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Lawmakers fine-tune proposed overhaul of teacher licensing in Minnesota

Members of the Legislative Study Group on Educator Licensure
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
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 — shown in a December 2016 photo.

Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, remembers how difficult it was for his mother — who already had 14 years of teaching experience — to get a teaching license when his family moved to Minnesota when he was a teenager.

She eventually navigated her way through the administrative jungle and ended up finishing out another 25 years as a sixth-grade teacher in Shakopee. But the ordeal left an impression on Pratt, who now chairs the Senate E-12 Policy Committee. He’s been sharing this anecdote with his colleagues at the Capitol to illustrate the longstanding need to streamline the state’s teacher licensure system.

“As we’re facing some teacher shortages, we’re making it very, very difficult for qualified people to come into the state,” he said of those who’ve received licensure in another state.

He’s hardly alone in issuing this call to action. The need to fix the teacher licensure system rose to the top of the legislative agenda last year after a state legislative audit declared the system was, indeed, “broken.”

According to the audit, the licensure statutes had become riddled with “undefined and unclear terms” and the involvement of two different entities in the licensing process — both the state Board of Teaching and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) — had resulted in blurred lines of responsibility and a lack of transparency, especially for those denied licensure. This made it difficult not only for out-of-state teachers to pursue a Minnesota teaching license, but also for those looking to enter the teaching profession through a nontraditional route.

Concurrently, education officials and advocates had begun sounding the alarm on two issues with the teacher supply: a lack of racial diversity, coupled with a lack of specialists in some key areas, including math, physics, English as a second language, and special education. The shortages had become particularly acute in rural areas. And the lack of teachers of color became a topic of concern in the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs, where an increasingly diverse student body stands to benefit from having more teachers they can relate to based on their shared experiences with race and culture.

Spurred by the legislative audit, which laid out just how dysfunctional the state’s teacher licensure system had become, a legislative workgroup convened over the summer and fall to further explore recommendations included in the audit. During session this year, both the House and the Senate put forth proposals that would change the governance structure of the state’s teacher licensure system, along with the way qualifications are laid out for those seeking licensure. In both instances, the new structure may also open doors for more alternative and nonconventional teacher-prep programs to develop across the state.

“I think there is a need for more alternative pathways. What this does is it removes the barriers,” Pratt said. “Now that we’ve created a path to success, I hope it allows us to develop new, innovative programs.”

Key elements of the overhaul

One version, sponsored by Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, chair of the House Education Innovation Policy committee, cleared the House Monday with a 76-55 vote.

Pratt says he’s looking to soon bring the Senate version for consideration as its own separate bill, since it’s been a true bipartisan effort.

“Putting it together, I’ve worked closely with Sen. Greg Clausen. With me being a former school board member and Greg being a former principal, I think we were able to really get past some of the partisan blocks and really work more as a school board member and principal than as a Republican and a Democrat,” he said. “And in all honesty, licensing teachers shouldn’t be a political fight.”

State Sen. Eric Pratt
State Sen. Eric Pratt

So what, exactly, can teachers expect to see signed into law? Well, the key components of the Senate and House bills are the same. But a side-by-side comparison shows that a number of differences still need to be ironed out.

First, there’s the governance overhaul. The Board of Teaching and MDE will no longer be in charge of jointly issuing teacher licenses. Rather, the Board of Teaching will be replaced by a new Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, which will carry out these duties independently. The House version maintains an 11-member licensing board, while the Senate version would only have nine members serving on the new board.  

Another major deviation from the current licensing system is the way in which the to-do list for those seeking licensure is structured. Gone are the days of districts hiring unlicensed “community experts” to work in hard-to-fill positions. The new tiered system groups credentials into four different buckets, each assigned a duration and, in some cases, a renewal cap. The specifics, again, vary between the two versions working their way through the Legislature.

Tier 1 is the least rigorous. Looking to address the career and technical education teacher shortage, it caters to individuals who may have the skills, knowledge and work experience needed to successfully teach classes like auto mechanics and welding but aren’t necessarily interested in going back to school to get a full-fledged teacher license.

Tiers 2 and 3 lay out a menu of credentialing options, making it more accessible to a wider swath of applicants — some of whom may be working toward completion of a teacher-prep program.

Tier 4 is the highest designation. It’s issued for a five-year period and requires that a candidate have at least three years of teaching experience — specified as “in Minnesota” in the House version — among other qualifications.

Apart from the different menu of credentialing options each bill lays out, Erickson says the main difference between the two comes down to readability.

“Over the years, we had absolutely littered the statutes … it was nothing but a maze to try to find your way through,” she said, noting the Senate version entailed rewriting unclear language, reordering statutes and trimming down lengthy paragraphs. “It was one of the criticisms and a recommendation, that we clean it up.”

Alternative teacher-prep programs

The new tiered teacher licensure system signals a shift in the way lawmakers are thinking about the teaching profession. While there's been a history of DFL and union oppostion to nontraditional programs like Teach for America (TFA), the need to support alternative pathways to teaching seems to be drawing strong bipartisan support. 

Daniel Sellers
Daniel Sellers

Daniel Sellers, former executive director of TFA in the Twin Cities and current executive director of the education reform group Ed Allies, says that because of the renewed energy behind supporting alternative pathways to teaching that was generated by the teacher licensure overhaul, the timing seems right for true alternative teacher-prep programs to start cropping up across the state.

“Even five, six year ago, I think [state legislators] would have said a Minnesota teaching license is granted by an institute of higher education. It’s like the gold standard, and that’s what tells us you’re a good teacher,” he said. “ I think there’s this general sense that higher ed should no longer be the gatekeeper, the only way into a classroom. There’s an appetite for other creative ways to license teachers.”

TFA had sought to become an alternative teacher-prep program in 2012 — after the status was adopted into state statute in 2011 — but ended up partnering with Hamine Univeristy and then the University of Minnesota to create an experimental “nonconventional” program instead. (This past fall, the University of Minnesota announced it was ending its partnership with TFA, which was no longer financially sustainable for the university.) 

Under the new tiered licensure system, Sellers explained, the next cohort of TFA participants would likely be considered tier 1 teachers, filling high-needs positions in hard-to-staff areas. He’s advocating for some statutory changes, along with a million dollars in start up funding, that would help TFA make the leap to becoming a true alternative teacher-prep program. If that were to materialize, TFA participants would enter the licensure system at tier 2, on track to simultaneously complete that prep program. And they’d aim to finish the program with a tier 3 professional license.

Right now, he says, the approval process for an alternative teacher-prep program is too cumbersome and prescriptive. In fact, no program has actually applied for and been granted status as a true alternative teacher-prep program. But if the million-dollar appropriation comes through this year, he’s confident TFA and at least one other applicant — the Lakes Country Service Cooperative — would pave the way for future nonprofits, districts or charter schools to become alternative teacher-prep program providers as well.

Troy Haugen, career and technical education coordinator at Lakes Country Service Cooperative — which acts as an education resource hub for nine counties in west central Minnesota — knows just how burdensome it currently is to become an alternative teacher-prep program.

He started the application process with the Board of Teaching in August and sees the need to address conflicting language that currently exists in statute that’s “still geared towards institutions of higher education,” he says, noting it still refers to things like graduation and credits.

The agency he works for is looking to provide professional development in a way that’s much more flexible to help get nontraditional students into classrooms in outstate Minnesota, where the demand is outpacing the supply in certain areas.

“Not only am I going to be able to do this in a different setting — more of a modular setting, versus a credit-based setting — but I can also do it at a significantly reduced cost,” he said. “We certainly have the capacity to provide the programs, because that’s what we do already. We provide professional development as a large part of our mission.”

But unless the statute regarding alternative teacher-prep programs gets cleaned up, he’s doubtful many others will follow suit.

“It’s expanding my own personal capacity almost beyond what I can do,” he said of the application process. “We have to find a way to make it work, and that’s probably a combination of financial capacity and making the process a more simple process that really does consider alternative teacher prep versus fitting alternative teacher prep into the square peg of an institution of higher education.”

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Comments (15)

Need Higher Ed for the best Teacher Ed

It is a dangerous and erroneous statement to say that people generally think that higher ed should not be the gate keeper for educating teachers. TFA was a much stronger program when it partnered with the University of Minnesota which offered solid coursework and excellent mentoring and supervision. Who will teach teachers if not a college or a university? We know from years of experience that the best teachers come from the best educational programs.

Would anyone want to have a doctor or a nurse who is taught by an alternative education program? Why would we trust any organization that is asking for $1 million to reinvent teacher education? The Legislature would be smarter to invest in scholarship support for students who attend teacher preparation programs that are highly rated or loan forgiveness for teachers who will teach in rural areas, for example.

spoken like an MEA Officer

A person doesn't have to attend college to become an RN. So many people use nurses that didn't get a Ba in nursing.

What statistics do you have that only teachers from Harvard & Ivy league schools are the best teachers and that teachers from the U of MN cannot compete with them?

Some alternates are obvious

To answer your question, I would have no problem going to a doctor or nurse who was educated in a state other than Minnesota and passed their exams in a state other than Minnesota. In fact I'm sure I have seen many doctors and nurses educated in other states with no ill effects.

https://mn.gov/boards/medical-practice/licensees/licensure/

Medical licensing in Minnesota has clear credentialing standards for accepting medical credentials obtained in other states. Why doesn't the board of teaching accept credentials from other states if the medical licensing board can? Why does a teacher with 10 years experience teaching in another state have to repeat their undergraduate classes and "student" teaching in Minnesota before becoming licensed here?

Here is a list of approved teacher preparation programs. Note that UW Madison isn't on the list nor is any other university from another state but tiny North Central University is okay.

https://mn.gov/board-of-teaching/beaneducator/preparation/state-approved-teacher-preparation-programs-(by-institution).jsp

This is a corrupt process. The Board of Teaching is made up of members from colleges in Minnesota and they require teacher preparation to be completed ONLY in this state to force people to take classes from their colleges. They are protecting their revenue stream, not Minnesota students.

On point !! It's about the money !!

Thank you !!

Teacher Quality

What evidence is there that our existing universities turn out outstanding teachers? How does that explain the graduation rates in Mpls and St. Paul, who I am sure are fully staffed with teachers who have gone thru the traditional program.

A number of years ago, our son was going to Central High School in St. Paul and for a full year and had a German teacher, who basically could not speak conversational German. I'd much rather have had a native speaker with 0 educational background than that fiasco.

Teaching License

One should not have to student teach again for every license area that they wish to attain.

A slippery slope

Easing teacher licensure is not the path to reducing the teacher shortage. It only leads to a teaching force that is less than competent. Requiring teachers to have a four degree and complete an experience via practice teaching or some other approved method doesn't guarantee competence or quality as implied in the article but it is a way to make sure there is a basic knowledge level of a prospective teacher. During the probationary period (which is three years in Minnnesota) where a beginning teacher has support from a peer, is the time to determine if a prospective teacher should be licensed. In a period where there is shortage of doctors in rural areas do we lower the licensing requirements for doctors? It think not, so why should we do the same when young lives are at stake?

Notably absent

…from this whole process, it appears, is a credible voice for those already in the profession. That is, how much input did actual teachers have in developing new procedures for licensing teachers? I should add that the tone of the quotations from various authorities that I read in the article suggests that teaching in Minnesota is some sort of educational Nirvana, and therefore becoming a teacher in Minnesota needs to be made more rigorous and difficult than in other states because "We're the best." Allow me to be just a bit skeptical.

What is the goal?

What I read is a lot of process and rules without a sense of doing the reform. Let me lay out how a more goal driven approach might be done.

1. We need to provide enough high quality teachers to cover the student population of tomorrow, with attention to their democraphics, family situations and ability to fill need roles in societies as workers and citizens.

2. This requires making a set of assumptions about the future. What subject areas will need more or fewer teachers? How teacher diversity match students diversity? How many replacement teachers will be needed?

3. Many of Minnesota's best students leave the state for higher education, with a significant number wanting to return later? Is there any reason to make it more difficult for students who received training elsewhere to face extra hurdles for teaching here? If the state has a basis for not taking graduates of from a specific low quality program, it can do so. For example, Minnesota has no traditionally black universities. To increase teacher diversity here, they are a reasonable place to recruit teachers. To not give their graduates to equal access to working in our schools is racially discriminated. The same could be said for Native Americans, Hispanics and other racial minorities.

My son started as TFA teacher, graduating from Macalester with a 3.8. He has a master's and ten years teaching experience under his belt, working in tough urban schools. It would be silly to question his ability to teach here. His wife has a similar teaching background, but passed the national certification exam, something rare for teachers. If they wanted to teach here, why would it be denied.

That is one track and the only obvious reasons for keeping these teachers out it to give Minnesota teaching programs a monopoly. Minnesota programs will always produce the most teachers.

I think that use of subject matter teachers with no teacher prep is more challenging. For them, a condensed course on teaching philsophies and methods is needed, with the ability to test out if requirements based on knowledge. Do a protest and identify deficiency areas. And do this only when there is a statistically defined teacher shortage. Give these 2-3 years to get caught up and if their skills match expectations, give them teacher status.

What makes me nervous is tiers? Tiers are often done to reduce payroll costs? Being permanently in a lower tier with lower pay creates turnover. Constantly replacing staff lowers educational quality. Find great teachers, pay them well and hold them accountable for great outcomes.

You hit on the heart of the issue at the end

We will not be able to raise the overall quality of instruction until we increase the pay of teachers and/or make their working conditions easier (smaller class sizes).

We still need to create a teaching licensure system that has clear requirements. Start with this:

Pass the relevant MTLE exams
Bachelor or Master in Education from ANY accredited university (not just MN higher ed)
Teaching experience (paid or unpaid) with a positive evaluation of performance

This would not dilute the quality of current system but is much easier to achieve for an out of state professional teacher. Get that done first and we can start debating alternative pathways (teacher prep training that is certificate based instead of degree based for people with a degree that is not in education).

Bill

The bill passed the house on party lines, with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposing. But the only people interviewed for the story are supporters of the bill. Instead of just interviewing Republican legislators, maybe interview some Democratic legislators as well.

All the evidence needed

U of M Dean Quam provided all the evidence state lawmakers need to keep higher ed reps off the new Licensing Board. She states that higher ed should be the "gate keeper for educating teachers."

She says that any opinion to the contrary is "dangerous and erroneous," and that "the best teachers come from [higher ed] programs." Of course, there is plenty of evidence that isn't the case, but that's almost beside the point.

The current Board of Teaching is much too closely affiliated with higher ed & the MN Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (MACTE), and these types of comments by Dean Quam are the REASON that tie needs to be cut.

Since 2011, lawmakers have been clear that non-higher-ed-affiliated (alternative) prep programs are allowed under state law. But, the BoT (with their ties to higher ed) has stonewalled any attempt by groups trying to create a truly alternative prep program.

If lawmakers want to find new & creative ways to improve teacher diversity & quality, they should look no further than these comments as evidence that we need to keep the new board independent of the archaic and self-serving interests of institutes of higher ed.

armchair QB's can back off

Like it or not, the higher ed gatekeepers are correct. While attending my student teaching seminars at UMD it became obvious in our discussions that some of my cohort was not going to make it, meaning they were not cut out for the job. So to shorten or dump student teaching, which seems to be a sticking point for some people, is one of the worst thing you could do in terms of "reform." The worst thing to do to a group of students is have their teacher leave in the first few months of school. I basically lost a year of U.S. history in high school to exactly that kind of scenario. Secondly, some of the gatekeeping includes meetings/interview both entrance and exit, (at least in early '90's UMD -can't speak for today) that also helped candidates learn if the profession is for them or not. AND LIKE IT OR NOT, not all education programs are created equal. There are colleges that offer education majors that are not accredited, because some of the necessary rigor is absent from their program so I suspect the majority of people complaining of the difficulty in getting their Minnesota licensure came from one of these programs, or are trying to get out of student teaching. If I'm wrong, I'll eat crow and apologize, because I work with over a dozen colleagues that were trained in Wisconsin, Iowa, or South Dakota, and none of them reported the problems I keep hearing from conservative politicians. In the end, making it easier for people to get into the profession won't solve the problem.Once they're in the door, keeping people in the profession will be the real challenge. The last thing we need is a revolving door. By the way for those who keep shouting that schools should be run like a business? The first thing a business does to attract more workers is raise the salaries.....significantly. My district asked the rest of us to forgo raises for a few years while the base starting pay was raised, to attract more teachers to our district, but now the entire profession needs to do the same, across the board. Do we have the political courage for that? Or are we just going to turn it all over to the private sector, which is the goal of conservatives? Time will tell.

Do away with Tenure

K-12 teachers don't need tenure. Tenure only protects the few older teachers who have stopped learning, & are coasting to retirement. Most experienced teacher don't fit this profile but there are enough.

Many other states don't have tenure for k-12 teachers.

If K-12 teachers think they need tenure, then they need to explain specifically how they would teach differently with &without tenure. General complaints that fickle school will fire good teacher lack support of common sense.

What?

How on earth does ditching tenure encourage more people to go into teaching? Wasn't that the point of this article? To get more people IN to the field of teaching? What did I miss?