A week after our seminar on Wednesday, Asma requested the meeting. A student teacher in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s early childhood program, Esme fails the foundations of the Wisconsin Reading Test, known as WFORT, for the second time, with graduation just a month later. She was concerned about being able to pass the third attempt without the support of the teaching group of students – many of whom would advance after taking the test themselves. Each week during the semester, Esme’s student supervisors, including myself, organized study groups. We knew our early childhood student teachers had many obstacles to licensing, including WFORT.
Across the country, aspiring early childhood teachers are hampered by daunting barriers that disproportionately affect people of color as well as low-income, non-English speaking student teachers. In Wisconsin, the barriers to early childhood educators are similar to many other states. My university program is responsible for training and accrediting teachers to obtain a teaching license. The license covers a wide age range, but is required to teach K-2. In the three years I’ve worked with three groups of early childhood students, I’ve seen the hardships my students endure and how the program sets some students up for failure.
Wisconsin requires that student teachers experience one semester, approximately 18 weeks, of full-time work per semester. This means that during the last semester of their final year, students work full time without pay. The university advises students and teachers to save money and not to work in another job during this semester. However, the majority of students I work with cannot be off work for 18 weeks. This requirement is very difficult for low-income students, most of whom do not have the financial resources to support themselves. So student teachers do their best by spending an entire day in class before working at a paid job in the evenings or on the weekends. To get an already low-paying job, students and teachers enter teaching at a disadvantage.
In addition to unpaid work, the last semester is also when our students take the WFORT test. Reading test foundations are used in the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, but other states have similar tests that test student teachers’ knowledge of reading concepts. Students must pay for and pass this test to get their teaching license. However, the pass rates for the WFORT Test for POC Student Teachers and non-native English speakers are consistently lower than those for whites, native speakers of English. (In fact, there is a long history of research on the harmful effects of high-risk assessments on aspiring teachers of color.)
Five years ago, the WFORT pass rate for black students was 39 percent, while for white students it was 71 percent. For non-native English speakers, the pass rate was 67 percent compared to English speakers at 91 percent.
|Success rate of any attempt||Asia||black||Hispanic||multiracial||Native American||else||White|
Source: Wisconsin Department of Public Education
Above all, the test is nothing more than an obstacle. Even without the extra hours of test preparation, student teachers are already gaining enough knowledge to develop reading through their coursework requirements and demonstrate the ability to teach literacy lessons in their school placements.
Our students have become accustomed to responding to young readers in ways that are culturally responsive, linguistically supportive, and appropriate to the students’ individual strengths. These aspects of teaching are simply not found in the WFORT Questions and Correct Answers. In response, a senator introduced a bill to stop WFORT. However, Wisconsin Republicans have such a strong focus on education that this legislation almost certainly cannot move forward.
These obstacles keep diverse teachers away from the early childhood workforce. On a structural level, here in Wisconsin, non-female and non-white teachers have difficulty even getting into teaching programs because they are not reflected in the teaching community.
The most common reasoning I hear from college students is, “I’ve always wanted to be a kindergarten teacher.” During my time as a supervisor, I’ve noticed that this reason often comes from white women. They saw early childhood teachers, as well as white women, and wanted to be like them. They were encouraged to be teachers and considered a feasible profession. Non-female students and students in a child care center rarely use this as a reason – and often find teaching later in their lives.
Young students are not likely to experience the benefits of having teachers who represent the diversity of students. As an educational programme, we need to hire a diverse group of teacher candidates and think carefully about our graduates. Wisconsin has many programs aimed at recruiting a diverse group of teachers. However, it is less effective while the barriers to teachers are present.
Early childhood education is already on the verge of collapse. Pay is low for students who enroll in childcare or pre-kindergarten, and early childhood teachers are often the lowest paid in their profession, but we can change through policies aimed at helping teachers. Pay students for student education (as a new bill introduced by Wisconsin Democrats suggests). Eliminate the biases and burdensome test fees from exams like WFORT, or get rid of them entirely. and increase diversity and recruitment efforts.
Talented teachers like Esme shouldn’t cost much to enter the profession they love. Tomorrow’s educational workforce must represent the student community. Simple steps can have lasting effects on our teachers and the youngest students.