There are far too few educators of color in Massachusetts schools, a persistent disparity lawmakers are seeking to address.
Legislation is being pushed this session aimed at increasing diversity and retention among teachers throughout the state.
The Educator Diversity Act would establish alternative certifications for aspiring teachers, an educator data dashboard, and require districts to appoint officers or teams to set plans and “ensure compliance with all provisions.” Additionally, the bill would create an educator diversity grant fund.
“This is an issue that I would say has been around for a very long time. For years I have been aware of the districts talking about the need to have a more diversified educator workforce,” said state Representative Alice Peisch, education committee cochair and cosponsor of the bill. The proposal has received little to no pushback, she said. Her colleagues recognize the “time has come to do something at the state level and not just leave it to the districts.”
“When I was on the school committee back in the 1990s, we talked about the importance of this,” said Peisch, who served on the Wellesley School Committee. “But the needle does not seem to be moving very much.”
The House also proposed $15 million in this year’s budget that, even if the diversity act legislation doesn’t pass, will be put toward scholarships for college students studying to become educators and college debt assistance for current public school educators.
Students of color make up nearly 40 percent of the public school population, but diversity among teachers adds up to about 10 percent — short of a state goal of 25 percent educator diversity by 2030.
“When you look at our educator workforce, that 10 percent is broken down into really small numbers,” said Manny Cruz, the director of advocacy for Massachusetts’ Latinos for Education, one of the organizations in support of the bill. “The disproportionality between what our students demographics are and educators is pretty great.”
Students benefit academically, socially, and emotionally when they have at least one teacher throughout their academic career who is the same race as them, building a culture of belonging, Cruz said.
Research shows that students of color who have had teachers of their race or ethnicity are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college.
The legislation goes back to the Student Opportunity Act passed in 2019, which aimed to close opportunity gaps for students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, and students from low-income families by infusing $1.5 billion into schools over seven years, said education committee cochair and state Senator Jason Lewis.
“What we recognized when we were working on that bill, and when we passed it, was that in addition to providing equitable resources to the schools in those communities, we also need to see more diversity among the staff in those schools and, really, in all schools,” said Lewis, who also sponsored the Educator Diversity Act. “That includes the teachers, other staff in our schools, you know, like counselors and nurses, and also school administrators, principals, and superintendents and so forth.”
One of the key components of the legislation is the establishment of alternative certification, giving educators other pathways besides the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL), a mandatory exam for teachers and administrators to secure their license, which has had gaping racial disparities in passing rates for years.
The most recent state data show that over 80 percent of white and Asian candidates passed the communication and literacy skills test in the 2020-21 school year, compared to 50 percent of Black candidates and 62 percent Latino candidates.
To address this obstacle, state education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley two years ago proposed allowing teachers who repeatedly fail their exams to receive a license, or alternative certification, based on their work experience instead of their test scores.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the amendments to educator licensing in November 2020 and, in June 2021, extended them for the 2021-22 school year. This April, Riley proposed another extension through the 2022-23 school year.
The Educator Diversity Act would make the alternative certifications permanent, Peisch said.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, explained the bill would give DESE the ability to “create alternative measures for educators to demonstrate their competency.” This could include a candidate obtaining an approved certification from another state, a portfolio that could include student feedback or “competency-based projects,” or the candidate having a master’s degree or doctorate from an accredited institution.
“The lack of racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity among the education workforce in Massachusetts is a structural problem — it’s an example of structural racism,” Najimy said. “This bill is just the beginning of dismantling some of the obstacles that are in the way of educators of color seeking to become certified teachers.”
Cruz also explained many educators have been leaving the profession altogether and, if passed, the bill could boost retention.
There are approximately 7,000 educators — one in four who are teachers of color — who received emergency licensure during the pandemic, and they’re waiting for the alternative certification pathway to emerge, Cruz said.
“If you want them to remain classroom teachers,” Cruz said, “we need to prepare them to be able to take an alternative certification pathway so that they can remain in front of our students.”