TRENTON, NJ—Educators from across the state testified in front of the state Senate education and higher education committees on the barriers that public schools face in recruiting and retaining a diverse teacher workforce.
“This issue is an issue that doesn’t solely impact the state of New Jersey, it's an issue that impacts the entire country,” said Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz [D-Essex], chair of the Education Committee.
Just over 15 percent of New Jersey’s educator workforce are teachers of color, compared to a student body made up of 56 percent students of color, according to Linda Eno, assistant commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Education’s division of academic performance.
That large gap is a problem because teachers of color are more likely to hold higher expectations for students of color, to develop trusting relationships with students — particularly those with whom they share cultural backgrounds — and students of color taught by at least one teacher of color in elementary school are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to pursue college, she testified.
“Despite this compelling information, our educator workforce remains predominantly white,” Eno acknowledged.
Panelists pointed to several reasons for the disparity, yet most came back to one major culprit: the teacher certification system, predicated on passing the so-called Praxis exam. The exam, many speakers said, is not necessarily correlated with good teaching, and because of that, New Jersey may be losing thousands of potentially great teachers each year, particularly teachers of color.
“We need to fix certification rules that routinely screen in ineffective teachers and disqualify effective teachers—exactly the opposite of what they’re supposed to do,” testified Daniel Weisberg, chief executive of TNTP, a national education nonprofit founded by teachers that has recruited and trained more than 50,000 teachers. “We’re relying on standardized tests that disproportionately screen out people of color.”
Pass rates for the Praxis are 20 percent lower among Latinx test takers and 40 percent lower among black test takers compared to whites, he told legislators.
“It would be one thing if your score on a certification exam strongly predicted how well you could teach,” Weisberg said. “But research shows scores on these tests are weak predictors of classroom performance.”
The joint committees’ goal Thursday was to uncover where it can create uniform policies, where it can support programs that can be expanded and where it can generate extra resources to diversify the workforce with teachers that represent the student body they teach, Ruiz said.
“We need our young people to see role models, and unfortunately a lot of those role models are not in the home,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham [D-Hudson], chair of the Senate higher education committee. “So they look for those role models in teachers. Teachers play an important part in the thinking and the life and the dreams and the hopes of many of our young people.”
Efforts across the state to increase diversity in schools
Many of the panelists also came with examples of initiatives that were having a real impact in increasing the ranks of teachers of color.
At Uncommon Schools, more than half of its staff are people of color, more than three times the state’s average.
Na’Jee Carter, principal of Uncommon Schools’ North Star Academy Alexander Street Elementary School, explained that the organization was able to accomplish that by actively recruiting college juniors interested in teaching through their Summer Teaching Fellows program.
Those who participate in the program—the vast majority of whom are college students of color—receive a mentor teacher, training, and teach summer school at Uncommon Schools under close supervision from a mentor teacher. Carter said nearly 80 percent go back to their senior year with a job offer to teach when they graduate.
For new teachers, Carter described how much coaching and support teachers get on their path to certification. Once they start, Carter said teachers get three weeks of professional development in August and receive 200 hours of professional development and coaching over the year.
And yet, Carter said that very good teachers at Uncommon struggle to get certified—not because they are not smart—but because the Praxis test covers material that they don’t need to know for their jobs. As a result, some teachers who could otherwise be serving children well have to leave the classroom.
“High standards are good,” Carter said. “We would not have the schools we have, we would not be sending kids to and through college the way we do without high standards. The problem happens when the standards don’t actually match what teachers need to know to teach.”
“These are people that we should be helping to become teachers—not making sure they will quit and go on to another profession,” Carter said.
This fall, Rowan University’s College of Education will launch its Camden Residency Project, said Dean Monika Williams Shealey. Teaching candidates will get paid $4,000 by the Camden City School District to teach for a year in early education and math and science.
Rowan also has the alternate route to certification ASPIRE Program and its Grow Your Own program, with teaching academies in high schools across South Jersey.
Despite that, Williams Shealey said that Rowan’s College of Education still loses a large number of students of color in their first two years of school before they even take classes at the college.
After a study, Williams Shealey said the university determined those students were leaving the college of education to pursue degrees in sociology and law and justice.
“We have students of color enter our university, prepare to be social change agents, commit to equity and diversity, and they are selecting fields where they believe they can make an impact,” Williams-Shealey said. “Education is one of those fields, but we lose a number of them because they face significant challenges, and not just the Praxis exam, but because of the experiences they have university wide before they get to the college of education.”
What needs to change?
The committee received a number of recommendations from those who testified, which included representatives from New Jersey City University, Rutgers University, the New Jersey Education Association, TNTP and Teach for America New Jersey.
One recommendation was to eliminate or change one of the Praxis exams needed to become certified.
Teacher candidates in New Jersey must take three exams, the Praxis core, basic skills admission exam, which cost $150. Praxis 2, which costs $120 to $160, and the edTPA performance-based test, which is $300.
“Testing mandates might be worthwhile if they were equitable and had a strong predictive validity to the teaching practices we know to be important and influential for student learning,” said Nora Hyland, associate dean for the Rutgers Graduate School of Education.
“But the relationship between these test scores and teaching quality is modest at best.”
Another common recommendation was to provide more funding to expand programs that allow paraprofessionals in school districts to obtain their teaching certification.
Paraprofessionals, or teacher assistants, often live in the communities they teach in and have a good relationship with the families.
“It’s very important that we utilize that talent,” said Shirley Turner [D-Lawrence], vice chair of the Senate education committee. “This is where the rubber meets the road. They live here, work here and pay taxes.”
For the joint committee, Thursday’s hearing was just the beginning of improving diversity in New Jersey’s classrooms.
“We don’t want to water down the substance,” Ruiz said. “We want to find where the faults are that’s keeping the phenomenal teacher from being in the classroom … we have a lot of work to do.”