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teacher diversity
Matt Pinchinat, who has successfully met all the requirements for licensure and certification, finds himself questioning why so many African-Americans struggle. “Is [it] indicative of what schools they went to or is [it] indicative of something else?” he asked. Credit: Peggy Barmore

The federal government is trying to increase the number of minorities in the teaching profession by, in part, allowing institutions to maintain a low bar for entry into teaching programs.

Teacher preparation programs don’t need to be selective in accepting students under new federal rules released by the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday, “so long as they maintain a high bar to exit, to allow programs to recruit a more diverse student body while maintaining the requirements for quality preparation as shown by graduation.”

The final rules, which apply to traditional, alternate, and online programs, come after a nearly two-year wait from their initial introduction, during which the U.S. Department of Education sought public input about the proposed rules.

Related: How do we stop the exodus of minority teachers?

The final rules were based in part on these comments, including several that recommended the U.S. DOE remove its original proposal to use entry requirements as a method of judging a teacher preparation program’s success. Commenters said that assessing teacher preparation program performance based on their selectivity “could compromise the mission of minority-serving institutions, which often welcome disadvantaged students and develop them into profession-ready teachers.”

“It’s such a tremendously insulting move to African-Americans and Latinos to say we want you to come into the profession so badly and the only way we can make that happen is if we have no standards. I can’t imagine what that does to someone’s psyche.”

Teacher candidates may not meet “purely grade- or test-based entry requirements,” the commenters said, but could still become well-qualified teachers if a preparation program is strong.

The government’s strategy of removing requirements around selectivity to diversify the teaching force met some criticism.

“I’m very much opposed to anything that would lower the bar for entry, for a simple reason: It’s already about as low as you can go. In many institutions in the United States, there are lower bars for entry than playing college athletics,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “We do a tremendous disservice to think that the way to diversify the teaching profession is to lower the bar.”

She added, “It’s such a tremendously insulting move to African-Americans and Latinos to say we want you to come into the profession so badly and the only way we can make that happen is if we have no standards. I can’t imagine what that does to someone’s psyche.”

The proportion of teachers who are African-American, non-white Hispanic, Native American and Asian is 18 percent, according to the authors of an August 2016 report published by the Brookings Institution. The report, which focuses on African-American and Hispanic teachers, projects that 300,000 African-Americans and 600,000 Hispanics would need to join the profession — as 1 million white teachers exit — in order to close the diversity gap.

teacher diversity

Diversity matters because research shows that students tend to do better in school when they’re exposed to teachers of the same background. A March 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University showed that black teachers are more likely to have higher expectations for their black students; for example, white teachers were almost 40 percent less likely than their black counterparts to expect black students to finish high school.

Related: Can Teach For America get more teachers to stick around in some of the nation’s poorest schools?

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Education John King touted the regulations as a way to both increase minorities in the field while adding accountability for programs. “As a nation, there is so much more we can do to help prepare our teachers and create a diverse educator workforce,” King said. “Prospective teachers need good information to select the right program; school districts need access to the best trained professionals for every opening in every school; and preparation programs need feedback about their graduates’ experiences in schools to refine their programs.”

“As a nation, there is so much more we can do to help prepare our teachers and create a diverse educator workforce.”

A department official added in an email that the “change allows programs to continue serving students of promise that may have come from underserved and low-performing P-12 settings and, due to inequity in access to educational and other opportunity, may not be ready to meet a high bar to entry, but still have potential to be successful classroom teachers. This is particularly important for prospective teachers of color, who disproportionately come from such settings.”

Although not required, the new rules encourage states “to include diversity of program graduates as an indicator in their performance rating systems, to recognize those programs that are addressing this critical need in the teaching workforce,” the official said in an email.

Sharon Robinson, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said she was glad the proposal to require a higher bar for teachers entering the profession had been removed. “There’s been a chorus out there saying that if you just raise the GPA for entry you’re going to get better qualified teachers. We’ve been looking at that for the past five years. The reality is that the GPA for candidates has already gone up,” she said. “I don’t know what these folks are talking about frankly.”

But she said worrying about selectivity had little to do with increasing the number of teachers of color. “In and of itself, I don’t see anything in these [regulations] that help us accomplish the diversity goal,” Robinson said.

“Our diversity challenges are about much more than GPA,” she said. “Our big challenge on diversity is one of recruitment.”

Other experts also say that it will take more than tweaks to teacher preparation programs to truly diversify classrooms. A report released last month by the California-based Learning Policy Institute found that efforts to recruit diverse teachers have largely worked, with the number of Hispanic, black, Asian and Native American teachers more than doubling since 1987. The report found that minority teachers are more likely than their non-minority colleagues to work in hard-to-staff schools.

But they’re also more likely to leave those schools or the teaching field due to poor working conditions and job dissatisfaction.

Some teacher educators have worried that new teacher exams that have been adopted by several states will make it harder for low-income and minority teacher candidates to join the profession. Those exams cost more money and take more time from aspiring teachers, which can place a burden on disadvantaged students in preparation programs.

After the 2014 introduction of the proposed rules, some teacher educators criticized the U.S. Department of Education and expressed concern over federal overreach and the lack of federal funding to help programs roll out the new rules. This included the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which released a statement Wednesday urging scrutiny of the regulations.

Related: How should online teacher programs be judged?

Some education school leaders praised the regulations, however, including the nonprofit Deans for Impact, which represents a group of education school deans. In a statement, the organization said “the release of these regulations is a chance to make educator preparation more meaningful and rigorous – leading to better-prepared teachers and better outcomes for children.”

The final regulations also aim to provide more information on teacher preparation programs by requiring programs to report annually several data points, including the placement and retention rates of new graduates, teacher evaluation results, and feedback from graduates on how prepared they feel. States must use this data to help programs that are deemed to be low performing.

Reporting contributed by Jamie Martines, Emmanuel Felton and Sarah Garland

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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