Opinion

Grillo & Marchitello: To Promote Teacher Diversity, Ed Schools Must Look Beyond GPA & SAT Scores. Here’s How Howard University Does It

By Lisa Grillo and Max Marchitello | May 6, 2019

Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

Diversifying our nation’s teacher workforce is essential to better serving all students. And yet, schools of education and teacher preparation programs still close their doors on potential excellent future educators of color. Why? One reason is that admissions decisions rely heavily on a narrow set of measures, which research suggests have little to no relationship to teacher effectiveness and improved student outcomes. In short, admissions at schools of education all too often erect barriers for candidates of color and instead select potential teachers based on characteristics poorly aligned with classroom success.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For instance, Howard University looks beyond grade point averages and SAT scores to evaluate candidates more holistically. This approach selects candidates who can demonstrate experiences, knowledge and skills that will help them serve all students well. Other schools can learn from Howard’s example and modify their admissions practices to select more diverse and better-equipped teacher candidates.

Many teacher preparation programs establish a minimum GPA threshold of 3.0, intended to ensure admission of only strong academic performers. However, rather than setting a high bar for admissions, these requirements create barriers to entry for many candidates of color — an analysis conducted by Chalkbeat finds that these policies exclude nearly half of black college graduates and more than one-third of Hispanic college graduates. What’s more, measurements of general intelligence such as GPA and the SAT do not necessarily translate into greater student learning outcomes. A study of teacher effectiveness from earlier this year found that teacher GPA and performance on the ACT and Praxis II exams correlated with one another — but not with higher-quality teaching.

This is not to say the research is conclusive. There are studies that find some relationship to effective teaching based on teachers’ GPA and performance on standardized aptitude tests as well as content exams. However, as Stanford’s Eric Hanushek put it: “even for that the evidence is not very strong.”

Candidates’ GPAs, SAT scores and similar measures often are markers solely of the quality of their K-12 education and socioeconomic status. Indeed, they are themselves artifacts of a historically unjust and inequitable society. These seemingly objective measures are actually not that objective at all.

As an alternative, Howard takes a more comprehensive approach to teacher candidate selection by valuing the many ways potential teacher candidates can demonstrate the ability and the interest to educate all children — particularly historically underserved students. While admission into the university is informed by SAT scores and GPAs, a broad set of selection activities for teacher education programs allow candidates to demonstrate teaching potential in a few important ways.

For example, candidates submit a detailed statement of interest that allows faculty to understand the compatibility between their desire for seeking the teaching degree at Howard and the social-justice orientation of the university’s programs. A panel interview then provides candidates with the opportunity to express themselves orally. Conversations between candidates and faculty provide valuable insight into candidates’ motivations, commitment, family background and educational experiences. They also allow faculty to establish personal connections with them before admitted. Faculty also solicit specific input from candidates’ academic advisers — from another school or college within the university — regarding their dispositions. Advisers are asked to reflect upon candidates’ integrity, emotional stability, promise toward professional growth and interest in teaching.

Embedded in the selection process is an appreciation of candidates who reflect their own culturally informed beliefs, behaviors, communication styles and experiences. This more holistic approach allows the Howard University School of Education to prepare teachers who experience success as teachers in some of the most challenging educational settings.

Another way the university increases the number of students of color in teacher preparation programs is through school district partnerships, including some that identify, recruit and financially support candidates of color as early as their high school years. An early investment in candidate preparation not only allows partnership institutions to cultivate a love for teaching among prospective teachers, but also deeply prepares them to teach within specific contexts, such as urban or rural schools, or those serving a high concentration of low-income students or students of color.

Relying heavily on GPAs and SAT scores erects unnecessary barriers that impede people of color from becoming educators while failing to add a strong indicator of who will or will not be successful in the classroom. Relaxing this focus invites a more holistic view of applicant experiences and characteristics. For example, a candidate who, due to familial circumstances, spends time after classes looking after her siblings might be able to demonstrate how that experience prepares her to be an educator. Indeed, she likely has learned far more about providing a nurturing environment to young children than the typical candidate an admissions committee may prioritize.

Focusing on often overlooked, diverse experiences in addition to content mastery might take more work, but rethinking who can and should be an educator is an important, meaningful step toward education equity.

Lisa Grillo is an associate professor at Howard University. Max Marchitello is a senior policy analyst with Bellwether Education Partners. Bellwether was co-founded by Andy Rotherham, who sits on The 74’s board of directors.

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