On any single day, some 160,000 New Jersey public school students do not see even one teacher of color. The state is taking a small step toward trying to change that with a new program to recruit men of color into the profession.
Gov. Phil Murphy last Friday signed a bill (S-703) creating a pilot project meant to increase access to teaching for minority and disadvantaged males and to bring more teacher role models into underperforming schools.
“Diversity is one of our greatest strengths as a state and reflecting that diversity in the teaching staff of our schools will go a long way in ensuring success for our students,” said Murphy in a statement. “This program will create new pathways for aspiring teachers that come from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds, while providing positive male role models for many of our underserved youth.”
Lawmakers acknowledge the sizable disparity between the diversity in the public-school teacher ranks and student enrollment, holding two hearings earlier this year on the issue and promising to pass the minority-male pilot program as a first step toward boosting the number of minority teachers.
“We must address the widening teacher diversity gap in our state and this legislation is just the beginning,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), a prime sponsor of the new law. “I will continue to work on legislation to make careers in education more accessible to people of color so more of the children in our state can benefit from learning in diverse settings.”
While 56 percent of New Jersey students were some race other than that white last year, just 16 percent of teachers, administrators and other professional staff were people of color, state data show. And a NJ Spotlight analysis of that data found that more than three-quarters of public-school districts in New Jersey have professional staffs that are at least 85 percent white and 50 districts employed no African-American, Hispanic, Asian or other minorities teachers last year.
Benefits of diverse teaching staff
Male teachers of all races are under-represented nearly everywhere in the state — little more than two of every 10 teachers were male last year. Fewer than 4 percent of all professional staff were non-white males. One district had just one male Hispanic teacher while the student body was 38 percent Latino boys.
Numerous studies have shown the benefits of a diverse teaching force, both for students of color and for all pupils. The Department of Education has set a goal of having the ranks of novice teachers — those teaching for four years or less — reflect the diversity of public-school students by 2025.
“Research tells us that students of color taught by at least one teacher of color in grades K-5 are more likely to see improved test scores and higher graduation rates,” said Lamont O. Repollet, the state’s education commissioner. “Moreover, all students across the spectrum benefit from a diverse teacher workforce. Teachers of color foster positive perceptions among all children, and that helps prepare students to succeed in a diverse society.”
Under the pilot, Repollet will choose six schools considered underperforming — where fewer than four in 10 students are not “passing” both language arts and math tests or 65 percent are not passing either of the state-mandated tests — to participate. The DOE will also design the rules for selecting minority male candidates who will be able to enter the profession through the state’s alternate-route program, rather than having to complete a college teacher prep program. DOE officials will match the teachers with the schools.
“If we can help create more diversity within our teaching ranks while meeting the needs of our chronically challenged schools, then I think this will be a win for everyone,” said Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), another bill sponsor. “This is a great way to help an underrepresented portion of our population find a solid, stable career path while serving as positive role models for students in our challenged school districts.”
Expectations for students of color
The U.S. Department of Education’s 2016 report on the State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce spells out the benefits for students who have teachers of their own race or ethnicity. It cites studies that showed teachers of color are more likely to have higher expectations for students of color, leading to greater enrollment of non-white students in gifted-and-talented programs. The teachers are also more apt to confront issues of racism, serve as advocates and develop more trusting relationships with students, particularly those with whom they share a cultural background.
During joint hearings of the state education committees, lawmakers heard stories from students and college officials about challenges faced by students of color in completing traditional teacher-prep programs and passing the exams the state requires for teacher certification. In particular, they said it has been difficult for some students to pass the Educational Testing Service’s Praxis exams on the first try, leading students to have to pay more for test preparation and administration or to choose a different focus of study. State education officials are looking into the possibility that the state’s high school graduation tests do not match up with skills demanded by the Praxis.
New Jersey is more diverse than the nation, yet the state’s educators are even less diverse than across the United States, which had 18 percent of teachers identifying as non-white in 2015-2016. A number of districts with a majority of minority students do not have even one teacher of color. And even in districts with some minority staffers, it is possible for students of color to not have a class with a teacher of the same race or ethnicity because there is just one black or Hispanic teacher for every 200 or more students of color.
The recruitment program will operate for at least two years. At that point, Repollet will submit a report to the governor and the Legislature about how it worked and will recommend whether to continue or expand it.
According to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, the cost of the program to the state will be negligible. The only costs to the DOE will be for developing recruitment materials and outreach efforts to find prospective teachers and schools to participate.
The new recruitment program will add to other steps state education officials have taken to try to increase teacher diversity. For instance, the DOE has partnered with four state universities on a conference on diversity that highlighted best practices. It is also providing $750,000 in Diversifying the Teaching Pipeline Grants to two projects matching a university with one or more high-poverty public-school districts with the goal of recruiting more students of color to enroll in teacher-prep programs and go on to become educators. Several state colleges are also working with local school districts to provide stipends or other programs to try to recruit men of color into teaching.