Last week a brave staff member at the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) allowed me to publish his commentary on the New Jersey Center of Teaching and Learning (NJCTL), an alternate-route program that certifies teachers in hard-to-fill STEM positions, especially high school physics. This DOE employee criticized NJCTL’s “unorthodox, non-classroom-based structure” and its lack of compliance with DOE regulations.
Since then several sources from within the DOE have come forward to shed more light on what is happening in the unit called Recruitment, Preparation and Induction (RPI). There, a small group of staff members (“phenomenal leaders” left over from former Commissioner Lamont Repollet’s purge) are charged with overseeing 600 teacher preparation programs. While RPI typically pulls out all the stops to help programs comply with regulations, one, NJCTL, is an “outlier”: the message to RPI staffers–straight from the Governor’s Office– is “hands-off this program.” The result (says one source) is “the DOE has created an allowance that enables districts to hire teachers [specifically in physics and higher-level math] who lack course content knowledge.” But “districts don’t know” and so the teachers are hired and students, particularly those in low-income schools that struggle most to fill these positions, are the primary victims.
Why is this happening?
As in so many instances over the last three years, problems with the DOE inevitably lead back Gov. Phil Murphy and his close ties with NJEA leaders. Remember, his Deputy Chief of Staff is an NJEA lobbyist and his deference to union officers is well-documented. Yet this particular story places the Governor’s Office front and center in its efforts to placate NJEA leaders at the expense of students and families.
Let’s dig deeper.
It’s no secret that high school STEM teachers are in short supply, particularly physics teachers. This matters: the Hechinger Report calls high school physics a “building block for a range of STEM disciplines…taking the course in high school is strongly correlated with getting a [college] degree in a STEM field,” which leads to higher salaries and “overall job growth.”
So, on the surface, a program to fast-track physics teachers seems like a great idea. NJCTL’s homepage promises aspiring STEM teachers they’ll qualify to teach science or math “next fall” at “¼ the price.” If you’re a teacher “in any subject area or grade level — no prior mathematics or science background required” — you pay just $4,800 for a physics certification, all courses online, and wait for the offers to come flying in.
Plus, 20% off if you’re an NJEA member!
That’s because the New Jersey Center of Teaching and Learning is part of NJEA. In fact, it was created in 2007 by Joyce Powell, then president of NJEA, and operates as a 501(c)3, a non-profit arm of the union. Its IRS filings read like a ”who’s who” of the union: the Board of Trustees includes former presidents and executive directors Powell, Barbara Keshishian, Marie Blistan, Ed Richardson, and Vince Giordano. NJCTL describes itself as “an organization that normally receives a substantial part of its support from a governmental unit or from the general public.” (Your taxes at work, folks!) Its purpose is to take teachers certified in non-STEM subjects and give them the training necessary to pass a qualifying assessment like the physics Praxis test, which assures school leaders that prospective teachers have mastered the content knowledge necessary to effectively instruct students. Bob Goodman, who designed the curriculum, says, “a significant problem has always been that there are not enough physics teachers, but in New Jersey that’s not a problem anymore. If districts work with us, they can have as many physics teachers as they want.”
One problem remains: NJCTL is out of compliance with state regulations and the Governor’s Office, say sources, is responsible. RPI staffers have been blocked from overseeing this one specific program. The program, they were told, was “untouchable.”
Let’s back up. In order to get the credentials to teach in a NJ school district you have to get one of four certifications. Most teachers get a “Certificate of Eligibility with Advanced Standing,” which means they have completed all their requirements, including a test that assesses their content knowledge in the subject they’re certified to teach. Another category is a “Certificate of Eligibility (CE),” mostly intended for subject areas that are hard to fill, like physics and chemistry. The DOE defines a CE as “a credential with lifetime validity issued to an individual who has NOT completed a teacher preparation program, but who has met the basic requirements for certification including academic study and applicable test requirements. The CE authorizes an individual to seek and accept employment in NJ public schools requiring certification.”
Yet there are still requirements for obtaining a CE. According to regulations N.J.A.C. 6A:9A, “candidates for CE educator preparation programs for documented teacher shortage areas approved pursuant to this section shall complete the content-based subject test but may not complete all course requirements for an endorsement in a shortage area.” The “content-based subject test” is called the Praxis, which ETS says “measure[s] the knowledge and skills you need to prepare for the classroom.”
Staffers from the RPI unit were diligently working to help NJCTL comply with this last piece.
They were almost there.
Until they were told to stop.
Those orders, two sources confirmed, came straight from the Governor’s Office. Meanwhile, people who complete NJCTL’s program (30 credits, although they can start teaching in their new subject area after finishing 12 credits) are getting hired by districts regardless of their ability to pass the Praxis test.
The primary victims, of course, are high school students, especially those in low-income districts, who want to take the Hechinger Report’s advice and have a solid grounding in physics before they start college. At Newark’s Malcolm Shabazz High School, 15 students took the AP physics class in 2018; not a single student passed the exam. At Trenton High School not a single student scored above a “Level 1” in science, which means “Did Not Meet Expectations.” At Camden High School, the whole science section of the School Performance Report is marked with an asterisk because so few students demonstrated proficiency. (There, the only AP course offered is U.S. History: 11 students took the course and none passed the exam.)
Concurrently, NJCTL boasts that in 2015 it provided physics endorsements to “11 current Trenton Public School teachers so that they could teach mathematically rigorous physics to about 600 students” and “6 current Camden Public School teachers [who are] training/supporting 7 other science teaches so that, together, they will teach mathematically rigorous physics to all Camden 9th graders, more than 1000 students.”
Yet one DOE staffer told me NJCTL is “putting people in Abbott/SDA districts before they’ve even taken their physics Praxis test.” Typically, these teachers wash out quickly; a “significant” number of new NJCTL-certified teachers “only teach for one year.”
Yesterday I filed an Open Public Records Act request with the DOE, asking about the status of teachers enrolled in NJCTL over the past 3-5 years who are still teaching physics and/or math and what districts they are currently in. To be continued.