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Most Colorado public school teachers are white, but almost half of their students are not. Can the state close the gap?

Colorado lawmakers want to explore what’s standing in the way of minority teacher candidates. One hurdle: licensure.

Kindergarten teacher Katie Hoiland works on a reading project with students Reese Bennett, left, and Demitris Mitchell Wednesday, January 23, 2019 at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. Photo by Mark Reis
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Colorado’s teacher shortage is felt in school districts across the state, but the shortage of minority teachers is particularly severe — to the extent that many students may not have a single teacher of color in elementary, middle or high school.

During the last school year, a third of Colorado’s school districts did not have one teacher who identified as Hispanic, while more than 70% of school districts did not have any black teachers, according to Prateek Dutta, Colorado policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, who cited data from the Colorado Department of Education.

Currently, about 87% of Colorado public school teachers are white and about 74% are female, according to Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of educator talent for CDE.

The state’s lack of diversity among teachers clashes with its student body, about 40% of whom identifies as African American or Hispanic, CDE data shows.

“You can’t have an effective teacher force in Colorado without having a diverse teacher force,” Dutta said.

Preschool teacher Hannah Halferty laughts with student Kaiden Ferrero at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley/Special to the Colorado Sun)

Lawmakers hope to draw more minority teachers into the classroom with a targeted effort to better understand what deters them from careers as educators.

Legislation focused on convening a work group on teacher diversity and making information from educator preparation programs more transparent passed unanimously in the House Education Committee on Tuesday.

State Rep. James Coleman, D-Denver, a sponsor of House Bill 1007, said there is a strong correlation between student outcomes and the diversity of teachers students are exposed to throughout their education.

He cited a Johns Hopkins study showing that black students with just one black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to enroll in college, and 32% more likely if they had two African American teachers.

Rep. James Coleman, D-Denver, in the Colorado House last year. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Coleman knows firsthand the struggles students of color face when deprived of minority teachers.

“I struggled academically because of discipline issues. I think one of the biggest reasons for that was because I lacked a sense of pride … because I didn’t really understand my history,” Coleman said, explaining why he put forward his bill.

It wasn’t until he was in seventh grade that he had an African American teacher. It was at a school where black history was taught daily. The school also had black teachers and an African American principal and administrator.

“We want to make sure that our students see themselves in their teachers,” Coleman said.

Students of color experience a better sense of self-efficacy when they have direct access to positive role models who are minority teachers, said bill sponsor State Rep. Bri Buentello, D-Pueblo, who serves as vice chair of the House Education Committee. She cited research from the Learning Policy Institute that shows a more diverse teacher workforce enhances education and outcomes for all students.

DENVER, CO – JANUARY 8: Rep. Bri Buentello joins other members and guests in the house chambers as the second regular session of the 72nd Colorado General Assembly convenes at the Colorado State Capitol on January 8, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

A 2018 report from the Learning Policy Institute noted that teachers of color improve the academic performance of students of color, with better reading and math test scores, better graduation rates and higher interest in college.

White students, she said, also benefit as they’re offered a different perspective on life and culture and are more empathetic and understanding than their peers who haven’t been exposed to diversity.

“Everybody wins when we have a more diverse teacher workforce,” Buentello said.

The work group that the bill aims to assemble would involve both CDE and the Colorado Department of Higher Education and would explore barriers to preparing, retaining and recruiting diverse teachers as well as what it will take to boost diversity among Colorado educators.

One challenge, according to O’Neil, stems from the financial stress placed on student teachers in traditional teacher preparation programs. These programs don’t always allow them to work full time while completing their student teaching — a particularly tough circumstance for students paying their own way through school.

“For some teachers of color, alternative programs become stronger options,” O’Neil said.

Preschoolers read books in their classroom at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Through the legislation, aspiring teachers would be able to see more detailed data about Colorado’s educator preparation programs and understand what programs are best preparing candidates to test for their licensure, Coleman said.

Currently, CDHE is required to report data related to educator preparation programs each year, including graduation rates, graduate outcomes and performance on licensure exams. The bill would take the department’s reporting one step further and break out the data by teacher candidates’ gender, race and ethnicity.

The legislation would also give the public access to licensure exam results for first-time test takers from Colorado teacher preparation programs — what Dutta described as “an equity issue for both taxpayers and students.”

“Taxpayers deserve to know how teacher preparation programs are training potential teaching candidates, and students deserve to know which teacher preparation program best prepares them to become a teacher – especially since there is such disparate results by race and ethnicity,” Dutta told lawmakers while testifying in support of the bill on Tuesday.

Coleman added that having information about the outcomes of educator preparation programs would allow the state to pinpoint the most effective programs and share their practices with other schools.

Minority educators often struggle to pass licensing exams, especially on their first attempt.

Coleman noted that while 75% of white teacher candidates in Colorado pass their licensing tests, 38% of black teachers and 54% of Hispanic teachers pass their licensing tests.

Coleman attributed the difficulty to the expense of licensure along with a lack of test preparation.

Tests for elementary school teacher candidates have historically challenged candidates of color more than their white counterparts, according to a 2019 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Globes sit in a classroom at Telluride Intermediate School. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

A higher proportion of black and Hispanic candidates fail the most common content test than white candidates, according to the report, which noted that on average 62% of black test-takers and 43% of Hispanic test takers do not pass.

One reason behind these failures, the report stated, is a disconnect between coursework studied in preparation programs and the content knowledge states say rising teachers need to be effective in elementary school.

Coleman’s bill would require the department to look at ways to get more minority teachers to pass certification.

“Having high-quality teachers is the most important factor for a student’s academic achievement but research shows that students also really benefit from a diverse educator workforce,” he said.

Preschool teacher Hannah Halferty leads an activity with students Johanna Martinez, Harrison Johhnston, and Kole Macias at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley/Special to the Colorado Sun)

Stephanie Perez-Carrillo is among teacher candidates who couldn’t clear the hurdle of the licensing exam in order to teach long term.

Perez-Carrillo, now a policy analyst for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, failed the content exams she needed to take for her licensure seven times while teaching high school math courses in South Carolina in 2015.

Perez-Carrillo, who also testified in support of the legislation on Tuesday, criticizes the exam on multiple levels. While she taught algebra and geometry, the test covered a range of math subjects that she wasn’t slated to teach. Each exam, which cost her $125, was administered in what she describes as an anxiety-inducing environment. More than once, Perez-Carrillo ran out of time when trying to complete the test.

She’s skeptical that the licensure exam defined her effectiveness as a teacher, particularly since all 127 students she taught in her first year had an 80% end-of-course passage rate.

Before moving to Colorado in 2016, Perez-Carrillo was moved to seventh grade and secured a middle school teaching license after succeeding on an exam she said wasn’t nearly as rigorous and contained material she was already teaching.

It was a discouraging transition for the teacher, who had built a lot of relationships with her high school students and wanted to remain in a high school classroom.

At her high school — composed of 1,500 students, more than 90% of whom qualified for free or reduced priced lunch and identified as minorities — she was the only Cuban American teacher and one of only three Spanish-speaking teachers of color.

“For many of my high school students,” she told lawmakers on Tuesday, “I was the first brown, Latina teacher they had ever had.”

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