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Lawmakers fine-tune proposed overhaul of teacher licensing in Minnesota

The bills would create a tiered system and remove barriers to alternative routes to teaching. “I hope it allows us to develop new, innovative programs,” said Sen. Eric Pratt.

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.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

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.”

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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.  

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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.) 

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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.”