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Massachusetts lawmakers urged to intervene on teacher diversity

Danilo Ferro assists a student in his eighth-grade special education math class at Amherst Regional Middle School.
File photo / Ben James
Danilo Ferro assists a student in his eighth-grade special education math class at Amherst Regional Middle School.

Lawmakers mulling policy changes aimed at building a more diverse educator workforce in Massachusetts repeatedly heard the same set of statistics Monday: people of color account for about 40% of the students in the state's public school system, but about 8% of its teachers.

The Education Committee held a hearing on multiple bills focused on teacher diversity. Supporters of each plan stressed the importance of students of color having the ability to see their experiences reflected in their teachers, and said that having teachers from a variety of backgrounds benefits all students.

“When I was a student in the Salem Public Schools, I only had three teachers who reflected my Latinx identity during my entire K-12 journey, and they were more than teachers to me,” said Manny Cruz, the advocacy director at Latinos for Education and a Salem School Committee member. “They were my mentors, they were the people who affirmed my identity, my culture and language. They understood the challenges that I was facing as a student because they too had similar experiences as new immigrants, and it's because of them that I'm here today.”

Cruz spoke in support of a proposal he said would be a “game-changing policy” — a bill from Education Committee chairs Rep. Alice Peisch and Sen. Jason Lewis (H 682, S 366) that takes steps aimed at boosting teacher diversity. The legislation would task state education officials with developing “an alternative process for granting educator licensure,” as well as setting “measurable educator diversity goals” for the state, collecting statewide teacher diversity data and reporting that data in an online dashboard.

The bill would also require each school district to appoint or hire a diversity, equity and inclusion officer or establish diversity teams; develop and implement “affirmative action and diversity plans,” again with measurable goals; and establish an educator diversity council including teachers, administrators and students who will help advise the school committee and meet regularly with district officials.

The committee also heard testimony on a bill from Rep. Carol Doherty (H 573) that would create a commission to study and make recommendations on pathways to help more students of color enter teaching as a profession, and legislation from Rep. Nika Elugardo and Sen. Adam Gomez that creates an alternative pathway to state licensure outside of the current Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure, known as the MTEL.

Gomez, a Springfield Democrat, said the MTEL poses “significant barriers for educators of color.”

“Not only are there few test locations offered for the MTEL, but the multi-part tests can cost as high as $705 for candidates,” he said. “Further, studies have shown that non-white candidates have far lower passing rates on the test than white candidates. Creating an alternative avenue for both regular public school and vocational-technical educators is a step in the right direction toward a more diverse educator workforce.”

The Elugardo-Gomez bill is backed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association and is among the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus' priorities for this session. The caucus' priority list features another bill on Monday's hearing agenda. Sponsored by Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the proposal (H 588, S 290) would require schools to employ at least seven mental and social-emotional health support personnel for each school resource officer.

Several Department of Elementary and Secondary Education initiatives aim to bring the diversity of the educator workforce more in line with the state's population, including a pilot grant program focused on recruiting and retaining teachers of color and a fellowship program to help educators of color prepare to become superintendents.

In 2019, when the Influence 100 fellowship program launched, 4% of Massachusetts school superintendents were people of color, and that number has since ticked up to more than 5% in 2021, according to DESE. DESE, which in 2019 said that 40% of students and 8% of teachers identified as people of color, now has data on its website showing 10% of the state's public school educators are people of color.

Speaking in support of her bill, Doherty said that while there are a number of programs supported by DESE, higher education institutions and local districts, there is nothing that “truly speaks to the need to have a statewide movement that will be sustained that will attract minority students into the teaching profession.”

“Generally speaking, students in gateway cities, where 92% of teachers are white and 51% of students are not, may never have been taught by a teacher who looks like them,” said Doherty, a Taunton Democrat. “The lack of a culturally diverse teaching workforce is not likely to disappear on its own.”

Rhonda “Nikki” Barnes, the executive director of charter school network KIPP Massachusetts, said she's seen “a positive impact on our organization and students” from boosting teacher diversity.

Speaking in support of the Peisch-Lewis bill, Barnes said that during the 2008-2009 school year, 20% of KIPP staff identified as Black, Indigenous, or people of color. Today, she said, 58% of staff identify as BIPOC and 75% of school leaders are “a diverse group of women of color.”

“Having a majority BIPOC staff means that our students are spending most of their day in spaces where their identity and cultures are affirmed,” Barnes said. “Our student culture thrives as we see more teachers of color.”

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