The war on standards: Illiterate teachers edition

I missed this story at the time, but earlier this year the New York Times reported that the New York Board of Regents eliminated a requirement that aspiring teachers in the state pass a literacy test to become certified. The Board eliminated the requirement because Black and Hispanic candidates for teaching jobs passed the literacy test at significantly lower rates than white candidates.

In lieu of passing the literary test, applicants for teaching jobs can rely on their grades plus recommendations from professors. Grade inflation and the desire of professors to please students (or their fear of displeasing them) should pave the way for the hiring of teachers who aren’t suffiently literate.

An analysis done in 2014, the year the test was first administered, found that 64 percent of white candidates passed the test on the first try, while only 46 percent of Hispanic candidates and 41 percent of black candidates did. That’s disparate impact, but it isn’t discrimination as long as the test measures skills teachers need to be effective in their job.

One would imagine that a literacy test measures such skills, and a federal judge found that this one does. That judge was Kimba Wood, a Democrat once tapped by President Clinton to head the Justice Department (she had nanny issues, so we ended up with Janet Reno). Judge Wood ruled that the test is job-related and therefore does not discriminate against minorities. She agreed with New York State that the test evaluates skills necessary to do the job.

Judge Wood had previously rejected teacher certification tests because, in her view, they did not measure skills necessary to teach. Thus, her finding that the current literacy test carries particular weight. It can’t be argued that this liberal judge is insensitive to the possibility that minority group members might improperly be disqualified for teaching jobs based on tests that aren’t job-related.

Despite Judge Wood’s ruling, the Board of Regents knuckled under to pressure to hire more minority teachers without regard to whether they are sufficiently literate to teach. As Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, told the Times: “People are showing a tremendous amount of weakness by just backpedaling because they feel like it’s the politically sensible thing to do.”

I don’t put much stock in the phrase “white privilege.” But it seems to me that every student should have the “privilege” of a teacher who can pass a job-related literacy test. The New York State Board of Regents is set to deny that privilege to students who, I strongly suspect, are predominantly non-white.

The result, in Walsh’s words, will be “perpetuating a cycle of underperformance.”

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