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Dr. Robert Goodman doesn’t think the teacher shortage, especially in math and science fields, is just due to teacher salaries or burn-out or Covid. As founder and head of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning (NJCTL), he sees the dearth of teachers as a result of a calcified higher education accreditation system that functions almost like a cartel, keeping tuition high, graduation rates low, and newcomers out. In New Jersey in particular, the State Board of Education maintains archaic requirements for aspiring teachers, like passing an assessment called the Praxis Core (formerly Praxis 1) that, says Goodman, “has nothing to do with teaching and covers content most teachers will not need to know.”
In making teacher certification so onerous, we’ve become our own worst enemy.
NJCTL, then, is a model of what can happen when teaching certification programs extract themselves from Jurassic amber and create innovative strategies to prepare educators for the classroom, whether they’re previously-certified instructors who want to get an “Add-On Endorsement” in high-needs areas like chemistry, physics, biology, or math, or whether they’re new-to-the-profession candidates without the necessary credits in pedagogy.
“This is a regulatory problem that can be easily solved with the stroke of a pen, not a complex extrinsic problem like global warming, drought, or disease,” he told me. We need strict requirements that have value and correlate with something meaningful.”
Goodman, a former audio industry CEO and physics teacher, was one of five founding board members of NJCTL in 2007. NJCTL began producing new physics teachers in 2009, chemistry teachers in 2010, and now produces teachers in biology and mathematics as well. They did that by teaching current teachers the new subject and how to teach it. This work became 100% online and asynchronous in 2017. In 2022, the DOE authorized NJCTL to begin operating alternate route programs in these subjects to anyone with a bachelor’s degree in any subject, with any GPA.
In 2020, 11 years after NJCTL began preparing teachers to teach physics, Goodman’s Center was finally licensed as an Institution of Higher Education by the NJ Office of the Secretary of Higher Education. Yet it still waits for accreditation, even though last year NJCTL was the second-highest creator of physics teachers nationwide.
In this way, NJCTL demonstrates everything that’s wrong with our system of expanding successful teacher preparation programs (still not accredited after a decade of leading the country in producing physics teachers) and everything that needs to be done to make teaching affordable and accessible for aspiring teachers.
In addition, Goodman thinks the idea of teaching as a thankless, onerous task is overblown. Certainly it’s challenging work, nothing you’d take on if you didn’t love children or you were in it for the money. Yet, according to GettheFactsOut.org, which seeks to “change the conversation” about STEM teacher recruitment, U.S. teachers “rate their lives better than all other occupation groups, trailing only physicians.”
It’s getting into the classroom that’s the burden, not the job itself.
In response, NJCTL has created virtual classes that students can complete at their own pace through a “learner-directed process” that provides immediate feedback and support. Current teachers can earn an additional endorsement in STEM fields; a new Alternate Route program creates new science and math teachers from people with bachelor’s degrees but without teacher preparation credits. A partnership with Trio New College Network provides paraprofessionals and others who lack college degrees with the support they need to earn bachelor’s degrees, and then they finish their teacher training through NJCTL. Camden Education Fund supports Camden teachers throughout both processes.
What makes NJCTL so different then, say, getting your teacher certification at Montclair State? For one thing, it’s not part of the inner circle that controls accreditation systems in higher education and collectively raises tuition to astronomical levels. “It’s like an old boys’ network,” Goodman says, “and they approve each other as long as they don’t go bankrupt. No one ever loses accreditation for low graduation rates or high costs and they don’t accredit anyone else because they don’t want the competition.” In testimony before the State Board of Education, he explained, “this lack of competition and innovation is at the core of the challenges facing US education” and in an op-ed he wrote, “rapidly rising costs and declining effectiveness have contributed to both student debt and the current teacher shortage.”
Here’s another benefit of declining to participate in the monopolistic cartel: NJCTL is affordable. While the cost of a four-year college degree varies from $100,000 to $230,000 (that’s if you finish in four years, which only 39.8% of bachelor’s degree-seeking students do) and the cost of a master’s (which most teachers have) is between $30,000 and $120,000, NJCTL charges $540 a course, which means you can get your master’s for under $6,900—and do it while you work days.
How is this possible? Goodman: “We don’t hire a $7 million football coach. We don’t have a climbing wall or athletic teams. We’re completely egalitarian. We even offer all our on-line materials for free to any comers.”
But what about all the requirements set by state departments of education? For instance, in New Jersey teacher candidates have to have a 3.0 GPA to get a license, plus pass the Praxis Core and the Praxis subject-specific tests. (Earlier this year Gov. Murphy eliminated a widely-despised test called the EdTPA.)
Goodman believes the Praxis subject-specific tests—for instance, biology teachers must demonstrate mastery of biology—are very good and necessary. (NJCTL offers Praxis prep courses and 90% of its graduates pass the Praxis.) But the State Education Department’s requirement that all prospective teachers have a 3.0 GPA in college (although you can get by with a 2.75 if you ace the Praxis)? “I think that’s bogus,” he says, merely serving to bar future teachers with enormous potential from the classroom. “It’s like if you had a 2.9 [GPA],” he exclaims, “you’re as prevented from becoming a teacher as if you committed a felony.” He adds, “people should get another shot. Just because they had a tough year, or took on a tough major in a competitive college, and got a 2.97 cumulative GPA doesn’t mean they’re not qualified to ever be a teacher.”
“I like useful tests more than seat time,” he says. Dan Weisberg, former CEO of TNTP agrees. “Most research has found that standardized tests are weak predictors of a teacher’s ability to help students learn…let’s stop relying solely on standardized tests, and start focusing certification rules on actual teaching ability.”
Meanwhile, Goodman urges the NJ Education Department to embrace Alternative Route programs like NJCTL’s as the most effective strategy to address the teacher shortage. For his brand-new program, intended for those without previous teacher certification, seventeen aspiring teachers have enrolled. Of NJCTL’s alumni, more than 90% said in anonymous surveys they would recommend the course or program they just completed to another teacher.
There has been a library written over the last few years about the teacher shortage (which, by the way, predates Covid-19), especially in STEM fields. For Goodman, it’s time to leave our antiquated certification and accreditation processes in the rear-view mirror and focus on programs that remove obstacles to the teacher pipeline so teachers can teach and students can learn.