Some of the strongest and most transformative educators that I have worked with during my years as a school leader unfortunately leave the profession prematurely because of outdated credentialing systems that often tell them that they are not good enough to teach. I think about a dynamic Puerto Rican educator in Holyoke who has a unique ability to lean into his culture to make meaningful connections with his students and help them grow academically. Despite the positive impact he is having in the classroom and on his students, the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure (MTEL) still stands in his way as he missed the passing score by a few points. And he is not alone, the MTEL pass rate is significantly lower for educators of color than for their white counterparts.
Massachusetts is overdue for a revamped educator pipeline that recognizes and harnesses the value and strength of educators of color, and supports them to enter and stay within the profession. Luckily, the Educator Diversity Act would give school districts like Salem and Holyoke, where I previously served as superintendent, the resources needed to prioritize and invest in the diversity of our teachers; and it would provide more onramps for diverse teachers to become licensed educators.
This is important because students thrive academically when they have teachers and school leaders that share their culture and backgrounds. Growing up as a Cuban American student in a mostly white community, my Spanish teacher in middle school was the first and only one who I felt truly understood my background and culture. It wasn’t until I became a teacher and principal myself, that I realized the impact that diverse staff have on the success of students. Being able to communicate with parents and students in their native language and to celebrate their culture created a level of engagement and trust our schools had never seen before, and student performance increased.
Yet, too many students and families never get to experience this level of affirmation. While 55% of students in Salem are students of color, only 8% of all teachers identify as teachers of color. The Educator Diversity Act will allow us to close this representation gap, by building on what’s already working.
For example, during my time at Holyoke Public Schools, we more than doubled the number of educators of color from 11% to 23%. This change happened because we were intentional and purposeful, we created a pipeline for paraprofessionals to become educators, secured waivers for promising educators of color, supported hiring managers with anti-bias training, hired a more diverse team of school leaders, and recruited Holyoke residents/graduates to teach in our schools. This work paid off as we saw an increase in attendance rates, a dramatic increase in graduation rates and decrease in dropout rates, which reinforced that a diverse cadre of educators drive academic success. I have been using some of the lessons learned from Holyoke to inform our work in Salem.
Here in Salem, we have been growing the diversity of our educators by providing stipends to our bilingual educators to recognize the asset that a second language brings to our school communities, supporting staff of color to pursue the next level of their professional growth and creating learning spaces where all staff, students and families feel like they belong, and added hiring our first ever Executive Director of Staff and Family Engagement to lead the transformation of our recruitment and retention practices. The Educator Diversity Act will provide us with funding to grow these efforts, but also to start new ones, such as looking at alternative certification programs, creating more teacher advisory councils that can inform our work, and expanding the equity training available to all staff.
We are at a pivotal moment in history as we continue trying to retain and recruit the next generation of educators against the backdrop of a pandemic that has accelerated teacher shortages across the state and nation. This is the perfect time to not only rethink our educator pipeline, but to invest in a new pipeline that recognizes the talents of educators of color and provides them an opportunity to contribute those talents to help more students succeed.
Stephen Zrike is the Superintendent of Salem Public Schools.