One week, after our Wednesday seminar, Esme asked to meet. A student teacher in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s early childhood program, Esme had failed the Wisconsin Foundations of Reading Test, known as WFORT, for the second time, with graduation only a month away. She was worried about her ability to pass on the third try without the support of her student teaching cohort—many of whom would move on after passing the test themselves. Each week during the semester, Esme’s student teaching supervisors, including myself, organized study groups. We knew that our early childhood student teachers had many hurdles to licensure, including the WFORT.
Across the nation, aspiring early childhood teachers are held back by arduous barriers that disproportionately affect people of color as well as low-income and non-native English speaking student teachers. In Wisconsin, the obstacles that hold early childhood educators back are similar to many other states. My university program is responsible for training teachers and endorsing them for a teaching license. The license covers a wide age range from birth to second grade. In my three years working with three cohorts of early childhood students, I’ve seen the struggles my students endure and how the program sets certain students up to fail.
Working for Free
Wisconsin mandates that student teachers experience one semester, approximately 18 weeks, of full-time work in the classroom. That means during the final semester of their senior year, students are working full-time without pay. The university advises student teachers to save up money and not work another job during this semester. However, the majority of the students I work with simply cannot stop working for 18 weeks. This stipulation is incredibly difficult for low-income students, and most do not have the financial resources to support themselves. So student teachers stretch themselves thin by putting in a full day in the classroom before working a paying job in the evening or on weekends. For an already low-paying career, our student-teachers enter teaching at a disadvantage.
Beyond working without pay, the final semester is also when our students take the WFORT. The Foundations of Reading Test is used in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—but other states have similar exams that test student teachers’ knowledge of reading concepts. Students must pay for and pass this exam to receive their teaching license. However, the pass rates on the WFORT exam for POC student teachers and non-native English speakers are consistently lower than the pass rates for white, native English speakers.
Five years ago, the WFORT pass rate for Black students was 39 percent, while white students passed at a rate of 71 percent. For non-native English speakers, the pass rate was 67 percent compared to English speakers 91 percent.
Any attempt pass rateAsianBlackHispanicMultiracialNative AmericanOtherWhite2014-1560%60%64%75%48%59%81%2015-1666%49%53%70%44%52%78%2016-1764%43%68%67%53%73%77%2017-1861%39%53%73%68%36%71%
source: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
Above all, the test is little more than a hurdle. Even without the extra hours of test prep, student teachers already acquire sufficient knowledge of reading development through their coursework requirements and demonstrate the capacity to teach literacy lessons in their school placements.
Our students are accustomed to responding to young readers in ways that are culturally responsive, linguistically supportive and suited to students’ individual strengths. These aspects of teaching simply are not present in the WFORT’s questions and correct responses. In response, one state senator introduced a bill to stop the WFORT. Still, Wisconsin Republicans have such a strong focus on education that this legislation almost certainly cannot move forward.
These obstacles result in keeping diverse teachers out of the early childhood workforce. On a structural level, non-female and non-white teachers have difficulty even entering teaching programs because they are not reflected in the teaching population.
The most common reasoning I hear from university students is “I’ve always wanted to be a kindergarten teacher.” During my time as a supervisor, I’ve noticed that this reason most often comes from the white women. They saw their early childhood teachers, also white women, and wanted to be like them. They were encouraged to be teachers and regarded it as a feasible profession. Non-female and POC students rarely use this as a reason—they often find teaching later in their lives.
It’s unlikely that young students will ever experience the benefits of having teachers that represent the diversity of the student population. As a teaching program, we need to recruit a greater diversity of teacher candidates and think carefully about our graduating population. Wisconsin has several programs aimed at recruiting a diverse population of teachers. Yet they’re less effective while barriers that keep teachers out are in place.
Early childhood education is already at a breaking point. Pay is low for students who enter childcare or pre-k settings, and early childhood teachers are often the lowest paid in their profession, but we can change with policies aimed at helping teachers. Pay students for student teaching (as a new bill introduced by Wisconsin Democrats proposes). Strip biases and onerous testing fees from exams like the WFORT, or get rid of them altogether. And increase diversity and recruitment efforts.
It shouldn’t cost talented educators like Esme so much to enter the profession they love. The teaching workforce of tomorrow needs to represent the student population. Simple steps can have lasting effects on our teachers and youngest students.