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Audit declares Minnesota's teacher licensure system 'broken.' But what's next?

Judy Randall and Jim Nobles
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Evaluation Manager Judy Randall and Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, both with the Office of the Legislative Auditor, present their findings and recommendations on the state's teacher licensure system at the March 4 hearing.

When Nicole Bridge applied to get her Minnesota teacher licensure in 2012, she already had more than seven years of teaching experience as a licensed middle school math teacher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Houston, Texas; and Buffalo, New York.

But her pathway to licensure in a state that boasts holding exceptionally high teacher standards — arguably, to the point of turning its nose up at many qualified out-of-state teachers to its own detriment— tested her resolve more than any of her prior transitions.

Her husband had started a new job with General Mills and she had secured a position as the middle school math coordinator with Minneapolis Public Schools, coaching math teachers while she chipped away at securing her state teaching licensure.

The process started out fairly straightforwardly, she said, noting the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) directed her to submit her transcripts, take a skills test and enroll in both a human relations course and a reading-in-the-content-areas course, providing a list of accredited universities and colleges that offered the courses.

Within two years, she had completed this checklist to the tune of about $2,000. However, one lingering grade-specific coursework requirement — which neither the MDE, the Board of Teaching nor the teacher preparation folks could spell out — placed her at the center of what she describes as an “ask mom, ask dad kind of situation.”

So she became her own advocate, digging through course catalogs and documenting email exchanges with each party to no avail.

Frustrated and anxious about a fast-approaching three-year deadline to finalize her licensure, Bridge then connected with a lawyer through MinnCAN, an education advocacy group. After she was instructed to dredge up every last education-related experience she’d ever taken part in, one professional-development certification finally surfaced and was deemed sufficient.

The system is still broken, though, she says. This became incredibly clear to her earlier this year when she received an introduction email to an out-of-state teacher from an MDE staff member who was referring this individual to Bridge for guidance.  

Personally invested in fixing the process, Bridge testified at a recent House hearing, where she was disappointed to hear the licensure entities fall back on the disclaimer that Minnesota is the gold standard of teacher preparation.  

“I’ve lived in a few places and they all say the same thing,” she said. “It feels dismissive of my experience as a teacher, coming from someplace else.

“I don’t think making an easier, streamlined process for teachers would in any way lower expectations.”

The audit

According to the findings outlined by the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor — which was tasked with investigating current teacher licensure laws and the division of responsibilities between the Board of Teaching and MDE — Bridge and her peers aren’t alone in feeling vexed by the system.

Delivering a much-needed reality check to licensure entities, last Friday the auditors presented their findings and recommendations to lawmakers.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles told lawmakers, “We join in criticizing the state’s approach to licensing teachers. We say, quite frankly, that the system is broken. But just blaming the board really misses the mark.”

Walking through a list of possible solutions, Evaluation Manager Judy Randall said the Legislature needs to add clarity to the statutes, consolidate all teacher licensure oversight to one agency — preferably the Board of Teaching — and institute a complete overhaul of the licensure system, perhaps to a tiered system.

Meanwhile, she told the MDE it should spell out applicants’ shortcomings when they’re denied licensure. And the Board of Teaching should make sure its licensure-appeal process is consistent with the law.

“We are concerned that there are two different sets of standards right now,” Randall said, noting out-of-state licensed teachers seem to be held to an ill-defined, different set of criteria. “And I think the most important thing is to level the playing field.”

Both licensing entities said they fully agreed with the findings and are already working on improvements internally.

State Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
State Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, listening to the Legislative Auditor's critique of the state's teacher licensure system.

“I think that over time we’ve put a lot of legislative Band-Aids on a lot of issues … it’s become hard to determine where the starting point is,” Erin Doan, executive director of the Board of Teaching, said at the hearing. “The board values the recommendations and feedback from the audit and will rely heavily on those recommendations.”

Calling the current roles of the MDE and the Board of Teaching “unnecessarily complex and intertwined,” Hue Nguyen, assistant commissioner for the MDE, said they support the consolidation of all teacher licensure under one entity.

Given the amenable reaction of both agencies under scrutiny, it would be easy to walk away from the hearing confident that things will start improving from here on out. But it’s not quite that simple.

Not only do lawmakers doubt they’ll make much progress on their teacher licensure to-do list during the short session, but the Board of Teaching has also proven itself defiant when it comes to following legislative direction, as related to the ongoing teacher licensure by portfolio lawsuit.

Given the high stakes — the need to address a teacher shortage in specialized subjects and in rural districts, along with the need to diversify the teacher work force as a means of solving the student achievement gap — perhaps the most pressing question remains unanswered at this point: Now what? How can we be assured that the long-overdue overhaul actually happens?

A history of paying lip service

This certainly isn’t the first time lawmakers have attempted to confront the notoriously vague hoops out-of-state teachers have had to jump through in order to prove themselves qualified to teach in Minnesota.

Back in 2011, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill into law directing the Board of Teaching to draw up a procedure for issuing Minnesota licenses to applicants who have taught elsewhere. But that law was never actually implemented.

A few years later, the Board of Teaching claimed the issue had been resolved because it had created a matrix of benchmarks an applicant could use to demonstrate their qualifications. It included experience, among other credentials. A handful of licenses were issued, former MinnPost education writer Beth Hawkins reported, but those steeped in the process were quick to report that the alleged fix didn’t actually exist, at least in any consistent, transparent manner. (For more background on the saga, see MinnPost’s Feb. 2015 update here.)

State Rep. Rick Hansen
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
State Rep. Rick Hansen, DRL-South St. Paul, asking the auditors a question during the hearing.

More recently, the Board of Teaching has been under fire for discontinuing the licensure-by-portfolio process that was adopted by the Legislature in 2008. Twenty teachers sued the Board of Teaching in Ramsey County Court, which ruled in their favor in late 2015, directing the board to reinstate the portfolio pathway to licensure.

Given the widespread criticism spurred by the court case and the bold analysis delivered by the state’s Legislative Auditor, lawmakers say the need to overhaul the teacher licensure system is a must. The timeline for doing so, however, remains unclear.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, chair of the House Education Innovation Policy Committee, said it’s unlikely lawmakers would rush to make any major changes this session.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, chair of the Audit Committee's Evaluation Subcommittee, offered a forecast that's slightly more optimistic. He predicts it won’t be an all-or-nothing approach.

“I think when the people look at the report they’ll want action,” he said. “I’m hopeful we could move forward on this, at least some of it.”

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Comments (5)

kind of sums things up

"...but the Board of Teaching has also proven itself defiant when it comes to following legislative direction, as related to the ongoing teacher licensure by portfolio lawsuit"

So when directed by the court to follow the law and re-instate the portfolio approach they appeal.

And the recommendation would be to put all responsibility under the BOT.

Not a lot to be optimistic about here.

All that glitters

…is not gold, and I'm more than a little suspicious of people with a vested interest in the current broken system touting Minnesota as the "gold standard." Anyone with a degree from an accredited college or university ought to be able to straightforwardly work toward a teaching license, no matter where they're from. Anyone with such a degree in education, and especially if they have prior experience teaching, ought to be able – without significant additional expense – to be licensed by the state if they can show (e.g., through evaluations and/or letters of recommendation from former employers) that their prior classroom experience was successful.

No one wants unskilled and/or unqualified teachers at the front of the room, especially given the yawning achievement gap(s) that currently exist in the state, and especially in the metro area, but people who've already demonstrated in other states that they're capable teachers should NOT have to jump through ANY hoops to further prove themselves in order to be licensed by Minnesota. Requiring lots of additional coursework of dubious value is a nice state-mandated subsidy for the education programs at various local and regional institutions, not to mention the retirement plans of the professors involved in those programs, but in the literature out there about maintaining high standards in Minnesota, I've yet to run across anything that shows in some meaningful way that someone like Nicole Bridge is a better teacher for having endured those courses.

It's not a problem unique to Minnesota, and plenty of states have their own version of "You have to be perfect just to get in the door here," but the Minnesota Board of Teaching seems especially obstinate, and obtuse, and for no justifiable reason. Directed by the legislature to fix things, they've used smoke and mirrors to provide the illusion of following the legislative directive without actually doing so. Among the ironies here is that it's not as if we're making it difficult for scam artists to secure a position that pays them six figures to the left of the decimal point. We're making it difficult for people who WANT to serve the public in a profession that, historically, pays dismally, and even though those same people have demonstrated their competence elsewhere, we're telling them, in effect, that they're not good enough to work here.

Lawyers who come here form another state are not required to go back to law school. They just have to pass the state's bar exam. Much the same is true for physicians. They have to show that they're competent, but we don't tell them to repeat their residency or go back to med school. Insisting that teachers must go back to school in order to meet supposedly higher standards is a nice exercise in state-based ego, but doesn't have any basis in fact, nor am I aware of any correlation with demonstrably improved classroom practice. In short, this is stupid policy.

More Provincialism

"...the MDE...should spell out applicants’ shortcomings when they’re denied licensure."

Does everyone understand this is tantamount to rejecting a student's completed term paper without any explanation?

Good Grief!!

This hits too close to home

I've followed MinnPost's licensing series with interest for years. Then the struggles of these other teachers hit home. My wife temporarily lost her job because of the MN teacher licensing system.

She taught Special Ed on variance while taking courses for SpEd certification. In May 2015, she sent in her regular, 5 year license renewal. The SpEd application packet was sent the next week. The State cashed our check a few weeks later.

The State of MN declared Special Ed as an area of critical need. We live in Greater Minnesota, my wife’s a veteran teacher with consistently ‘Exemplary’ ratings and the SpEd courses were taken at an accredited Minnesota university. Slam dunk, right? Nope.

Months went by. There's a website that Minnesota teachers have to check for updates on their license status. It was always ''pending'' or "in progress" or whatever word they use. My wife finally contacted the State and was asked two questions about documents. They were minor questions but asked too late. Students started the next week and the school had to have a licensed teacher in the classroom. The State still hadn’t renewed my wife’s regular teaching license! She was demoted to paraprofessional, losing her job and half her salary.

Only when a state legislator heard about this mess did things happen. License and certification were approved the next day, and job & salary restored.

The cherry on top? The State awarded the wrong certification on the license.

The Attnorney General should talk to the Board of Teachers

The Attorney General should have the Board of Teachers read the US Supreme Court decision FTC verses the North Caroline Board of Dental Examiners

The US Supreme Court found that any state board that is exclusively or a substantial majority of licensed professionals (licensed teachers in MN) can be sued for anti-trust violations if it unreasonable restricts licensing.

I do hope that the FTC sues the State Board of Teachers