Students at Sgt. Cornell Young, Jr., and Charlotte Woods Elementary School gathered in Providence to hear state officials announce the results of the 2023 SurveyWorks distributed to parents, teachers, administrators, and students across the state. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — Legislation looking to increase the number of teachers of color in Rhode Island passed the House of Representatives Tuesday night.
The legislation, H5421, introduced by Rep. Joshua Giraldo, a Central Falls Democrat, would commission the Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner and the University of Rhode Island to submit a report by Jan. 1, 2024, on how best to recruit teachers of color into Rhode Island schools.
Giraldo said the purpose of the bill is to lay the groundwork to hire and retain more diverse teachers and improve the outcomes of students of color.
The legislation now goes to the Senate for consideration. A spokesman for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said there is no Senate companion bill and declined to comment on the legislation.
Another bill, H6125, introduced by Providence Democratic Rep. David Morales, would take more immediate action. If approved, the legislation would appropriate $750,000 in three equal payments over three fiscal years to the Rhode Island School for Progressive Education, a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting diverse teachers. The bill was held for further study after an April 20 hearing before the House Finance Committee.
“We’ve been looking at this issue for some time and trying to identify not only how to recruit teachers of color, but more importantly, how to retain them,” Danielle Dennis, dean of the Feinstein College of Education and Professional Studies at the University of Rhode Island, said in an interview.
“This report is a great next step from a policy perspective. If we’re tasked to do this we can start to look at what resources and structures are necessary to recruit teachers of color.”
But Dennis said she is cautious about moving too quickly regarding funding and felt the study should happen first.
“Since H5421 recently passed, it seems this report should be presented prior to the state investing significant funds in RISPE,” she said.
A 2022 report from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a nonpartisan fiscal advocacy organization, documents how pervasive the underrepresentation of teachers of color is in public school classrooms. Almost 81% of new teachers recruited in Rhode Island between 2018 and 2021 were white, while about 52% of students were white.
Almost 29% of the Rhode Island student population identified as Latino but a little more than 5% of new teachers certified between 2018 and 2021 identified as Latino. Close to 9% of Rhode Island students identified as Black, but only 1.6% of newly certified teachers were.
Students being able to see a teacher who looks like them is critically important to their education, said Jeannine Dingus-Eason, dean of the Feinstein School for Education and Human Development at Rhode Island College, said.
“There are fundamental academic and social gains when children have a teacher of color,” Dingus-Eason said. “If you have a teacher of color by the time you’re in the third or fifth grade, you’re more likely to go to college.
“Those outcomes are definitely felt for students of color in particular,” she continued. “That’s why it’s so critical that we have this legislation and make an effort.”
A 2017 report from the Center for American Progress, said that teachers of color also looked more positively on students of color, leading to the mitigation of some disciplinary and educational disparities, such as higher suspension rates.
Barriers include high housing costs
Dingus-Eason said that, historically, policies have excluded teachers of color from entering the training pipeline nationally, and Rhode Island is no exception.
“The use of SAT scores has, in some ways, decimated the teacher of color pipeline in this state,” she said. “There’s zero correlation between that instrument and classroom performance.”
The Rhode Island Department of Education used to require potential teachers to score a 1070 or greater on the SAT. The department lowered the threshold to 1010 in Feb. 2021.
The test has historically been used as an exclusionary tool and impediment to people of color from entering the teacher workforce.
Dingus-Eason said the state’s housing crisis is a major impediment, with some of the fastest growing rents in the country making it unaffordable for many new teachers to live here on the average $45,000 annual starting salary.
“Teaching was, at one point in time, your ticket to the middle class,” she said. “I think it’s playing a role in suppressing the number of new teachers across the board.
“Our young people are pretty savvy,” she continued. “They do the math and they’re very aware of the salaries across different professions.”
Even so, Dingus-Eason said the move was a good first step in determining next moves.
“It’s important to me that people understand what undergirds this imperative,” she said. “My hope is that people are connecting the dots as to why this is so important.
“We’re talking about the future of the state here.”
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