During the final weeks of the legislative session, Gov. Tim Pawlenty told legislators that they needed to approve the creation of alternative routes to teacher licensure and make other changes in state law in order for Minnesota to apply for the second round of the federal Race to the Top grants, which could generate as much as $175 million for education reform in our state over the next three years. Because the session has ended without those laws in place, many have assumed that the clock has run out and that Minnesota has no chance to submit a successful proposal by the June 1 deadline.
While it is true that Minnesota’s application won’t automatically receive the points that passing the laws would have earned, we believe that if the governor, legislators, teacher union leaders and other key stakeholders commit in the application to work together to pass those laws in the years ahead, Minnesota’s proposal could still be competitive. Given the dire financial outlook facing Minnesota schools, it would be insanity not to try.
But we shouldn’t commit to reforming teacher licensure just to get the money. We should do so because our current system is poorly structured to recognize, support and insist upon teaching excellence — not just in how it treats new teachers but in how it treats all teachers over course of their entire careers.
In a New Yorker article two years ago, the writer Malcolm Gladwell used a comparison between public education and professional football to illustrate the core problem with our current system. After examining data on the results achieved by both teachers and quarterbacks, Gladwell concluded that the challenge of deciding which participants in teacher preparation programs will go on to become highly effective instructors is similar to the challenge of deciding which college quarterbacks will go on to star in the NFL. He wrote that in both fields “almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired.” Some novices who look great on paper go on to mediocre careers while others who seem average go on to become superstars.
Increase selectivity after first three years
It is for that reason that we believe Minnesota should use both traditional and alternative routes to bring as many talented people as possible into the classroom, but should also be much more selective about who gets to remain there after the first three years.
At present, license renewal in Minnesota does almost nothing to differentiate between teachers who have been effective and those who have not. Instead, renewal is based upon spending 125 “clock hours” attending classes, participating in workshops and performing other professional activities. This “seat time” standard requires no evidence of quality teaching or student learning. It is a standard set so low that anyone can achieve it.
And so what would we propose instead? In our view, Minnesota should move toward a multitiered licensure system in which new teachers hold an initial license for three years, a period that is long enough to provide them with meaningful observation, mentoring and support and to assess their capacity to help students meet learning goals.
At the conclusion of the initial licensure period, teachers would need to earn a professional license in order to remain in the classroom. A teacher’s ability to earn that license would be based upon evaluations of classroom practice, evidence of sufficient growth in student achievement, and participation in high-quality professional development programs. Teachers would need to renew professional licenses every five years based upon the same criteria, and educators who demonstrate extraordinary success should have the opportunity to earn a master license that carries with it additional compensation and responsibility.
The issue of measurement
All of this raises two critical questions: Exactly what measures will we use to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness, and who will decide if that teacher has met the standards for earning or renewing a license?
Our short and honest answer to those two questions is: We don’t know — yet. But developing good answers to difficult questions like those is precisely the type of work that Minnesota could and should undertake with funding from Race to the Top. The grant would enable our state to conduct a research-based and highly inclusive process through which we could examine national and international best practices in promoting teaching excellence, and then pilot one or more of those approaches here at home.
It is with that goal in mind that we hope — to draw one more comparison between football and education — that a Hail Mary pass will still be thrown that enables our leaders to agree upon a proposal that puts Minnesota back on the field and in competition for the Race to the Top.
Ian Keith is a classroom teacher in St. Paul and former president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. Kent Pekel is the executive director of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota and a former administrator in the St. Paul Public Schools.