How Andrew Cuomo's Education Agenda Keeps Black and Latino Teachers Out of the Classroom

Under pressure from parents and teachers it looks like New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo is backing off on his demand that fifty percent of a teachers annual evaluation be based on student performance on high-stakes tests. Parents are furious because the focus on Common Core aligned testing turns schools into test prep academies. But the Cuomo "deform" package has other prongs and it is too early to celebrate.

Members of the New York State Board of Regents, the nominal governing body for education in the state, are challenging other parts of the deform agenda championed by Cuomo and outgoing Regent Chancellor Merryl Tisch. Regents are appointed by the state legislature and represent different regions of the state. Two members, Regents Charles Bendit and Kathleen Cashin, co-chairs of the Regents Higher Education Committee, are leading the push against Cuomo and Tisch. Bendit represents Manhattan on the Board of Regents. Cashin is the Regent representative from Brooklyn.

Bendit and Cashin called a town hall meeting in Brooklyn for 6 PM Monday December 7, 2015 to exam the impact of teacher certification exams on the "preparation of future teachers, on the racial and ethnic composition of the teaching force, and on the professional autonomy of teacher educators." The meeting will be held at St Francis College 180 Remsen Street in downtown Brooklyn. Bendit and Cashin have invited New York City teacher education faculty, public school teachers, and teacher candidates to participate.

Kathleen Cashin, a former teacher and school principal, is an outspoken critic of the use of high-stakes student testing to evaluate teachers, administrators, and schools. According to Cashin, these tests were "designed to measure student performance, not teacher effectiveness" and are misused when they are applied to teacher evaluations. She has demanded that the Board of Regents "commission an independent evaluation of these tests to verify their reliability and validity before they are used for high-stakes purposes for students, teachers, principals, and schools." 

These are my recommendations to the Board of Regents. 

Stop Cuomo's Backdoor Plan that Will Block Many Black and Latino College Graduates from Teaching 

New York has already been cited twice by a federal court for racial bias in its teacher certification requirements because of the "unlawful disparate impact" of its teacher certification exams. The same federal judge found other requirements, at least temporarily, met the threshold for legitimacy, but they will be subject to further review. 

The latest teacher certification requirements demanded by Governor Cuomo and imposed through the backdoor as part of a budget bill last April are the most racist yet. Plans for implementing these requirements are on this month's Regents action calendar. Under the proposed new guidelines, which are supposed to impose "rigorous selection criteria," applicants for Master's degree programs leading to teacher certification must have a cumulative undergraduate grade point average of 3.0 or higher and a "minimum score on the Graduate Record Examination and/or a substantially equivalent." The Regents is also threatening to deregister and suspend any university teacher education program where 50% of its graduates failed to pass state certification exams for three consecutive academic years. 

These new guidelines will have a disastrous effect on aspiring minority group members who want to be teachers, which should be enough to trigger the disparate impact clause cited in earlier cases. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits both intentional discrimination in hiring and evaluation practices that disproportionately exclude minority group members, women, immigrants, or members of different religious groups, if the policies cannot be demonstrated to be directed job related. Poor performance by racial and ethnic minorities on teacher certification tests can be the result of many factors. The tests may be discriminatory or we may be seeing the impact of unequal education from pre-k through college. In either case, under federal law states are obligated to show that its teacher certification tests measure the ability to be a teacher and are not just being used to keep people out of the profession.

I do not make the accusation of racism lightly. But to implement policies that you know will have disparate impact is racist. To change admission standards knowing that they will limit the pool of qualified Black and Latino candidates without providing evidence that the new standards will improve teaching is racist. To sneak requirements into law through the budget process rather than air them in open public hearings is racist. I think the three-strikes and you are a racist rule holds here.

The new guidelines for teacher certification do not take into account unequal educational opportunity in New York State schools. Almost eighty percent of New York City high school graduates who enroll at City University of New York were required to take remedial math and reading classes this year because they are not prepared to do college-level work. These students, who are overwhelming Black and Latino, have a deep academic hole to climb out of. Even those who succeed in college may never be able to achieve a cumulative 3.0 grade point average by the time that they graduate.

But they may not even be the most affected of urban minority high school graduates who aspire to become teachers. Many of the best-prepared New York City high school graduates attend elite colleges in the State University system. They suddenly find themselves in classrooms with students who have spent four years attending high schools with much higher academic standards and it can take them two years to catch up. They may earn A's and B's in their junior and senior years, but it is unlikely they can achieve a cumulative 3.0 grade point average by the time that they graduate.

The U.S. Department of Education reported in a study conducted by its National Center for Education Statistics that in the 2009 academic years 75% of White bachelor degree recipients had a grade point average of 3.0 or higher. But for Hispanics the figure was 63% and for Blacks it was only 55%. The report attributed the grade disparity to a number of different factors. Black and Hispanic college graduatestended to be older than Whites, less likely to have parents with college degrees, more likely to be poor as measured by financial aid eligibility, and much more likely to be working either part of full time. The performance gap between Black and Latino students and White students is especially large during the freshman year of college, reflecting disparities in secondary school education. 

If undergraduate GPA is a valid indicator of ability to teach, and I am not convinced that it is, GPA in the last two years of college when Black and Hispanic students have had a fairer opportunity to acclimate to college-level work would certainly be a better measure.

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or equivalent requirement is also problematical. It is designed to predict success in graduate school, not in teaching. Research studies dispute whether high scores on tests like the GRE will "safeguard the public from incompetent teaching." Other studies show that if a "relationship does exist between GPA and job success it is tenuous at best," including in fields like medicine.

Instead of approving Governor Cuomo's racist agenda for teacher education programs at its December meeting, the New York State Board of Regents should apply to the federal courts for an injunction to block implementation on the grounds of disparate impact.


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