New Jersey Hikes Standards for New Teachers
Some worry the requirements will make it harder to recruit Black and Latino instructors
By NANCY PARELLO
TRENTON, N.J. — Prospective teachers will have to make better grades in college if they want to make it into New Jersey’s classrooms.
The state Board of Education approved new rules last month requiring students in New Jersey colleges to earn a grade-point average of 2.75, or a B-minus, to be eligible to teach in the state’s public schools. Previously, the GPA cut off was 2.5, a C average.
Education students from other states and “alternate route” teachers would also have to make that grade. Previously, these teacher candidates, many of whom come to the profession as a second career, had no minimum grade-point average to meet.
The new rules take effect for students who will enter their junior year in September 2000 and for alternate route candidates who apply after that time, state officials says.
The change could render an estimated 20 percent of prospective teachers unfit for the classroom, with alternate route teachers being hardest hit. A recent state survey suggests 33 percent of alternate route candidates would be ineligible to teach. Alternate route teachers typically have degrees in subjects other than education and become eligible to teach through a special state certification program.
In a survey conducted last summer by the state, 19 percent of a pool of about 300 candidates would have failed to make the 2.75 grade requirement, says Ellen Schechter, the state’s assistant education commissioner. That includes alternate route and out-of-state candidates.
About one-third of alternate route candidates had GPAs below 2.75, compared to 9 percent of in-state traditional students and 21 percent of out-of-state students.
About one in every four new teachers hired in New Jersey come to the classroom through the alternate route, Schecter says. Half of new teachers are in-state students and the other 25 percent are students from out-of-state colleges.
Newark Superintendent Dr. Marion Bolden says her district, like many urban schools, has a hard time recruiting new teachers.
“Am I concerned about a diminishing pool of minority teachers? Yes,” she says.
The shortage of teachers of color throughout New Jersey is a serious concern. In a state that the U.S. Census Bureau reports as being roughly 13 African American and 10 percent Latino, roughly 8.6 percent of the teacher population is Black and 2.8 percent is Latino, according to 1998 figures provided by the State Department of Education.
But Bolden is reluctant to conclude that the new GPA requirement will cause a more severe teacher shortage for urban districts. To the contrary, she says it may further ensure that the teachers hired by districts such as hers have demonstrated a higher degree of academic performance.
“I want my students to have an opportunity to be taught by a teacher who has a good GPA,” she says. Bolden’s district does not attract a large number of teachers of color through the alternate route track, she says, because there aren’t that many in this group to begin with.
An Art and a Science
James Harris, first vice president and education coordinator for the New Jersey conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is convinced the new grade-point average requirements will make recruiting teachers of color even more complex.
“New Jersey is one of the most racially segregated states in the country,” he says. “[And] what we do know, is that the students who graduate from urban and poor school districts do not earn the same grades as those who do not.
“College students must make a decision about going into the teacher-[education] program in the first two years.” If they struggle during those early years, he explains, not only will it be hard for them to get into a teaching program, those early poor grades could weigh down their GPAs later on, making them ineligible for a teaching credential even if they perform well in latter years.
Harris adds that not only will the 2.75 GPA keep some people out of the teaching profession in New Jersey, it cannot guarantee that the teachers the state does recruit will be any better than those who might have come in under the 2.5 GPA.
“Where is the evidence, that a 2.75 in fact produces a better classroom teacher anywhere in America?” he says. “In effect, we’re going to knock out some who might otherwise be qualified without knowing whether the person’s GPA is equated to teaching performance at all.”
Dr. George Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State College, doesn’t have a problem with the state’s effort to increase teacher credentials, but he thinks that is only part of the remedy for what ails the public schools.
“Increasing credentials is an appropriate, but insufficient response to having quality, well-trained teachers available to our students,” he says. “Teaching is an art and a science. The science part is the content. But the art is the process by which you enlighten and empower students. While the credentialing will speak to the content part of it, it doesn’t address the art of it.”
Improving the Image of Teachers
Dr. Annell Simcoe, professor and executive director of teacher education at Rutgers University, says if nothing else, New Jersey’s new requirement may improve the way the public views the state’s teachers.
“I guess it is good if it will change the public’s perception of the quality of teachers,” she says. “Is it going to impact who is allowed to get into a program? Well, it may not. It may simply be that institutions will be more serious about giving students opportunities to learn to ensure that they will meet higher standards.”
Simcoe adds that the hiked standard shouldn’t be a problem for most Rutgers graduates, since the university only awards master’s degrees in education, and — like most graduate programs — requires that all graduate students maintain at least a 3.0 average. Education Commissioner David Hespe says he hopes the higher standard will prompt students to achieve better grades rather than reduce the supply of teachers.
“We’re focusing on teacher quality in New Jersey. If we want a heavier academic focus, this is what we need to do.”
As far as whether the new requirement will more adversely affect the recruitment of students of color, Schechter says an informal survey conducted by the state department of education last summer showed the higher requirement cut evenly across racial lines (see chart, this page).
But closer examination shows that the affect on African Americans who get their credentials through education programs accredited by the state is nearly 10 percent higher than that for Whites. Overall, however, African Americans would fare slightly better than Whites under the new credentialing system. Simcoe believes that Rutgers’ graduates of color should not be any worse off than other students as a consequence of the change because, “Quite frankly some of our best students are students of color. So I can’t say that the so-called ‘minority’ students that we have in our program can be said to differ from any other group.”
But, as Harris points out, with so few African Americans enrolled in its education program in the first place, Rutgers isn’t exactly transforming the demographics of the state’s teaching pool.
“This is what [the hiked GPA] really means,” he says. “They ain’t getting many [Black students] now and they ain’t getting any more.”
Student Standards Change Possible
Also last month, the New Jersey state board heard a proposal to increase the minimum number of students who must pass state tests in fourth and eighth grades from 75 percent to 85 percent. The requirement would not take effect until spring 2006.
Districts that fail to meet this benchmark would receive “conditional” state certification and would have to work to improve their students’ scores, Hespe says. The board could act on the plan as early as April. High schools already have to show that 85 percent of their students can pass the 11th grade test to gain state certification. Pruitt says while all of these new standards-based initiatives have good intentions, they still don’t get to the heart of what will really transform education in the state.
“People think that if you have all these good processes somehow that translates into quality educated kids. That’s not how it works. If you have a great teacher in the classroom, you’ll have well-educated kids. But the system is not designed to attract and retain good teachers to empower them and turn them lose to do their magic. No one asks them ‘What do you need and how do we hold you accountable?’ It is easier to deal with the process issues.”
— Cheryl D. Fields contributed to this story.
Nancy Parello is an Associated Press writer
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