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Task force to consider system of tiered teacher licensure

I’ve been revisiting the fine print of the education bill that was approved during the recent 12-hour special session, and as I read I can’t help but imagine the scene during the last few hours our ranking electeds spent stuffing things into their backroom sausage grinder.

In my mind’s eye, a poker-faced Gov. Mark Dayton suggests to Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers — who sagely sent education powerhouse Rep. Pat Garofalo off to hunt up a compress and an Excedrin — that they can in fact appease their constituencies while also agreeing to his no-policies quid pro quo.

“Amy,” he says, “haven’t you ever heard of a task force? You need to hand something to the Chamber or your Jeb Bush groupies, you hand it over to a task force, promise to carry a bill based on its recommendations in 2012.

“OK, and Kurt,” my fantasy governor continues, “if you’re the least bit worried about overpromising — and hey, aren’t we all at this point? — make it a huge task force. I mean, once you go north of a dozen people there’s no way it’ll come up with anything specific enough to turn into an actual enforceable law.

“Don’t worry too much about the fine print,” he says, slowly sliding the big pile of policy stalemates across the table toward his exhausted antagonists. “We’ll make sure the Revisor of Statutes delivers the whole shebang about 45 minutes before the vote.”

Cut to the GOP leaders, who mutter a few face-saving zingers as they begin sorting the stack into piles to assign to task forces.

Several diverse groups
In point of fact, the K-12 bill that cleared the special session calls for several mighty big task forces to be populated with everyone from representatives of the state’s conservative business lobby to the — gasp — teachers unions. Between now and February 15, 2012, one of these hydra-headed creatures will study, debate and opine on the topic of a system of tiered teacher licensure.

The gist of this idea, which has been floating around some education reform circles for a few years now: Create three or four levels of teacher license, ranging from neophyte to master teacher, specify what criteria a teacher has to meet to earn the next highest license and a commensurate pay raise.

Is this a good idea? As with pretty much every other teacher-quality policy idea the answer is: Depends.

On one end of the continuum of devilish details is an end run around teachers’ unions, which emerged from the session relatively unharmed. (Well, except for those bankrupt schools.) Set up a series of hurdles to winning every pay raise, make it hard for educators to vault them, and you can kiss the power of the collective bargaining agreement goodbye.

On the other end, a tantalizing brass ring dangles within reach of seasoned veterans who want to keep growing as practitioners but whose career options were previously limited to stagnating in place or becoming an administrator. Recognizing and rewarding these teachers for their own lifelong love of learning, well that’s just paying it forward.

From Chamber to unions
Which version would Minnesota get? I remind you, this one’s in the hands of one of the bill’s larger task forces. The state Chamber of Commerce favors tiered licensure, hates unions and will be represented. But so will Education Minnesota and a number of education agencies with teacher-quality expertise.

Tiered licensure has been tried in several states, including Wisconsin and New Mexico [PDF] over the last decade to mixed result. The more tiers, the harder it is to implement and manage, while fewer tiers provide fewer incentives.

Beyond that, it’s expensive to administer and it begs not-so-teeny questions about just what constitutes a great teacher and how to spot one in its native habitat — this last point being the work of the smaller and presumably more brass-tacks teacher evaluation system working group created by the bill.

In the last frame of my mental movie, Dayton’s out in the backyard of the governor’s residence simultaneously schooling first pup Mingo in Frisbee and Machiavelli. His biggest piece of advice: There’s more than one way to kick the can down the road.

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