by Dr. Damara Hightower Mitchell, Vice President of Engagements and Partnerships with the Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity

The economic vitality of South Carolina is inextricably linked to the achievement of children of color who comprise 40% of the student population. To be clear, white is indeed a color and my personal definitions of diversity and all students include white children (perhaps a blog post for another day). However, African American and other minoritized students continue to lag their peers on indicators used to measure student achievement. Recent data reveal the disparities are chronic with little cause for optimism.

“… Education stakeholders have been grappling with the question of how to recruit more teachers of color who currently represent just 22% of teachers in the Palmetto State.”

I find it heartening to observe our 30 educator preparation programs, the South Carolina State Department of Education, the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, and school districts coalesce to address this quagmire. One point of consensus is the need for a more diverse pool of effective teachers. More than a matter of role models or representation, the Pygmalion Effect posits teachers’ expectations of students (not their melanin) are key factors in academic outcomes. So as one approach to closing achievement and diversity gaps, education stakeholders have been grappling with the question of how to recruit more teachers of color who currently represent just 22% of teachers in the Palmetto State.

Sometimes the most expedient way to address a question is to determine what the answer is not.  As such, I want to call attention to the false dichotomy between selectivity and diversity. There is a misconception that If we insist on diversity, we will have to lower our standards for entry into the profession.. My position is to the contrary. I staunchly believe increased selectivity can be leveraged to increase teacher diversity; however, we must also address the conditions which stymied efforts to diversify the teacher workforce to begin with (i.e. the declining status of the profession, teacher pay gaps/unlivable wages, and inhospitable work environments resulting from poor school leadership).

If we want to attract academically talented students of color to education, we must bolster our efforts to elevate the profession and aggressively pursue them. Students who are accomplished and think something of themselves want to be affiliated with institutions, programs, and careers, of which they can be proud and belong. If we want “smart” students to choose teaching, teaching must be presented as a profession smart people choose. While altruism is important, the demand for highly skilled professionals must be emphasized by making the intricate work of effective teaching explicit. Scaffolding, effective questioning techniques, and cultural dexterity are only a few of the required competencies.

“At present, we are literally asking intelligent people to work to their own “debtriment” (the misspelled pun intended) and amass debt to pursue a profession which pays considerably less than more accessible fields.”

We also seem to require prospective teachers to choose martyrdom. At present, we are literally asking intelligent people to work to their own “debtriment” (the misspelled pun intended) and amass debt to pursue a profession which pays considerably less than more accessible fields. Before even entering the teaching profession, there are processes and expenses related to program admissions that are required of no other majors. High academic achievement prior to college affords other students the opportunity to pursue their chosen profession at no additional costs or testing. One of the barriers to underrepresented students entering education is high-stakes assessments; and for students who test well, affordability of the numerous assessments remains a burden.

This is not a rebuff of standardized testing. Testing has its place. Nor am I advocating for a Statue of Liberty admissions policy. South Carolina’s children do not deserve the tired and weary leading our classrooms. Becoming a teacher must remain a rigorous process which requires a demonstrated command of content and pedagogy. I am simply asking whether applying what we know about valid assessment warrants revisiting our metrics for program admissions. There are multiple measures (e.g., teaching demonstrations, leadership skills, and dispositions) that are less cost-prohibitive, more predictive of teacher effectiveness, and also can be used to inform program admissions, which is a known chasm in the teacher pipeline.

We also know choosing education as a career today is a decision high achieving students are often required to defend. “Why teach, when there are so many careers with less pressure, better pay, more respect, and greater room for promotion?” When recruiting academically talented students of color, we must equip them to counter such questioning and believe in the honor and gratification of becoming teachers. Teaching is not for everyone. If anyone could do it, the very recruitment and retention issues we are trying to address would not exist. But we don’t need just anyone. South Carolina’s children deserve the best.