How do teachers' college admissions affect societal equity?

The ingredient list for a just and equitable society does not usually include better admission processes for teachers’ college. But Ruth Childs makes a convincing case that it should.

Anyone who has spent time inside Ontario’s elementary and secondary schools can tell you teachers do not reflect the diversity of the student population. And that’s a problem: study after study shows teachers who are visible minorities improve the outcomes and school experiences of students who are visible minorities. It’s what motivates Childs to make sure admissions processes designed to diversify teaching staff actually work.

“Decisions we make with respect to admissions to teachers’ college is how we walk the talk about equity,” says Childs.

A professor with the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), Childs is an expert in designing and assessing large-scale assessments and admissions processes. In July, she takes over from OISE’s dean, Glen Jones, as the Ontario Research Chair on Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement, funded by an endowment from the government of Ontario.

Jones, an expert in university governance, used some of his time as chair to explore differences in institutional governance in the context of different provincial government systems and policies.  For example, he notes that there are important implications that come with making universities “government reporting entities.” This structure, in use in British Columbia and Alberta, means that when a university borrows money, it shows up in the provincial governments’ books. In Ontario, on the other hand, universities are not government reporting bodies and can borrow without affecting the province’s credit rating. Jones and his team were able to show the outcome is that Ontario universities have more flexibility over certain types of financial decisions than their B.C. and Alberta counterparts.

While Childs’ research goes in a different direction, her work also offers important insights into how we measure the impact of postsecondary education policies.

“Universities all over Canada are developing well-intentioned access initiatives,” says Childs. “We are so invested in believing they are working, that it’s really humbling to learn when they are not.”

She recently examined a 2004 decision by OISE to remove a requirement that all applicants to its Bachelor of Education program complete 300 hours of teaching-related experience. The admissions committee made this change because it believed potential applicants from underrepresented groups might have fewer opportunities to work in schools. Plus, because the work is usually unpaid, they might be less able to afford the 300 hours.

But when Childs delved into the data, she found a problem with the premise. The number of school-based experiences was similar for those who self-identified as a member of a visibility minority and those who did not. In fact, the visible minority group was slightly more likely to have at least one school-based experience. In other words, her finding didn’t support the notion that members of some underrepresented groups have less access to school-based experiences and are less able to afford to volunteer 300 hours.

Yes, but …

However, Childs attaches an important caveat to her conclusion: establishing who was and wasn’t a visible minority applicant was not easy. Like many postsecondary programs, OISE did not track these data. Applicants could check a box labelled “visible minority.” But without a definition or rationale for the box, it was hard to tell how they interpreted it. As a result, she’s not willing to firmly conclude the change to the admissions process was wrong.

Still, there were two important lessons to come out of her research. “We now have conversations about the nuts and bolts of admissions that we never had before,” says Childs. “People now realize this is where we implement what we believe.”

The second lesson is about being transparent when collecting information about race, sexual orientation, religion and other potential reasons for discrimination. It drives home the need for researchers to tell study participants why they want this information, how they plan to use it and who gets to see it.

OISE’s Bachelor of Education program has since been phased out in favour of graduate programs, so Childs and her team are now turning their attention to application processes at the graduate level. Using lessons learned from their first foray into data collection, they are piloting what they hope will be a more effective way to collect demographic information.

“No one else in Canada is collecting these data,” she says. “We are making decisions about people’s lives. We need to be able to check that our admission processes are supporting equity – and not having unintended effects.”

Ruth Childs

University of Toronto

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