School in America is a privilege that we have come to expect and, too often, undervalue. Many students are not challenged, and many are truant or pay little attention to their studies. Yet when these individuals arrive at our organization’s doorstep, we examine their academic credentials with a fine-toothed comb.
Some twenty years ago, my wife began a Master’s in Literacy. In one in-person class, the teacher instructed the students, all of whom held Bachelor’s degrees, to read aloud to each other. The people at my wife’s table were less than inspired; nonetheless, she started and read her book aloud. Upon completing it, she turned to the woman sitting next to her and asked her to continue with the exercise. The other student stated, “I can’t.” My wife inquired, “Why can’t you?” The reply: “I can’t read.” Incredulous, my wife said, “But you told me that you have your own kindergarten class and are working in the New York City Board of Education (now called the NYC Department of Education). “Yes,” she said, “that is correct.” But how did you get appointed? She explained, “I work in the South Bronx. They can’t find enough people to work.”
Where do I begin? Should we discuss the fact that children who grow up in the South Bronx have built-in obstacles to success and that having teachers who are illiterate seems to add insult to injury? How can this kind of administrative decision be justified? How did the elementary and secondary school systems allow this person (and thousands of others) graduate and then how did a college permit someone to earn a college diploma who could not read? And, we are now some 20+ years later: Has the situation improved at all?
Today the headline in my local newspaper (Newsday, Long Island, New York), stated that over 31,000 educators in Nassau and Suffolk Counties earn $100,000 or more annually. The unions’ explanation was that the various school districts needed to pay such wages to attract quality teachers and administrators. Ideally, these and other teaching professionals are qualified and deserve this level of remuneration. But how many are hired as a result of nepotism, favoritism, or cronyism? How do we know that they are indeed qualified? I have no proof or any statistics, which I regret, but the stark contrast between these two tales, one of poverty and deprivation and the other of bounty, cannot be easily reconciled.
Moreover, this problem seems not to be a new one. In 1978, Albert Shanker, then President of the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing New York City public school teachers, charged that the Board of Education was hiring illiterate teachers1. Shanker’s claim must be put in context: the union was then still mired in combat with local boards that supplanted the civil service exam. But, is there any compelling reason to believe that, in the early ought-2’s, which I reported about above, or in 2023, the problem has dissipated?
My goal here is not to tarnish teachers, strange as that may sound; I am one of them, and I also taught Social Studies in the NYC Board of Education, Washington Irving High School, for three years. The data I have cited are anecdotal and prove nothing when considered in a vacuum2. My aim instead focuses on the intellectual honesty of hiring organizations when vacancies are posted, interviews are conducted, and candidates are selected. This issue resonates with my post on Reference-Checking and harkens back to the idea that managers are quick to fill spots with bodies even if they are not qualified or have not been adequately vetted. What impact does this lax practice have on staff morale, clients and organizational values? Carpe Diem Associates’ “The Road To Employee & Supervisor Satisfaction” (the follow-up workshop to “Managing People”) concentrates on employee and supervisor satisfaction by way of employee engagement and the psychological contract, so this issue has some currency for us.
What happened to literacy standards for teachers? It turns out that the test meant to screen teachers also effectively weeded out minorities3. This result conflicted with the policy decision to increase the presence of people of color in the teaching profession, to provide role models who look like the students. Both appear to be salutary goals.
However, Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, argued that eliminating the literacy exam because of the disparate impact effectively perpetuates “a cycle of underperformance”, calling it “the politically sensible thing to do”.
How does one resolve these dueling arguments, each of which appears to have some degree of merit?
The disparity in test results between minorities and non-minorities, first of all, does not tell the whole story. Analysis of teacher licensing exams has found that they do not contain content at the baccalaureate level in any test4. As I recall, when I took an emergency licensing test to qualify for a position in 1971, the questions did not require a college degree. They were composed so that the Board of Education could fill spots handily. We were tested several to a room simultaneously, and people stood in line waiting to get into that classroom. A 2021 report found that, regardless of race or ethnicity, 55% of teacher applicants for elementary school positions failed on their first attempt at passing licensing exams5. In the State of Connecticut, as an example, more than 30% of applicants take the exam three times.6 That report concludes, “The burden of this uniquely high rate of failure is placed on teacher candidates, not on an educational system that has failed them.”7
It is notable that the issue of competence and ability is not limited to elementary and secondary education. Today, many businesses cannot staff their workforce if it requires skilled workers. According to a new book and report, as reported by Tony Dukoupil on CBS Mornings on Jan. 26, 2023, fully 7.2 million men are staying out of the workforce by choice. In 1989, 98% of men 25-54 were gainfully employed. Today, that figure is 88%8, and that means businesses are strained, profits sag, and many able-bodied and other-abled people are playing video games instead of contributing to society. This predicament does not bode well for these individuals or for the United States. It is important to note that this figure of 7.2 million includes men across-the-board and is not based on minorities.
Returning to Ms. Walsh’s objection to the elimination of literacy tests, the ideal answer would be to prepare all potential teaching candidates – and other potential workers – to be able to handily pass competency tests by ensuring that they receive educations that white people supposedly receive. This is not a new problem. It predates the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in the Supreme Court of the United States which held that the ”separate-but-equal” doctrine in education was in fact not equal but resulted in significant, multiple and lasting deprivations to children and people of color.9 Here we are, in 2023, and the identical problem continues almost unabated, except that the educational system appears to be failing candidates of all races and ethnicities to some degree.
We are all experiencing challenges in staffing and find that we must “settle” for candidates who are either not qualified or not motivated to enter the human services field but entering it as a last resort, or we just “make do” with whom we have. We need to do better than that. We need to have the kind of impact that Solar Youth of New Haven offers children – values that will serve them well in every aspect of living as well as academia. Other nonprofits similarly provide needed life skills as well as literacy training. We need to help people stay in school and receive the education that will equip them to pass literacy exams.
Why does this interest us at Carpe Diem?
According to Jason Furman, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, who was referring to the millions of men who have chosen not to work: “They’re not spending any more time on child care, not spending any more time on chores. They are spending a lot more time watching TV than men who are in the labor force.”10 This development, of course, has implications for men’s self-esteem and their possible turn to drugs or other social ills, but that is not Carpe Diem’s primary concern.
Carpe Diem aims to assist managers and supervisors to create a work environment that engages employees and encourages going “all in”. That translates into priming people for a full life that brings a sense of contributing to something greater than oneself. The current situation, where minorities are not able to compete and encounter inequities that they must surmount but that are not equivalent to those that whites face, needs to be addressed on a formal basis. Change will not occur without planning and commitment. Within Carpe Diem’s niche, it is the workplace where meaningful change can be implemented to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone.
Please note that this does not constitute legal advice; please speak with an attorney if you desire same.
1 M. Chambers, “A Teacher Merit System and Illiteracy”, (the New York Times, Jan. 4, 1978), at https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1978/01/04/110747710.html?pageNumber=31; https://www.nytimes.com/1978/01/04/archives/about-education-a-teacher-merit-system-and-illiteracy-comes-at.html. See, “Shanker Alleges Some Teachers Hired by Boards Are Illiterate”, (The New York Times, Dec. 5, 1977), at https://www.nytimes.com/1977/12/05/archives/shanker-alleges-some-teachers-hired-by-boards-are-illiterate.html
2 H.L. Schachter, “Discretion in Teacher Selection: The Relationship Between Hiring Systems and Administrative Values”, 11 American Secondary Education 18 (1981), at https://www.jstor.org/stable/41063385.
3 See, K J. Baker-Doyle, E. Petchauer, “Rumor Has It: Investigating Teacher Licensure Exam Advice Networks”, (Teacher Education Quarterly 2015), at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1090424.pdf.
4 R. Mitchell, B. Barth, “Not Good Enough: A Content Analysis of Teacher Licensing Examinations. How Teacher Licensing Tests Fall Short”, 3 Thinking K-16 1 (The Education Trust, Washington, D.C. 1999), at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED457261.pdf.
5 “Driven by Data: Using Licensure Tests to Build a Strong, Diverse Teacher Workforce” (page 3), (National Council on Teacher Quality July 2021), at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED613970.pdf.
6 Id. at 22.
7 Id. at 3.
10 D. Wessel, “Men Not at Work” (Brookings Institution, Aug. 15, 2016), at https://www.brookings.edu/research/men-not-at-work/