While examining attrition in educator prep programs, SDP Fellow LaCole Foots uncovers a critical insight about Black candidates.
In 2019, LaCole Foots, Data Strategist with the Texas Education Agency and SDP Fellow, sought to answer a simple question: What is the process of becoming a teacher in Texas? “Because Texas has a pipeline that includes universities, private for-profit groups, community colleges, and hybrid Education Service Centers, we really had to map out all the ways that a candidate can get from start to finish and how/why they could potentially exit,” noted Foots. While the routes and organization types in Texas’ pipeline vary, the state does have uniform accountability standards for every educator preparation program (EPP) to function and certify candidates.
Yet what originally began as an analysis of the nuances of the state’s manifold preparatory programs, Foots’ project revealed a racial component that would be critical in light of Texas’ increasingly diverse student body.
Texas is unique in its cultivation of teachers. Aspiring educators have multiple points of entry into the profession and can access more than 120 educator preparation programs and three certification routes. And while this constellation of openings provides ample opportunity for would-be teachers, Texas’ teacher pipeline also loses a number of pursuants along the way—a disproportionate number of Black candidates in particular.
Minority students make up nearly three-quarters of the Texas student population, with 52.6% of students enrolling in the 2018-19 school year identifying as Hispanic and 12.6% as African American. With a rolling queue of research now unearthing issues of racial bias in the classroom, many are calling for teacher demographics to match those of students. And while Foots’ work revealed a success story for Latinx teacher candidates, a group that exited teacher prep programs at a higher proportion than they started, the story of Black candidates was quite the opposite.
In the case of Black aspirants, the data revealed notable attrition. “Black candidates are applying for these programs at a high rate,” explained Foots. “At one point, around a quarter of new applicants were African American, yet only 15% were completing. Once we saw this reality reflected in the data, we started to think through the new questions we should be asking.”
To solve for differences in expected time frames of completion across programs and nuanced programmatic differences complicating annual snapshots, Foots examined demographic proportions throughout different stages of the preparation process. Yet an unfortunate consequence of using a proportionality lense is that it can inadvertently create a zero-sum view of expected outcomes. “In a data visual, (think of a pie chart) the question might be: if we want to produce more Hispanic teachers, what other groups do we have to actively minimize to make space? But in reality, it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Instead we could focus on a more concerted effort to recruit more Hispanic teachers—don’t shift the slices, increase the pie.”
So what was happening to Black candidates between enrolling in a teacher preparation program and completing that same program? By mapping the pipeline data, Foots gained visibility into the first area causing candidates of color to attrit: observation.
“The first thing we noticed is that candidates of color are not being considered eligible for observations and/or are not being properly observed by their EPPs,” said Foots. “The consequences of that reverberate through the pipeline in tangible ways such as an inability to complete a program and gain certification.”
Foot’s work helped bring new questions to the forefront of the push for diversity in Texas’ teacher workforce, and the data is now accessible publicly for any looking to answer those questions. Through a number of public-facing dashboards, Foots created data infrastructure to explain the academic requirements of EPPs and the series of indicators they are required to report, and to provide a high-level view of the amount of candidates who applied, were admitted, completed the program and were retained as a teacher for 5 years.
“As a regulatory agency, it’s not always going to be our role to zoom in on all of the issues in the teacher workforce pipeline,” added Foots. “Sometimes the work will be better suited for an advocacy group, sometimes for the preparatory community. But we can help catalyze this work without being prescriptive through the addition of tools like these data dashboards. In this way we’re helping democratize the data and empower communities.”
While Foots confronted challenges common to any complex data work—disparate systems, data silos, the need for relationship building and buy in—her project benefited from the proportional equity model and blinded analysis. “There are many equity models to choose from,” she offered, “but if you’re going to subscribe to the proportional model, don’t view it as a zero-sum game. Instead, use it to highlight areas of inequity and potential under service. This model also helps mitigate the continuous problem of comparing everything against whiteness in data analysis. Many groups have different achievement routes, and it’s important to understand those in context as opposed to in comparison.”
Additionally, Foots conducted her analysis of the various EPPs without visibility of any identifying information. In this way, the data for all programs were analyzed on merit and not perception. “The blinding allowed me to poke holes in commonly-held narratives because I did not know the context or the stakeholders. I simply saw the patterns in the numbers and investigated them. It also pushed me to ask critical questions of the data that I may not have cared to ask had I entered the analysis with an expected end in mind.”
Disaggregating by race and blinding the data are critical guiding principles for anyone charged with understanding large pipelines with multiple programmatic players. By doing this, Foots was able to gain a more nuanced perspective on what is happening within the Texas teacher training pipeline, which ultimately has major implications on policy and accountability measures in the state.