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''Ethnically Qualified'': Race, Merit, and the Selection of Urban Teachers, 1920 - 1980

reviewed by ZoŽ Burkholder - June 02, 2011

coverTitle: ''Ethnically Qualified'': Race, Merit, and the Selection of Urban Teachers, 1920 - 1980
Author(s): Christina Collins
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807751634, Pages: 264, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

At first glance, it is hard to disagree with the claim that improving American public schools requires the presence of a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, as the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law mandates. However, as Christina Collins shows in Ethnically Qualified: Race, Merit, and the Selection of Urban Teachers, 1920-1980, Americans have long struggled to define what makes a teacher qualified. Is a highly qualified teacher the one with the most formal training? The one with the most improved student test scores? Or, is a highly qualified teacher one who intuitively understands the language and culture of a particular minority group?

Ethnically Qualified offers readers the opportunity to examine how the debate over teacher quality played out between 1920 and 1980 in New York City, the nations largest public school district. Collins begins at the moment when New Yorkers were congratulating themselves for developing a teacher selection and promotion process that was intended to be merit-based and color-blind. Instead of teaching jobs being doled out (and revoked) at the whims of transient politicians, the teaching force in the 1920s was hired and promoted based on standardized oral and written teaching exams. Given rampant discrimination against Catholics, Jews, and women in the private labor market, the teaching profession offered a generation of Irish, and later, Jewish immigrants and their children the opportunity to ascend into the middle class. Oddly, the very hiring and promotion system that many teachers celebrated for its color-blind format antagonized African Americans and Puerto Ricans, who believed that the system discriminated against non-white applicants. This apparent discrepancy became more blatant in the postwar era as non-white enrollment in New York Citys public schools grew while the percentages of African American and Puerto Rican teachers and administrators remained very low. By 1975, non-white teachers made up less than 13% of the districts staff, while the student population had risen to over 64% non-white in New York City. By contrast, in 1975 minorities made up 40% of the teachers and 67% of the students in the public schools in Philadelphia; 43% of the teachers and 72% of the students in Chicago; and 51% of the teachers and 75% of the students in Detroit (p. 5). The dearth of black and Puerto Rican teachers in New York City became a key issue in the 1960s for civil rights advocates, who asserted that the lack of minority teachers had a particularly adverse affect on minority student academic achievement.

Collins sets out to investigate the charge that New York Citys ostensibly color-blind teacher hiring system explicitly discriminated against applicants of color. The result is a fascinating historical case study of institutional racism that traces the experience of teachers as they rose through the public high schools, applied to and graduated from public colleges, and entered the vast institutional bureaucracy of the New York City public schools. Although the teacher entrance exams were largely color-blind as advocates insisted, Collins is able to document the existence of multiple small, but significant, forms of discrimination along the winding path of teacher training, recruiting, licensing, hiring, promoting, and dismissing. Taken together, these small instances of racial discrimination functioned to cull aspiring minority teachers in New York City at every step of the way. Because the teaching profession functioned historically as a key route to social mobility for generations of immigrant families, Collins asserts that the failure of New York City schools to hire and promote black and Puerto Rican teachers had lasting consequences for the political and economic success of these two minority groups.

Drawing on archival materials from the New York City Board of Education, the Teachers Guild, the Teachers Union, Hunter College, the NAACP, and key individual reformers in New York City, Collins is able to reconstruct a systematic racism that was only visible in glimpses to observers at the time. For instance, the Teachers Union struggled to prove that the teachers exams discriminated against minority applicants, but found it easier to document discrimination against black high school students. In a 1950s report, the Teachers Union charged that an inordinate number of Negro pupils were:

being shunted into vocation high schools and into general courses in the academic high schools as a result of a generally poor guidance program, which is dominated by a practical but false philosophy of preparation for jobs that they can get instead of preparing according to interests and abilities. (p. 26)

Academics such as psychologist Kenneth Clark concurred that low expectations and biased guidance programs steered minority children away from pre-collegiate coursework, and highlighted the inferior resources at majority black and Latino public schools. Others blamed the City University of New York, charging that high admissions criteria coupled with a biased curriculum filtered out scores of minority college students each year. Likewise, it was no secret that the oral component of the teacher certification exam failed applicants who possessed even a faint Negro or southern dialect. Nor was it a secret that the key to passing the teacher licensing exams was to take an exorbitantly expensive prep course that was too expensive for many black and Latino applicants. Together, these small instances of racial discrimination added up to a significant barrier for the professional advancement of blacks and Latinos within the public school system.

To members of the Teachers Guild, in contrast, the teacher licensing exams gave each applicant the same opportunity to succeed or fail, and therefore the tests represented a system that was impervious to racial discrimination. Those that passed the exams and worked their way up through the system were convinced that their professional accomplishments were a result of individual merit, not special privileges. Few practicing teachers were willing to acknowledge the long chain of discrimination that began in the citys racially segregated and unequal public schools and extended all the way to the costly teacher exam preparation courses.

In the end, Collins reasons that the idea of merit was subject to multiple interpretations and that both sides in this debate believed their position represented true social justice. Critics suspected that the exams were not only discriminatory, but also that these tests failed to measure a teachers merit in a meaningful way. In particular, critics asserted that the academic success of urban youth of color required that these children work directly with teachers from similar cultural backgrounds. In contrast, the examiners and their supporters, especially the Teachers Guild, believed that only standardized licensing tests could protect the merit system from the encroachment of blatant political favoritism or racial discrimination in the teacher selection process. They insisted that a teachers racial, ethnic, or cultural identity had nothing to do with the academic achievement of his or her students. Collins finds ample evidence that the system discriminated against teachers of color, but in the end she seems unconvinced that a teachers ethnic identity would affect his or her ability to be successful in the classroom. Her book serves more as a warning that even explicitly color-blind forms of teacher assessment can remain dangerously susceptible to racism.  

While Collins does an outstanding job documenting institutional racism in the New York City public schools, her reliance on archival materials from major organizations reveals little about what this debate meant to classroom teachers or concerned students and parents in New York City. A densely written and highly detailed book, Ethnically Qualified offers upper-level undergraduate and graduate students the chance to consider how the discipline of history is particularly well suited to documenting institutional racism in the public schools. It also offers important insight on contemporary policy debates by showing that the idea of a qualified teacher is a historically subjective and contingent label that does not lend itself to the kind of rigid categorization and assessment demanded by policy makers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 02, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16437, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:58:34 AM

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About the Author
  • ZoŽ Burkholder
    Montclair State University
    E-mail Author
    ZOň BURKHOLDER is an assistant professor of Educational Foundations at Montclair State University. She is the author of Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900-1954 (Oxford University Press, 2011), a history of antiracist activism and the social construction of race in American schools. Her current research examines the role of socially and politically conservative teachers in America. She can be reached at zoeburk@hotmail.com.
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