Addressing Barriers to the Teaching Field
“One of the greatest weaknesses in teacher preparation has been our failure to recruit and support teachers who reflect the diversity of our communities and who have the capacity to support all learners and advance equity and justice in education,” writes Dr. Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath and Dr. Rick Ayers, faculty in the USF Teacher Education Department.
Agarwal-Rangnath and Ayers received a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation to investigate barriers to diversifying the teacher pipeline in California. They will lead a research project to specifically investigate the California Subject Exam for Teachers (CSET) as a potential barrier.
The CSET is a battery of standardized tests required of teacher candidates to earn their California teaching credential. The test is meant to assess teachers’ knowledge of the subject matter they plan to teach.
“Some of our best candidates - very good teachers - cannot pass the CSET and not for lack of content knowledge. The test is extremely challenging and culturally-biased both in content and language,” says Agarwal-Rangnath. “It keeps away a lot of good teachers and disproportionately impacts teachers of color.” The cost of the test, which students must pay for, presents an additional challenge - costing $300-$400 upfront with additional fees for re-taking sections if they are not passed.
But 2020 has inspired change. The COVID-19 pandemic and the demand for racial justice in our country has amplified the call to address barriers to higher education and dismantle systems rooted in white supremacy - particularly the inherent bias within standardized tests. Examples of this change include the decision of higher education institutions throughout the United States to make the ACT and SAT optional for college entrance, and a 2020 ruling in California which supported the claims of bias within the ACT and SAT.
“2020 gave us a tremendous shift in understanding racism in America and a new determination to fight it. What really motivates me is wanting to look for and challenge real elements of structural racism and in my opinion [the CSET] is one of them,” Ayers explains.
To assess the impact of the CSET on teachers of color, Agarwal-Rangnath and Ayers’ study will include both quantitative analysis of CSET test failure data by race, gender, and immigration status, and qualitative analysis through interviews with teachers and their supervisors. They hope to capture the stories behind the data - the first-person narratives of how the CSET has impacted teacher candidates and their families.
“The passion for this work really comes from seeing my students struggle - see what they go through and how much they’re giving,” explains Agarwal-Rangnath. “Most of my students that haven't passed the CSET are already teaching - they are there to uplift their communities and are there to bring humanizing education and transformative education - but they can’t get their credential. If I can do anything to advocate for them, to serve them, to bring in better teachers to serve our youth - then I’m all about it.”
Agarwal-Rangnath and Ayers are grateful to the University of San Francisco community for being invaluable partners in this work. Special thanks to Tina Burgelman and Michaela Hayes of the Office of Development for their expertise, and to the School of Education deans and Teacher Education Department who, through their unwavering support, exemplify the School’s commitment to advancing justice through education.