Dec. 7, 2018
In late October, educators, school administrators, teacher preparation program faculty and staff, advocates, policymakers and researchers convened in Seattle, Washington for the state’s Diversifying the Educator Workforce (DEW) conference. DEW is organized by the Professional Educator Standards Board (in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), which oversees teacher preparation and certification and helps shape policy for the state of Washington. Washington is helping lead the way for other states interested in creating multiple pathways into the teaching profession to help address shortages and increase the diversity of the workforce.
The conference is held twice per year and organized around specific themes; the theme for this iteration was advancing equity in educator preparation. DEW brings together a range of educational stakeholders to provide an opportunity to hear and share strategies to increase underrepresented candidates in the educator workforce. This is an urgent issue in Washington where 89 percent of the teacher workforce is white and the demographics of the K-12 student population is becoming more racially and linguistically diverse — nearly 45 percent of students are students of color and 10 percent are English learners. Nationally, 80 percent of the educator workforce is white while students of color now make up 51 percent of K-12 enrollment. Many states are focusing on how to close the student-teacher diversity gap due to a growing body of research that points to the benefits of having racially diverse teachers, particularly for students of color.
The day started with Robert Hand, a family consumer sciences teacher at Mount Vernon High School and the 2019 Washington State Teacher of the Year. Mr. Hand teaches in the Recruiting Washington Teachers (RWT) program, which aims to provide high school students with exposure to careers in education. Emphasizing the recruitment of students of color and bilingual students, RWT is framed around culturally responsive curriculum, mentoring and hands-on classroom experience, and exposure to higher education options and support services to help students navigate potential barriers to entering college. One goal of RWT is to help grow future educators who are invested in going back to teach in their local communities.
Mr. Hand was joined by two Latina students who described their desire and motivation to become teachers. One noted that her interest in teaching stemmed in part from the fact that she had not had many Latinx teachers throughout her own educational experience. Both discussed the support they received from Mr. Hand as integral to pursuing their goal to attend college. Another shared that she had not been planning on attending college, but that the support and guidance she received from Mr. Hand and other teachers helped her see college as a possibility. Finally, they talked about the value of getting experience working in an early learning center in increasing their knowledge and understanding of teaching.
Conra Gist, an associate professor at the University of Houston and expert on Grow Your Own (GYO) teacher preparation programs, gave a keynote that encouraged education preparation programs to consider the extent to which their policies, practices and structures show a commitment to developing and supporting racial/ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity and equity among their teacher candidates. Dr. Gist also highlighted research on GYO programs and offered several best practices including creating incentives to spur GYO program development such as providing funding to support programs and candidates.
Several school districts presented on their work developing and implementing GYO programs. Kent School District, the fourth largest district in the state, has implemented a GYO program to help current teachers in the district earn their English as a Second Language or Bilingual endorsement. The program is a direct response to the growing English learner population who make up almost 25 percent of students and need to ensure that teachers are effectively prepared to support their learning needs. Highline Public Schools presented on the successful Bilingual Teacher Fellows program that they developed in partnership with Western Washington University to prepare a cohort of bilingual paraeducators to earn their teaching degree. The first cohort of fellows graduated in June and all were hired as lead teachers within Highline.
Washington has embraced Grow Your Own programs as a key strategy for diversifying the educator workforce and opening up multiple pathways into the profession. These programs seek to recruit and prepare individuals from the community to enter the teaching profession and teach in the community.
Several districts spoke of the barriers that GYO candidates had to overcome in order to obtain their teaching degrees. One common barrier identified were the testing requirements necessary to enter teacher preparation programs and to earn licensure. To that end, the conference also included a session on a recent report commissioned by PESB to examine strategies for addressing the disproportionate outcomes for teacher candidates of color on these mandated exams.
Indeed, data from Washington show that pass rates on the West-B, a basic skills test required for entry into a teacher preparation program, were lower for candidates of color compared to white candidates. Specifically, 91 percent of white candidates passed all three subtests (reading, math, writing) compared to 66 percent of African American candidates and 60 percent of Latinx candidates. Similar trends were seen on pass rates on the Elementary Subtest required to earn elementary certification in the state.
Research compiled by members of the task force that contributed to the report indicates that “standardized testing is ineffective as a singular measurement of knowledge” and highlights the cultural and linguistic bias of these exams. Policymakers in Washington must now consider whether to accept the recommendations of the report to eliminate the West-B requirement and replace it with multiple measures that can help demonstrate candidates basic skills.
Finally, several educator preparation programs in the state presented on work they are doing to support the recruitment and retention of racially and linguistically diverse teacher candidates. Nat Reilly spoke about the Future Woodring Scholars Program at Western Washington University that is “basically RWT for first year college students.” The program pulls together cohorts of first year students who are interested in majoring in education and are selected based on eligibility criteria such as first generation college student, student of color, eligible for Pell Grants, male and others. The current cohorts of scholars are 83 percent students of color, 25 percent are bilingual and 90 percent are first generation college students. Scholars are provided with a supportive structure to help ease them into their first year of college and facilitate their entry into the Woodring College of Education. This includes taking all of their courses as a cohort during their first quarter and being partnered with a peer mentor.
The DEW conference offers a window into how Washington is engaging its education stakeholders to strengthen teacher preparation and attract, prepare and retain a more racially and linguistically diverse educator workforce, a challenge faced by states across the country.