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Legislative group adopts framework to fix teacher-licensure system

Details remain open for debate; the parameters adopted on Tuesday will guide discussion during the 2017 legislative session.

Members of the Legislative Study Group on Educator Licensure — including Rep. Jenifer Loon, left, and co-chairs Rep. Sondra Erickson and Sen. Chuck Wiger, right — adopted a five-part framework for fixing Minnesota's teacher licensure system at their final meeting on Tuesday.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Despite failed negotiation attempts last Friday to hold a special session before 2016 wraps up, Minnesota lawmakers were able to move at least one bipartisan issue forward this week: the need to fix the state’s broken teacher-licensure system.

In response to a highly critical legislative audit report on the state’s teacher-licensure system that was published in March, a small group of legislators convened six times after session had ended to explore possible paths forward. As suggested in the report, those serving on the Legislative Study Group on Educator Licensure sought to tackle how two significant changes — both a new governance structure and a tiered licensure system — might look.

At their final meeting on Tuesday they adopted a five-part framework, setting parameters that will guide discussion during the 2017 legislative session. The conversation is bound to hit some speedbumps once legislators start introducing bills that spell out the specifics, like which agency all teacher-licensure tasks should be consolidated under and what requirements are listed under each level of licensure.

“We didn’t need to get into protracted debate [since] this will all be in real time, in committee soon,” Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, co-chair of the study group, said in an interview after the meeting. “You’ll see, probably the first week, bills [being introduced] that will have more specificity.”

Hitting a breaking point

It’s difficult to pinpoint where the dysfunction of the current system stems from, but the legislative audit made a few things clear. One is that no single entity currently tied to the teacher-licensure process — neither the state Legislature, the state Board of Teaching nor the state Department of Education — is solely to blame.

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In Minnesota, teacher licensure is a shared task that has suffered the consequences of blurred lines of responsibility and accountability. In general, the Department of Education is responsible for reviewing license applications, making licensure decisions and issuing teaching licenses. The Board of Teaching is responsible for establishing the requirements for teacher licensure. Things are further complicated by the fact that state legislators began tinkering with state teacher-licensure laws back in 2011, rather than re-evaluating the system as a whole.

Longstanding issues with the state’s teacher licensure system have been amplified in recent years as both the need to address the state’s teacher shortage and the need to address the lack of diversity in its teacher workforce worked their way to the forefront of the education agenda. As reported by the Department of Education in 2015, schools are struggling to hire licensed teachers in 11 areas, including math, physics, English as a second language and a number of special education positions. But hiring more teachers is not enough. Schools are also looking to be more intentional about hiring teachers of color to teach an increasingly diverse student population as one means of closing the student achievement gap.

Board of Teaching under fire

When Erin Doan became executive director of the Board of Teaching in the summer of 2014, she inherited a board that had become increasingly fractured due to more than a decade of turnover in leadership, a lack of appropriate funding and inadequate staffing levels.

Operational limitations aside, the Board of Teaching had begun to develop a bad reputation for itself by skirting around calls to better respond to out-of-state teacher licensure requests. 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 essentially mute from the get go.

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. In 2015, a group of teachers sued the Board of Teaching in Ramsey County Court, which ruled in their favor, directing the board to reinstate the portfolio pathway to licensure.

At this point, the state auditors cautioned, finger pointing isn’t going to resolve anything. In order to ensure that all students have access to qualified teachers, all three entities will need to find a way to move forward, respectfully and collaboratively.

“No one’s the villain here,” Judy Randall, deputy legislative auditor, told MinnPost between hearings last March. “There’s been a lot of finger pointing for a lot of years. It’s created a lot of distrust in all directions. I think what would be really great is if we could say, ‘Here is where we are. How do we move forward?’ ”

That work seems to have begun, in earnest — starting with the acknowledgements by Doan and her counterpart at the Department of Education that change needs to happen. 

‘One-stop shop’

One of the first orders of business, once session begins, will be hammering out which single entity will be responsible for overseeing all teacher licensure activities. As stated in the top motion adopted by the legislative work group on Tuesday, there’s widespread agreement that all licensure duties need to be consolidated into a “one-stop shop” that will be held fully responsible for “determining eligibility, processing applications, and issuing/revoking licenses.” Furthermore, since this entity will be in charge of all communications with candidates, it must “explicitly state requirements for [licensure] completion,” particularly when issuing denial letters.

A second motion stated the study group’s preference for leaving the Board of School Administrators as is, keeping it separate from the issue of teacher licensure. In exploring alternative governance structures, some lawmakers had introduced the possibility of bringing this board into the mix. But that possibility has been shelved, at least for the time being.

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Based on a number of proposals that have already been submitted, lawmakers will be wrangling over three possible scenarios. The Senate DFL plan recommends consolidating everything under a Minnesota Professional Educator Standards Board, composed of 13 members who would be appointed by the governor, with advice and consent from the Senate.

The Senate GOP proposal suggests things be consolidated under the Board of Teaching. It envisions a smaller board that’s only nine members strong, all of whom are appointed by key organizations like Education Minnesota and the various principal associations, rather than the governor. Also worth noting, the GOP proposes that the board be held accountable by a joint commission of the legislature.

The House GOP plan — which is widely supported by education reform advocates — suggests all licensure responsibilities be consolidated under the state Department of Education, with the Board of Teaching focusing solely on reviewing matters of professional misconduct and discipline.

Creating a roadmap

In the interest of adding clarity around teacher licensure statutes and rules, the study group approved a motion to enlist the help of the Office of the Revisor of Statutes to clean up confusing language. As highlighted by the audit report, undefined terms have left current laws open to interpretation — which has contributed to the current state of dysfunction.

The bulk of the work lawmakers have to sort through during session, however, involves figuring out how the new tiered licensure framework should look — everything from how many tiers of licensure it should have to what criteria should be included in each level of licensure. As stated in the motion, this new framework should ensure “high standards, understandability, consistency, transparency” and “identify several accessible and affordable pathways for candidates at various stages of education and careers.”

As lawmakers look to construct a streamlined roadmap toward licensure that applicants, educators and employers can easily reference, Josh Crosson, an education advocate with Ed Allies, cautions against the compulsion to add new requirements.  

“What we need to resist is creating onerous requirements,” he said, pointing out newly proposed criteria like completion of an undefined teacher mentorship or cohort program.

Likewise, Education Minnesota has raised issue with any proposed criteria linking “master teacher” licensure with teacher development and evaluation.

Creative problem solving

While points of contention are sure to crop up along the way, this dialogue has also opened up some new, promising possibilities. For instance, the study group made a commitment to bringing career and technical education instructors into the fold. The tiered licensure framework will include “recognition of industry-related professional credentials and verifiable work experience.”

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Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, has been a leader on this front. While there’s a real need to fill jobs in the trades, like welding and construction, fewer students are enrolling in the elective courses that teach these skills, he said. As a result, teacher prep programs are turning out fewer teachers focused on the trades.

Regardless of the competing  bills that will likely be introduced in the first few weeks of session, Clausen remains hopeful that fixing the teacher-licensure system is at least one bipartisan issue lawmakers can address. 

Reflecting on the momentum generated by the study group, he said, “It’s led to a better understanding of the whole licensure process [that will be] helpful as we dive deeper and come up with some recommendations.”