The Corner

On the Issue of Teacher-Licensing Exams, the NYT Flunks

“Tough Tests for Teachers, With Question of Bias” is the front-page, above-the-fold headline on a story today in the New York Times. It discusses the fact that “minority candidates” — meaning African Americans and Hispanics — are not doing as well as whites in passing teacher-licensing exams. I have low expectations of the Times for a story like this, so I was pleasantly surprised that it at least acknowledged the arguments that, gee, maybe there’s some logic to requiring some basic level of competence among schoolteachers. But I still have several complaints.

First, the article (starting with the headline) suggests that the tests have “bias” or are “discriminatory” because not all groups pass them at the same rate. That’s true, however, only if one views a test with “disparate impact” as discriminatory, even if it does not discriminate on its face, in its design, or in its application. A normal human being would not call such a test discriminatory.

Second, the article refers to “a long-held goal of diversifying the teaching force so it more closely resembles the makeup of the country’s student body.” That’s a silly goal. Do we want half of all teachers to be men? Do we want more white teachers in Idaho than in New York? Should we be concerned if Jews are “overrepresented” among schoolteachers?

Third, the article talks about the purported benefits of “role models” – that is, that “having a teacher of the same race may be beneficial for students.” But, as I discussed previously, the Supreme Court flatly rejected the role-model rationale many years ago, in Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education. A decade before that, in Hazelwood School District v. United States, the Court had similarly noted that a school district could not point to the racial makeup of its student body as a justification for the racial makeup of its faculty. The law aside, it’s hard enough to get competent teachers at any level without disqualifying some and preferring others because of irrelevant physical characteristics. Show me a parent who would say, “I’m willing for my child to be taught by a less qualified teacher so long as he or she shares my child’s color.” It is ugly indeed to presuppose that one can admire — one can adopt as a role model — only someone who shares your skin color and, conversely, that a white child could never look up to a black person, or a black child to a white person, or either one to an Asian or Latino or American Indian. And the notion that our schoolteachers and professors must look like our students leads into some very undesirable corners. As Justice Powell wrote in Wygant, “Carried to its logical extreme, the idea that black students are better off with black teachers could lead to the very system the Court rejected in Brown v. Board of Education.

Finally, it’s not clear to me that there is much of a racial imbalance anyway, at least based on the figures in the article. It calls the current teaching force “monochromatic” because “more than 80 percent of public school teachers are white.” But if Hispanics can also be white (the approach the Census takes, for example), then that’s not only not monochromatic, it’s not that different from the general population. And the fact that the percentage of minority teachers doesn’t line up with the percentage of minority students is also likely a function of the fact that younger age cohorts have a higher percentage of minorities than older age cohorts.

So, alas, the Times flunks.

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