THE DEMANDS OF TEACHING during a pandemic have undoubtedly taken a toll on educators. From dealing with ever-changing public health protocols and staff shortages to addressing lost learning time and supporting students’ wellbeing, teachers are overworked and overwhelmed. A new study found that turnover among Massachusetts teachers was at least 15 percent higher over the past two years than in 2019. And in a nationwide poll by the National Education Association, 55 percent of teachers said they would leave the profession earlier than planned because of the pandemic. Is the “Great Resignation” starting to impact Massachusetts schools? And if this trend continues, will we have enough new teachers to step in?
It’s critically important to support teachers right now. But we also have to think long-term about how we’re going to build the teaching force of tomorrow. To meet the needs of schools and students in the years to come, the teaching profession needs to be accessible to a much larger pool of candidates. As we rebuild and expand our teacher pipeline, Massachusetts has the opportunity to rethink how we recruit, support, and credential teachers with an eye toward building a teaching force more representative of the students they teach.
It’s no secret that Massachusetts educators are overwhelmingly White. While young people of color make up nearly half of the student body, only 9 percent of teachers, 12 percent of principals, and 5 percent of superintendents are people of color. Because the current pathways to teaching are not engaging and accessible to enough future educators of color, our schools are missing out on a huge number of potential teachers. And this lack of representation has massive implications for students: according to a Johns Hopkins University study, a Black student who has just one Black teacher by third grade is 13 percent more likely to enroll in college. With two Black teachers, the figure jumps to 32 percent.
So how can we both diversify our teaching force and reach a broader number of prospective educators? It starts by rethinking the pathway to teaching. While most educators enroll in college to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree and then take state licensure test, this traditional route poses barriers for many potential educators. The financial and personal costs of higher education disproportionately affect people of color, potentially dissuading them from entering the field. In fact, research on the financial burden of teacher preparation found that White education students benefit from a median parental income more than double that of their Black and Latinx peers.
Massachusetts needs to build an educator pipeline that offers multiple routes into teaching. The state, school districts, and community organizations can do this by investing in homegrown talent, offering programs that compensate teaching students for their in-classroom training, and providing both guidance and financial support for taking licensure tests. While this might sound like a big undertaking, there are already promising examples of this work happening across the state.
One example is the Lawrence Working Families Initiative run by Lawrence Community Works. This program recruits and prepares parents and other community members to become school paraprofessionals. Participants take a year-long class to pass the paraprofessional exam and a college course through Northern Essex Community College, and they participate in a paid internship in Lawrence Public Schools. The initiative also offers support in helping paraprofessionals become teachers. This type of “grow your own” approach puts community members in the classroom, expanding the number of teachers who bring an understanding of students’ home lives and cultures—and who can bond with their students over shared identities and experiences.
Another promising approach, the “learn and earn” model, flips the script on traditional educator preparation programs that require candidates to pay tuition to work as student teachers. Instead, this model offsets the cost of higher education by compensating teacher candidates for time they spend in classrooms. For example, the Boston Teacher Residency and the Charles Sposato Graduate School of Education in Boston each provide a paid, in-classroom residency for aspiring educators working toward their teaching license. Programs like this provide flexibility for students to acquire new knowledge and progress in their careers while continuing to earn a living. They also help candidates develop essential workplace and classroom skills that can be difficult to learn without direct experience.
Growing and diversifying our teaching force will require actions at every policy level. Districts and community organizations can prioritize programs that train, support, and pay community members to become educators. State leaders also have the opportunity to tackle some of the barriers prospective educators of color face through the Educator Diversity Act, which is currently making its way through the Legislature. This bill would, among other things, establish an alternative certification to the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure and require diversity officers or teams in school districts. Meanwhile, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently rolled out a new tool that shares demographic data for current and prospective teachers, which will make it easier to track progress over time.
A differentiated and equitable educator pipeline is necessary to fuel a workforce that can address the needs of our students and the growing demands on the education field. Achieving this goal means promoting teacher preparation models that recruit and support candidates for whom traditional pathways have not proven successful. Rethinking the teacher preparation process and developing ways to support all kinds of aspiring educators will, in turn, support students of all kinds.
Chad d’Entremont, Meghan Volcy, and Sophie Zamarripa are colleagues at The Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy and authors of Investing in Educators: Supporting Teachers Through the Pandemic and Beyond, a report examining ways to both support and diversify the teaching force in Massachusetts.