Talking Points

Teachers shouldn't have to pass a political test

What are the characteristics of a good teacher? Many would cite qualities such as mastery of the relevant subjects and high academic standards. Others might stress a positive attitude and engaging classroom manner. 

For most people, political opinions are likely to rank low among these priorities. According to a report in EdWeek, though, that's what an increasing number of public schools are emphasizing. Adopting a practice that's already widespread in higher education, many districts are now considering applicants' "cultural competency." In other words, they're making progressive political views a requirement of the job.

To be fair, advocates of such efforts don't see it that way. In their view, interview questions about "diversity, equity, inclusion, empathy, and students' social-emotional needs" aren't political at all. They're baseline ways to ensure teachers are prepared to work with the students particular schools enroll. And that's a good thing to want to ensure: When around a third of new teachers leave the profession within three years and schools in low-income communities face higher rates of attrition, it's reasonable to look for evidence at point of hiring that they know what they're getting into — and have some ideas about how to deal with it.

Yet the policies the article describes aren't tailored to issues of professional competence. Instead, they appeal to nebulous "values" that actually correspond to specific political positions. At the Shaw Elementary School in Boston, for example, applicants are apparently asked "what they've done personally or professionally to be more anti-racist," echoing ideas popularized by managerial gurus Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi. Could a critic of affirmative action, an advocate of proactive policing, or a supporter of voter ID laws (all opinions with significant support among minorities) give a satisfactory answer? How about a Republican voter? 

The ideological character of the inquiry isn't the only problem. The EdWeek piece revolves around efforts by an HR software company to develop algorithms that predict teachers' effectiveness based on their interview responses. It's bad enough for principals or hiring managers to pry into applicants' opinions on matters irrelevant to classroom content and conduct. It's even worse when they rely on proprietary, woke AI to do the job for them. Schools risk missing effective, compassionate teachers this way. Outside the bluest jurisdictions, they also alienate much of the public they're supposed to serve.

The imposition of a political test for government jobs would be a mistake at any time. But with public education specifically, it's yet another self-inflicted wound at a time when schools around the country are cutting in-person instruction due, in part, to insufficient staff. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, public education leaders have seemed determined to transform an operations challenge into a crisis of legitimacy. Hiring practices like this will hasten that reckoning.