are passing the TAP. He said the board had feared this might happen when it raised standards to pass the TAP in 2010.

That year, the board doubled the scores needed to pass each section of the TAP, and also limited students to five tries. “It was really part and parcel of that overall movement to increase the rigor of various standards that affect the entire profession,” Chico explained.

Last year, the board also began allowing teacher candidates to submit test scores on other standardized assessments in lieu of the TAP. A score of at least 22 on the ACT or 1030 on the SAT would qualify. However, the state has not tracked whether this has allowed more candidates of color into colleges of education. Both of those cutoff scores are above what African Americans and Hispanics in Illinois average on those exams; they are below what Caucasians average.

Data is in

But now, it’s been three years, and the numbers are in: the overall pass rate for the TAP is less than half what it was before, and the changes have disproportionately hurt non-Asian minorities. Sixty percent of African-Americans used to pass the TAP; now it’s 17 percent. For Hispanics, the pass rate has dropped from 70 percent, to 22 percent.

Many are quick to warn that this is not because those candidates are less capable, but that they themselves were products of poor schools. “If you think about who have we been under-educating in the past, it tends to be low-income and minority students,” said Robin Steans of Advance Illinois, an education policy group.

Steans rejects the idea that raising teacher standards must come at the cost of diversity. She says colleges of education should do more to recruit talented minorities.

But the reality is, Illinois is seeing a tradeoff. She and many others in the education field in Illinois believe this matters because year after year the white student population in the state has shrunk. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, white students make up 50.3 percent of school enrollment this year. Meanwhile, the share of white teachers in Illinois has barely changed, hovering between 82 and 85 percent. Many feel the new TAP further exacerbates the mismatch.

“Don’t we want kids to have elementary teachers who have a solid grasp of these subjects?” said Arthur McKee, of the National Council on Teacher Quality. The NCTQ has become a vocal advocate in pressuring states to raise teacher standards. McKee said Illinois made the right changes to the TAP, and should stay its course. “We actually think that it’s a good assessment,” he continued. “We believe that teachers should generally be drawn from the top half of the college-going population.”

Nationally, that’s where things are going. Many states are considering policy changes to make teaching more selective. Some would weed candidates out after they finish their education degrees, but others like New Jersey and Nebraska are thinking of doing what Illinois does: narrowing the pool at the front end. In most of these places, there are debates about whether changes might limit diversity in their teaching pool. Illinois is the early adopter that shows those fears are well-founded.

Teachers of their own culture

Practitioners on the ground agree that we need smart teachers, but many also believe students do better with teachers of their own culture. “I just think it’s so important for children to see people that look like them in positive situations,” said Shalonda Randle, principal of Roosevelt Junior High and Elementary School in south suburban Riverdale, “so that they can see that African Americans are teachers, are principals, are in positions of power and authority.”

Randle started at the school as a teacher in 1996, and said she saw the student body change. “When I first started, the demographics was pretty much, I would say 50 percent Caucasian, 50 percent African American,” she remembered. “Within the course of 3 years, by 1998 until  2000 the demographics went to 100 percent African-American students.” Meanwhile, Randle recalled being one of only two African American teachers at that time.

When Randle became principal in 2003, she said she made it a priority to hire more teachers of color. Today, more than half her teachers are African-American. She said she doesn’t compromise the quality of her teachers for race, but she worries that the TAP may be locking out people who might make really good teachers. Randle said Illinois should keep high standards, but it should measure teacher aptitude in a variety of ways. 

Joyce Jackson agrees; she said by any other measure, she’d be deemed worth to teach. Jackson returned a phone call to WBEZ just hours after she had taken the math portion of the TAP. “You can hear the shakiness in my voice, because I’ve just come from taking the Basic Skills math portion of the new TAP exam,” Jackson said in a recorded voice message, “and as you can hear I am so upset because I have yet not passed it again.”

A rigorous test

My editor had me take the TAP, to see what it’s like. It’s a five-hour, computer-based test, geared toward a college sophomore level. My experience was that the test is doable, but certainly rigorous.

Jackson has taken the math portion of that test seven times. She is board president for Randle’s school district, and decided to go back to school herself to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a teacher. But after years of trying to pass the TAP, and hundreds of dollars in test preparation and test-taking, she’s reaching the end of her tether. She has not been able to move forward in her coursework at Governor State University to complete her teaching credits.

“I also have enough credits to switch a major and go maybe into sociology or social work or psychology,” said Jackson. Officials of colleges of education at UIC, NEIU and Governor State University all said that many of their minority teaching candidates do what Jackson is considering: switch to other majors after failing the TAP. Jackson says it breaks her heart to think of this, because all she wanted was to teach students that they could be whatever they want.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef.