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An Accidental Experiment: An Emergency Teacher License Gives An Unexpected Boost To Teacher Diversity06:09
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Carmen Rios dances with her kindergarten class before beginning an English lesson at Barbieri Elementary School in Framingham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Carmen Rios dances with her kindergarten class before beginning an English lesson at Barbieri Elementary School in Framingham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Traducido en español por El Planeta Media.

Teaching is Carmen Rios' passion, especially kindergarteners.

"I love to work with them because they are so kind," she said. "I like that I can give them that first experience in school and be creative and motivate them to love school."

Rios spent 14 years teaching kindergarten in Puerto Rico. When she moved to Massachusetts in 2014 she wanted to keep working with young kids, but she quickly hit some roadblocks.

"I heard that I had to do a lot of steps to get the license," Rios said. "And then I was scared about my language [proficiency]. Because all of the MTELs are in English."

Back then, Rios didn’t have the money to complete the licensure process. So she had to press pause on her teaching career.

"I had to live in a shelter with my kids and then I got to my apartment and then I got my first job in McDonalds," she explained.

She eventually did make her way back into the classroom, working as a paraprofessional in Fitchburg. This year, with the state's new emergency license program, she was able to become a lead kindergarten teacher in a bilingual classroom in Framingham.

"I feel very happy," Rios said. "And very proud of myself too."

A student of Carmen Rios’ kindergarten class raises her hand during an English lesson at Barbieri Elementary School in Framingham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A student of Carmen Rios’ kindergarten class raises her hand during an English lesson at Barbieri Elementary School in Framingham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Emergency teaching licenses were created out of necessity when the pandemic temporarily stopped the state's administration of the licensure test known as the Massachusetts Tests For Educator Licensure (MTEL). Testing is still not running at full capacity, which has left the state with a backlog of about 13,000 tests.

State leaders didn’t want the teacher pipeline to come to a screeching halt. So with the help of the Massachusetts teachers unions, they created this temporary license to keep new teachers flowing into the system. So far, Massachusetts has granted nearly 7,000 emergency licenses — a number that's surprised state education leaders.

"The fact that that many people were interested in going into schools, knowing what they were going to experience when they got there, was really interesting," said Liz Losee, the director of the Office of Educator Effectiveness at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The program has come with some unexpected benefits: at least 25% of the emergency licenses were granted to people of color. Which is significantly higher than the state’s teacher workforce overall. Right now, only about 8% of Massachusetts teachers are Black, Indigenous, Latinx or Asian, even though roughly 40% of the student population are people of color.

"We were really thrilled that we had the uptake we did, and that we saw the diversity of the individuals that were applying to it," Losee said. She was also thrilled by the number of emergency licensees that got a job in a public school. According to the state's last report from districts in October, about half of the people who had emergency licenses at that time had a job in a public school.

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So why did this license attract applicants that more closely reflected the state’s student population? Education researchers think that part of the answer could center around the licensure test. To get an emergency license, candidates only need a bachelor's degree and "sound moral character."

"It’s possible that if candidates of color perceive the exam to be a barrier they might be less likely to embark on this process," Joshua Goodman, a Boston University researcher who has studied the Massachusetts Teacher pipeline, said. According to his research with Melanie Rucinski, the state loses most candidates of color before they even sit for the state licensure test. About 87% of people who attempt these tests are white.

Goodman says there could be a lesson to learn from college admissions and what happened when many of them dropped the SAT and ACT requirements this year.

"There have been at least some elite colleges that have seen pretty big spikes from students of color who very clearly perceived those tests as a barrier," he explained. "Whether they are right or not, removing them has certainly attracted a new set of applicants."

Some district leaders argue that finances could also be limiting who applies to become a lead teacher. The process can be expensive. Elementary school jobs often require people to pass several specific college courses and a series of MTELS, which cost $139 each.

"The financial barriers of that, when you're working as a paraprofessional are, in some cases, insurmountable," Sean Walsh, the vice president of the Massachusetts Partnership for Diversity in Education and director of human resources at Randolph Public Schools, said.

That was the case for Adam Yañez. He has a bachelor's degree but needed additional college courses to qualify for a full teaching license when he moved to Massachusetts. Before the pandemic, he was working as a paraprofessional in Framingham. Now, as a lead teacher with an emergency license, he’s making more money and is currently on track to finish up his master's degree in education by the fall.

"By allowing people like myself to have the income to contribute to our education and also the experience ... I think that it is a very good investment," Yañez said.

Just before the pandemic shut down school buildings in Massachusetts last year, state education leaders were about to roll out a pilot program that would provide teacher candidates with other options for demonstrating content mastery outside of the MTEL. State officials say the emergency license program has inadvertently become an important addition to those efforts.

Policy makers and researchers said there’s a lot to learn from this unexpected experiment. Dan Goldhaber, the director of Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research, said states like Massachusetts are looking for more ways of predicting teacher effectiveness.  According to his previous research, licensure tests are only somewhat predictive of success in the classroom.

"Teachers of color tend to do less well on licensure tests," Goldhaber said. "So if you use them and you don't do anything else, you're likely to be excluding some people who would have made for effective teachers."

But he added that states are in a tough position. They need a quantifiable way to demonstrate that teachers are qualified to do their jobs. Goldhaber’s team is starting to look into other markers that would also be predictive of classroom success, such as GPA in college science courses.

"Does that kind of background in subject matter predict how effective a person is if they eventually become a high school science teacher?" Goldhaber reflected.  "Believe it or not, that sounds like a very basic question, but we don’t know the answer to that very well."

The emergency license program has been extended for one more school year to help the state catch up on its MTEL backlog. But policy makers and researchers said they would be watching closely to see how this accidental experiment might finally move the needle on teacher diversity here.

This segment aired on March 25, 2021.

Carrie Jung Twitter Senior Reporter, Edify
Carrie is a senior education reporter with Edify.

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