Most teachers are white women. Most school administrators are white. This is true of the entire United States, and it’s certainly true in Iowa.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 80% of teachers in public elementary and secondary schools were white in the 2015-2016 school year. In Iowa, that trend is even more pronounced: Every single district in the state had teaching staffs that were more than 92% white in 2018.
Districts are facing pressure to recruit, hire and retain more diverse teachers, especially if the district is urban or diverse. For low-income black students, having at least one black teacher in elementary school reduces their probability of dropping out of school by 29%, a 2017 Johns Hopkins study found. The same study showed black students with black teachers also had higher test scores.
Some of Iowa’s biggest, most diverse districts say they have an added barrier to hiring those teachers, though: the licensure requirements set by the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners. They say the requirements are overly “burdensome” for out of state candidates, forcing them to recruit only from in-state institutions, who themselves are working to increase the diversity of their students. In 2018, for instance, the University of Northern Iowa graduated 793 students — undergraduate and graduate — with teaching credentials. Of those, the university reported 54 minority students, and another 34 whose race was “unknown.”
Colleges and universities are trying to recruit more diverse students. School districts are trying to “grow their own,” with programming and mentorship opportunities targeted at current employees and students, to encourage them to consider teaching.
But those programs take time. In the meantime, some districts say breaking down or easing those barriers to hiring out-of-state teachers would address demographic disparities between student populations and teaching staffs.
Licensure as a priority
Every year, the Iowa Association of School Boards calls for its members to submit legislative resolutions for the board to use when advocating with legislative influencers. Unsurprisingly, those resolutions are almost always about money, whether for technology, preschool, mental health, special education or staff wages.
In their 2019 legislative resolutions, just two of the IASB’s 31 items did not directly call or reference funding, taxes, fees or increasing resources: giving school boards local control over their school calendars and calling for the adoption of alternative teacher licensure options and creating reciprocity agreements with other states “so as to increase diversity among our certified teachers and administrators.” Reciprocity agreements intend to allow flexibility for teachers moving across state lines, but it does not guarantee unconditional recognition. States may still require their own assessments or exams, though some will waive that requirement with enough teaching experience.
Ultimately, the IASB didn’t select licensure as one of its legislative priorities. Still, Communications Director Tammy Votava said the IASB supported all 31 items on the platform.
Shanlee McNally, president of the Waterloo School Board, said their board submitted licensure to the IASB because they believed creating reciprocity agreements with other states would help districts “be flexible” in the face of a teaching shortage, both in Iowa and nationwide.
“It’s important to us to make sure we’re attracting and retaining the most highly qualified people. For us, if we’re limited by where that best candidate might be … having hands tied to only look at Iowa, that’s not a great way to go,” she said. “We feel it’s very important that our staff mirrors the population of our district.”
Waterloo’s students were 47.7% white and 27.4% black in 2018; the teaching staff was 94% white and 4.6% black, according to the Department of Education.
The Times reached out to five of Iowa’s largest and most diverse districts: Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines, Iowa City and Waterloo. All of these districts had a student population that was at least 18% black in 2018.
None of the four districts that responded think creating reciprocity agreements will entirely dissolve any barriers to diversifying their staff, but three said they felt it would be a major help. The fourth, Iowa City, said reciprocity did not come up often in that regard.
“I think it’d be a huge deal,” said Kingsley Botchway, chief officer of human resources and equity for the Waterloo Schools district. “Iowa is a state that doesn’t have some of the attractions that other states have. We sell Iowa on the family, the values, the quality of life. But if coming here means you have to spend more money on classes … (licensure) is an added barrier.”
How do teachers transfer from out of state?
Eleven members of the board of educational examiners are appointed to the board, and a 12th comes from the department of education. They’re charged with establishing and enforcing “rigorous standards” for Iowa’s educational practitioners. In practice, that primarily pertains to the licensure system, including the consideration of waiver applications.
Like many states, Iowa requires teaching candidates, including those from out of state, to pass a mandatory assessment, which can be waived with three years of out-of-state teaching experience. However, an applicant must also complete at least 75% of the coursework for one of Iowa’s teaching endorsements, which includes everything from foreign languages, to core subjects, to talented and gifted programs, to reading specializations. Without the majority of an endorsement, no license can be issued unless a waiver request is reviewed and granted.
The director of the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners, Ann Lebo, responded to several phone messages and emails requesting a phone conversation with an email that referred back to the board’s own website. While the Times’ email requests included a list of questions the reporter wanted to discuss, Lebo’s email did not respond to all of them, including inquiries about any recent discussions to revisit Iowa’s licensure process or for comment regarding some districts’ claims that it was influencing diversity efforts.
“I don’t believe BOEE is trying to intentionally hurt anything,” said Tiffany O’Hara, director of human resources for certified staff in Des Moines. “They’re holding a very rigorous standard for teaching, and I applaud them for that. We want the highest-caliber people in classrooms. But there has to be a little bit of exploration about what’s driving that.”
Iowa’s reciprocity practices are in line with the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, Lebo said via email. The NASDTEC Interstate Agreement allows states to have additional requirements for those coming from another jurisdiction, though the website says some jurisdictions consider themselves “full-reciprocity,” and do not have other requirements. Iowa considers experience only if the state from which a teacher is transferring has a tiered licensure system, which grants different licenses based on experience. Only about half of the states in the U.S. have such a system.
While districts stressed “flexibility” and insisted reciprocity isn’t the same as “watering down” requirements, not everyone agrees. Molly Donahue, representative for Iowa House District 68, is strongly opposed to establishing reciprocity agreements without any sort of collaboration between schools to guarantee the requirements are the same. She’s also taught in Cedar Rapids for decades.
“As a school teacher, I understand the premise of wanting to have reciprocal relationships, but I’m in a position where I have watched for 29 years, the erosion of our education,” she said. “Ultimately, everybody needs to raise their standards, including Iowa. … I don’t want Iowa to lower their standards just to accommodate someone from out of state coming in.”
Diversification and disproportionality in Davenport
Last year, Davenport recruited and hired the only black graduate from Northern Iowa University, the district’s Director of HR and Equity Erica Goldstone said. This year, she was laid off alongside 74 other teachers — mostly first-year teachers — in historic layoffs to comply with the School Budget Review Committee’s demands to cut $13 million from the budget.
Davenport is the third-largest district in the state, with a student body that’s 55.1% white and 19.2% black. Its teaching staff is 93.8% white and 2.1% black.
Davenport Community Schools were cited for disproportionality in 2018. According to the report from the Department of Education, a review of the district’s data showed a disproportionate number of students of color were identified for special education services, suspended and expelled and subjected to seclusion or restraint.
The corrective actions required by the state do not specifically refer to the district’s majority-white teaching staff. But the message was clear: Davenport had to retrain its teachers and enforce policies to ensure all students received the public education they’re promised, regardless of race. Professional development for all teachers on disproportionality, causes and consequences, and policies to remediate and eliminate it was required.
In May, board member Allison Beck asked about hiring more diverse staff during a panel with district leadership on disproportionality at a committee of the whole meeting.
“I know we’ve talked a lot about how to hire a more diverse certified staff, but are we changing our approach there?” she asked administrators.
Until this year, Davenport had recruiting relationships with historically black colleges and universities, like Fisk University in Tennessee and Chicago State University, Goldstone said. But with massive budget cuts in the district, Goldstone said it wasn’t financially viable for the district to spend money on those recruiting efforts when they’d likely be hiring few new teachers.
But even when the recruiting pipeline was in place, it wasn’t very beneficial to the district.
“It has not been successful,” Goldstone said. “For the students we have brought in, Iowa has been an impediment to get them licensed. If you are not here in the state of Iowa and you’re a young person that’s graduating, to go to a place and be told you have to take three or four additional classes, knowing if you stay in your own state, you don’t have to do that — it’s been problematic.”
Licensure affects administrators too. Davenport’s new superintendent, Robert Kobylski, also faced hurdles to getting certified in Iowa, despite holding certifications in Wisconsin and Illinois and leading two districts in Wisconsin for more than a decade.
You have free articles remaining.
“The license process here doesn’t take into account experience or success,” he said.
This past summer, he took five classes to address the anticipated gaps in required classwork required. He also worked with the archivist at Loyola University, where he earned his doctorate, to find the course descriptions for the board of educational examiners to compare with 2019 requirements.
After several licensure setbacks, Kobylski's contract was finally approved Aug. 5.
The NAACP Unit #4019 on Sept. 11 held a forum to speak with Kobylski The moderator and audience members asked Kobylski about diversity and equity issues in the district. Of particular issue to Cannon Peppers Sr. was the lack of African American teachers, especially male ones.
“[The lack of black teachers] contributes to a feeling of not being accepted or not valued in that school system,” he said via email. “It contributes to a feeling of negative self-identity and lack of protection in a school system, where you have no representative in a leadership position that looks like you.”
Often, those conversations about diversifying school staff center on teachers, Langguth said seeing social workers, counselors, paras — any position that shows they value education — who look like them is helpful.
“I think what really matters is that all classroom teachers have an appreciation for difference in their students and wanting to support student success,” she said. “But we realize it’s a benefit to children to see leaders who look like them. It makes the learning environment more inclusive.”
Who’s coming to Iowa?
If a teacher or administrator is willing to go through the process to become certified, they usually have a specific reason for wanting to come to Iowa, multiple districts said.
“We may hire one or two or three who are willing to address the licensure barrier because they really want to be here, typically, for another reason,” Waterloo Superintendent Jane Lindaman said.
“I’m from Iowa,” said Natalie Whelchel, a preschool teacher in Iowa City. “I wanted to come back. If my family didn’t live here, I don’t think I would have moved back.”
After receiving a bachelor’s in art in-state, Whelchel became certified to teach in Texas, where she and her husband moved for his job. While she said the process was costlier than it should have been, she doesn’t think it’s unique to Iowa.
“I think it’s a national problem. It’s not just an Iowa problem. I looked at other states … even ones that don’t have a great reputation. Every state is hard. They all want your money. That’s how I feel.”
Joseph Parker, the principal of Waterloo East High School, wanted to move to the Midwest to be closer to family, Lindaman said.
“He ended up having to take six classes, which he’s doing right now,” she said. “The question that I had to ask him, even though we wanted him, was ‘are you sure you want to do that?’ ”
“The recruiting pitch is, ‘Hey come to Iowa, but just so you know, it’s going to take a few classes for you to teach here.’ That doesn’t work,” Botchway said.
Teacher, counselor, social worker
Competition to recruit diverse teachers is steep between districts, but competition between industries starts even earlier than graduations and job fairs.
“The world is their oyster,” said Nancy Langguth, associate dean of the College of Education and the University of Iowa. “Engineering and business want to diversify their field. We all want to increase the diversity in our fields.”
“You don’t have this large groundswell of students of color going into education,” Goldstone said.
Nationwide, Langguth said there’s a decline in enrollment in teacher education. Part of the problem is economic. O’Hara said it wasn’t uncommon, today, for young teachers to have second jobs.
“If it’s the financial place, then the profession of education isn’t really even a profession anymore,” she said. “We have teachers held to a high standard, and we should, but it doesn’t always match what we give them for compensation.”
It used to be that “the primary job was teaching,” O’Hara said. “The landscape of the profession has changed. That in and of itself, I think, makes it challenging to recruit.
“You’re a counselor, you’re a social worker, you might be a health care provider,” she said. “That’s a very complex role.”
The problems of funding and asking teachers to take on new roles are not Iowa-specific. The struggles to recruit and retain teachers are national trends.
“I think the problems are bigger than just [licensure],” O’Hara said. “Several gateways need to open. Licensure would help. Funding would help. Stability would help. I think licensure’s one gate of many.”
Growing your own
Regardless of feelings toward reciprocity agreements or licensure changes, all of the educators interviewed said it was important to invest in “grow your own” programs to encourage their own students to take up the mantle of teaching.
Goldstone, of Davenport, was the only administrator to report that their district was not pursuing that sort of programming due to its drastic budget constraints.
“We need to grow our own in Iowa if we want to fix some of the things in education,” Donahue said, emphasizing the importance of investing in Iowa’s African American and Latino communities, in particular. “We’ve done all kinds of recruiting, and it hasn’t worked.”
Part of the problem, she said, was that teachers plucked from out of state may struggle with getting to know the area or culture of Iowa and may feel like they lack a community amongst mostly white staff.
“I have 30 years of teaching experience. Does that make me experienced to walk into the rural southern United States? Probably not. I don’t know the area or the culture,” Donahue said. “I think there’s a lot more to it.”
Iowa City partners with the University of Iowa. In Waterloo, the district worked with Wartburg College to work with staff who were paras or teachers and help them become teachers or administrators. Lindaman said they had several who were still principals years later.
“Iowa doesn’t have the diversity that exists in some other states, so if we want to diversify our staff, it becomes really challenging,” Lindaman said.
Programs investing in current K-12 students take time. O’Hara said that while their Dream to Teach program started recruiting and mentoring high school students in 2014, they’re just now starting to see those students get out of college to start collecting data on how successful it is.
Even with a consensus that “grow your own” programs are worthwhile, the time required for those students to grow into teachers forces a waiting game that not all districts want to play.
“While we try to figure out how to work through the situation we have, we’d love to recruit teachers and administrators from out of state,” Botchway said.
Like last year, the IASB is not making licensure a legislative priority for the next session, even while continuing to support the districts who submit it as a resolution. The Board of Educational Examiners did not respond to a question about where the discussion stood, but there doesn’t seem to be much appetite to take the issue of reciprocity further, beyond the districts who feel most strongly about it.
“It’s definitely not a high priority. In the long run, there are very few people who do this,” Donahue said. “I don’t know right now how many people are coming to Iowa. Iowa isn’t someplace you want to come right now if you’re an educator. And I don’t think that has anything to do with reciprocity.”
Davenport’s disproportionality citation forced some professional development and work with experts to tackle a culture change, a change that state and district leaders have reiterated in board meetings will take years to address. Districts can’t wait for their demographics to change or for colleges to start churning out more diverse teaching students.
“It’s an ongoing challenge, but in the meantime, we can’t just sit back and say ‘once we have a diverse force this will take care of itself,’ ” Langguth said. “Every teacher needs to be prepared to meaningfully support every student.”