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Lawmakers Seeking More Diversity Among NJ’s Public School Teachers

Tackling thorny issue in a state where minorities are 56 percent of student enrollments, while just 16 percent of teachers are non-white

Classroom
Credit: USDOE

In a state where public-school teachers are predominantly white and do not come close to reflecting the diversity of their students, lawmakers began a conversation Thursday to hear what state officials and colleges are already doing and what else can be done to correct the imbalance.

For nearly three hours, a joint meeting of the Senate Education and Higher Education Committees heard a host of ideas for attracting more African-Americans, Latinos and men into teaching. The suggestions included changes in teacher-preparation requirements, more targeted recruitment efforts, a revamped alternate route to teaching programs and increased pay for student teachers and the profession as a whole.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the main goal of the hearing was to find out about successful programs already in place to “uncover where the benefits are, where we can create policies that are uniform, where we can support programs that can be expanded and where we can generate extra resources … to be sure that we start really creating a pipeline to at some point in time diversify the workforce with teachers that are experienced and supported and represent the student body.”

During the last school year in New Jersey, about 56 percent of 1.4 million public school students were non-white, while only 16 percent of 116,000 public school teachers were black, Hispanic, Asian or of some race other than white. Studies have shown a number of benefits for minority students to have teachers who look like them. Teachers of color have high expectations for students of color and develop trusting relationships with them, the studies show. In addition, their students are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely go to college.

“Teachers play an important part in the thinking and the life and the dreams and the hopes of many of our young people,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee. “I am especially interested in seeing diverse men in the classrooms. I think that’s extremely important especially in African-American communities where, unfortunately, we don’t always have a father figure in the home.”

Gap remains persistent, despite some progress

Linda Eno
Linda Eno, assistant commissioner of academics and performance at the Department of Education

Linda Eno, assistant commissioner of academics and performance with the Department of Education, said the state recognizes the importance of having a diverse teacher workforce and has set a goal of having novice teachers — those teaching for four years or less — reflect the diversity of public school students by 2025.

“Our educator workforce remains predominantly white and the urgency grows as the nation’s population and, most relevant, our student population becomes more racially and ethnically diverse,” Eno said. “We believe a racially and ethnically diverse teacher workforce is critical to meeting the needs of all students.”

She said the teacher ranks are slowly becoming more diverse, as about 22 percent of new and novice teachers are non-white.

“But student diversity is increasing more quickly and the gap continues to grow,” Eno added.

Colleges play key role in addressing the imbalance

The state has taken a number of steps toward increasing teacher diversity. The DOE 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.

It is also looking to support the number of teaching academies in public-school districts and encourage partnerships between these and state colleges. State officials are also looking at more unique ways to recruit more minorities into teaching, such as a “troops to teachers” program trying to interest veterans in a post-service career in education.

Teacher
Credit: breity/flickr

Because the colleges prepare future teachers, these play an important role in solutions, as well. Several officials representing state colleges pointed out a number of efforts they have undertaken to try to attract and retain more students of color into their teacher-preparation programs.

Rowan University, for instance, works with a number of teacher academies in high schools across South Jersey and provides a stipend for students from Bridgeton, Pleasantville and Camden to complete courses over the summer. It also offers a program to support men of color in teaching — providing them with scholarships, mentors and other assistance — that has become so popular it has had to turn away applicants due to a lack of funding, said Monika Williams Shealey, dean of Rowan’s College of Education.

The College of New Jersey’s Center for Future Educators has a program to recruit young men of color into teaching. It also operates an immersive two-week Urban Teacher Academy for seniors interested in teaching in low-performing, high-poverty schools. And it is launching three programs to recruit future educators in urban school districts.

Required testing a hurdle for some

Several school officials said a roadblock for some minority college students is the requirement that they pass teaching-specific core exams before being admitted into a teacher-prep program. In particular, they said it was difficult for some students to pass the ETS’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.

“High standards are good, but a problem happens when the standards don’t actually match what the teacher needs to know in order to be able to teach,” said Najee Carter, principal of the North Star Academy Alexander Street Elementary School in Newark. “The certification system is broken and it’s hurting kids of color.”

Laurie Ann Jones lost her job as a mentored teaching assistant for third graders at the school briefly when she failed the math Praxis exam by a couple of points over a period of two years. She has a master’s degree in education and is pursuing her doctorate but blamed the “subpar public education” she received for her inability to pass the test, which required a strong command of geometry. Finally, last June, she passed on the 13th try and was able to get her job back.

“How was it possible I was an excellent third-grade math teacher, but I could not pass the math portion of the Praxis?” Jones asked. “I spent hundreds of dollars on practice tests, on tutoring, on books and on the test itself, not to mention the emotional toll that it took on me. I wanted be a teacher so badly ... My story is a success story, but there are thousands like me who give up and I don’t blame them. The hurdles are just too great and too costly.”

Ruiz said there is a disconnect between the state’s high school proficiency test, which does not measure geometry, and requiring a college student to be well-versed in geometry to be able to become a teacher.

State education officials, who set the requirements for teacher certification, are aware of the potential issue with the Praxis core exam and are in the process of looking into it.

“We are looking for that intersection between high expectations and context flexibility,” Eno said. “We are now in the assessment phase.”

Altering the alternate-route path to the classroom

Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union) suggested the state may need to re-evaluate and change its alternate-route program — which gives a person with a degree in something other than education a pathway to become a teacher without having to spend another four years in college. Many teachers of color enter the profession through this alternate route.

Attracting minorities into teaching must start earlier, in high school or even earlier, because students are looking for jobs paying higher salaries.

“Today there are more opportunities available for minorities that pay a lot more money,” said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), a former public school teacher and counselor. “And of course when you look at the tuition today …. students are looking at a ton of loans that they have to repay so they are looking for higher salaries and teachers, quite frankly, are not being paid as professionals, as they are in some other countries, so we do need to look at rewarding our teachers better than what we are now in terms of our salaries.”

Tia Morris, executive director for the New Jersey region for Teach For America, said her organization has been successful in attracting minorities into education. Of 500 TFA educators in classrooms throughout the state, 62 percent are teachers of color and more than 80 percent of them continue working for more than the two-year commitment the program requires. She used that experience to suggest steps the state should take:

  • Invest in alternative-pathway programs, such as the alternate route and troops to teachers, to bring in a more diverse pool of teaching candidates;

  • Encourage all teacher preparation programs to invest heavily in diversity recruitment efforts;

  • Allow for increased flexibility for teacher candidates to be able to demonstrate core competencies to become educators so that the inability to pass a test does not close an otherwise qualified person out of the profession.

Both Ruiz and Cunningham said they expect to draft legislation over the next few months to address issues surrounding diversity. Ruiz said it is particularly important to codify programs that may be working well now so that they will continue to thrive under future administrations that may not share the same goal of ensuring diversity among educators.

Another Senate committee took a small step toward helping that effort on Thursday, approving S-703 and sending it to the floor of the upper house. The measure, of which Ruiz and Turner are co-sponsors, would create a pilot program within the DOE to recruit minority men through the alternate-route program to teach in schools where students are doing poorly in passing state assessments.

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