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What training should a Minnesota teacher have? New licensure proposal ignites old debate

An attempt to tweak Minnesota’s new teacher licensure system reveals a rift over how much value to place on formal teacher preparation programs versus  alternative routes to becoming a teacher.

Josh Crosson
Josh Crosson, senior policy director with EdAllies, said Monday at a press conference: “When we need to focus on increasing teacher diversity, blocking those educators through licensure is not the way to go.”
MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf

An attempt to tweak Minnesota’s new teacher licensure system ignited an old debate this week over how much value to place on formal teacher preparation programs over alternative routes to becoming a teacher.

Opponents of House File 1329 say the proposal undermines efforts to address student achievement gaps and teacher shortages by hiring more teachers of color in the state – a well-placed blow since just days earlier, the House Education Policy Committee heard the Increase Teachers of Color Act (HF 824) that asks for more than $80 million over two years to fund grants, hiring bonuses, student loan forgiveness, and recruitment for teachers of color and American Indian teachers.

EdAllies, an education reform group, rallied opposition to the licensure changes, saying the two bills contradict each other. Nearly a quarter of Minnesota’s teachers of color hold tier 1 or tier 2 licenses, so they would be disproportionately affected by the bill, which aims to reduce the number of times those licenses can be renewed and to cut off routes to a tier 3 license that circumvent a formal teacher prep program.  (This chart lays out the requirements for each license tier.) Opponents say this effectively pushes out many teachers of color and, by extension, harms students who would continue attending schools where they may never have a teacher who looks like them.

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“The people behind this legislation are very concerned about who we’re letting into the classroom. I think [we] are very concerned about the people that we’re leaving out of the classroom,” Josh Crosson, senior policy director with EdAllies, said Monday at a press conference on the bill. “When we need to focus on increasing teacher diversity, blocking those educators through licensure is not the way to go.”

Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, is the chief author of both bills. HF 1329 has a companion in the Senate, but it doesn’t have a Republican sponsor and hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing yet. Kunesh-Podein expected pushback, especially from administrators and school board members struggling to fill teaching slots around the state. But she said she doesn’t see how her changes would make it harder for teachers of color. “I don’t believe that for a minute,” Kunesh-Podein told MinnPost. “I would not agree with those statements.”

Her supporters – the state teachers union and teacher prep program administrators – say shortcuts that speed through or skip learning the art and science of teaching will burden schools and hurt students.

“They’ve never had the teacher training, the pedagogy, student teacher practicum … . Now, we have to almost bend over backward to make sure they stay,” she said. “But what we really want to do is, yeah, we want to help you, support you, but you need to take the courses that will make you a well-rounded individual and a well-rounded teacher.”

A coalition without consensus

The coalition of education groups behind the Increase Teachers of Color Act includes organizations on both sides of HF 1329, revealing the lack of consensus that persists around teacher standards. That’s why despite outcries over the bill’s impact on teachers of color, the coalition hasn’t taken any stance, legislative action team lead Paul Spies told MinnPost. Spies is a professor in the School of Urban Education at Metropolitan State University.

He said the coalition is interested in expanding ways people can obtain a teaching license, but only through formal teacher prep routes, which includes innovative programs like Grow Your Own. While the coalition agrees that “robust teacher prep is important,” not everyone is convinced that all paths lead to prepared teachers. “With our bill, that’s what we’re trying to do: Expand the types of pathways that have consensus.”

Spies reiterated that there are high numbers of teachers of color who hold tier 1 or tier 2 licenses. “What we’re seeing is kids of color from low-income communities in charter schools and public schools having more teachers on tier 1, tier 2 licenses and special permissions than people who are on their tier 3 or tier 4 license,” he said. “ It wouldn’t serve anyone if they were perceived as less qualified and less legitimate given the barriers that already exist. … Until more affluent districts clamor for these alternative-trained teachers, we’re not willing as a coalition … to assert one path as equal to the other.”

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Spies said the Increase Teachers of Color Act focuses on diversity and quality of teachers, so they’re endorsing increasing the percentage of teachers of color who hold higher tier licenses. “It isn’t just about somebody who looks like the students being in the classroom,” he said. “We have to make sure they’re effective at closing achievement and opportunity gaps.”

And how do you judge which teachers can do that? “That’s highly contested,” Spies said.

Trading barbs on teacher-prep program effectiveness

Dennis Draughn, a high school social studies teacher in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district, called it “unacceptable and insulting” to funnel teachers of color through what he deemed a lower-standard system.

Some say the new licensure law will attract much-needed teachers of color to the profession by not requiring them to go through teacher preparation training. But using that as an excuse to lower standards … indicates teachers of color are not capable of reaching the standard.”

But HF 1329 opponents aren’t convinced education reformers should keep endorsing a traditional system when it is linked to the student gaps and teacher shortages that they’re looking to reverse.

Traditional prep programs “are not producing the men, women that we need. … We need a variety of pathways – we have to do things differently,” Northside Achievement Zone CEO Sondra Samuels told MinnPost. She feels confident the bill won’t pass but attended the committee hearing Monday to remind legislators “this is not what you said you wanted.”

Minnesota started licensing teachers under the new system in July, and rules outlining how it would work were implemented in October. For one, it made it easier to recruit teachers from out of state and, by extension, more teachers of color, as long as they already hold a license and have at least two years of teaching experience. That wouldn’t change under Kunesh-Podein’s proposed bill.

The changes she proposes reinforce her view that tier 1 and 2 teachers should be “a last resort option” and the state should prefer teachers with formal teacher training and pursue reform that entices them to stay in the field. “There are 30,000 licensed teachers in Minnesota who are not teaching,” she said. “Why are they not teaching? What’s keeping them from the teaching profession? It’s a hard, hard job.”

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Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who led the education policy committee in 2017, said the work they did then to redesign the teacher licensure system “is being mischaracterized” because of repeated comments that they lowered standards. She and others believe schools should have time to let the changes work.

“We did numerous things to elevate tier 1 so it could be looked at as a real teaching license,” she said during the hearing. “If we’re losing teachers, maybe we need to focus on teacher prep programs and their inability to address the needs of our teacher candidates. And maybe they would proceed to stay in the profession.”