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Transplanted teachers waiting — and waiting — for alternative certification process to jell

The new state “alternative certification” law was supposed to go into effect Aug. 1, 2011, but the Minnesota Board of Teaching has yet to create a process for licensing the teachers.

Teachers with alternative qualifications are finding it difficult to make their way into Minnesota classrooms as a 2011 certification law continues to go un-implemented.
REUTERS/Sergio Perez

There are a number of Twin Cities transplants who have successful track records of teaching struggling students in other states.

There are a number of expansion-minded, odds-beating schools here that would desperately like to hire them.

And there’s a law on the books that is supposed to make it easier for newcomers who learned their craft in nontraditional teacher training programs elsewhere to get the Minnesota licenses they need to fill the jobs.

Yet a year and a half after the law’s passage, hopeful teachers and their would-be employers are struggling to get the talent into the classroom. The new state “alternative certification” law was supposed to go into effect Aug. 1, 2011, but the Minnesota Board of Teaching has yet to create a process for licensing the teachers.

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Another portion of the law, a mechanism to allow the establishment of nontraditional training programs in Minnesota, contained the same deadline but was not implemented until January — too late for the most natural candidate, the local Teach for America (TFA) outpost — to apply.

“The question is, is the intent of alternative certification being implemented?” asked Brian Sweeny, director of business excellence at Charter School Partners (CSP), one of the law’s proponents. “Why has it taken so long?”

Cites lack of staffing

Board Director Karen Balmer conceded that her office is behind. The board did not get started on implementation right away in case the 2011 Legislature went on to pass a contradictory statute, she said. By the end of the session, her staff was concentrating on getting extra work done in anticipation of the state shutdown. After that, it was playing catch-up.

“A lot of it is circumstantial,” she said. “We have not had the manpower to move it along.”

Historically, candidates for Minnesota teachers licenses have been asked to demonstrate that they graduated from a recognized, in-state college teacher-training program and can pass a series of basic skills tests. Candidates moving here from other states have been asked to submit university transcripts and other documentation so that the Board of Teaching can determine whether their education was “substantially equivalent” to local teachers’.

Critics, including the operators of a growing number of charter schools that have shown remarkable progress in closing the achievement gap, have argued that these traditional teacher training programs are not equipping graduates with the strategies getting the best results in their classrooms.

As a result, leaders at Harvest Prep, Hiawatha Leadership Academy and other high-performing charters do much of their recruiting among alums of programs like Teach for America, which put the cream of the college-graduate crop through intensive training that lasts weeks, not months, and then continues to train them on the job.

One pricey alternative

Until the alternative certification law’s passage in March of 2011, Minnesota was one of only nine states without licensing reciprocity or portability laws. Principals at the odds-beaters here could not tell teacher-recruits whether, upon moving to Minnesota, they would be granted a license. Teachers who accepted jobs anyway and did not qualify for licensure had only one pricey alternative: Graduate school.

The intent of the law was to allow for an alternative to traditional college teacher-training programs, but much of the hang-up seems to be the fact that the alternative certification candidates, by definition, lack the university transcript the board expects to see.

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Transcripts ‘poor proxies’ for teacher quality

Here, too, Minnesota appears to be bucking the national trend. Transcripts are “poor proxies” for teacher quality, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Jim Bartholomew is education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, which supported the new law, and until recently was a member of the teaching board.

“It’s a foreign object, if you will,” he said. “The nut of the problem is that in Minnesota, if you’ve been licensed in another state, you’ve typically been through higher ed and have a transcript with course names and syllabi and curriculum available.”

(Here we must pause for my now-standard Kramer Disclaimer: MinnPost CEO and Editor Joel Kramer is the father of TFA President Matt Kramer, who is married to CSP’s Director of Academic Excellence Katie Barrett Kramer. Matt’s brother Eli Kramer was recently appointed interim principal at Hiawatha. I have not discussed this issue or this story with any of them. I expect Joel will learn of this story when it is posted.)

Kathryn Spotts’ experience is illustrative. A Kentucky native, she earned a degree in history from Carleton College. Her senior year there she was accepted into TFA and a similar program, Teaching Fellows. She chose TFA and was eventually placed in a failing middle school in central Newark, N.J. While she taught, she took classes in New Jersey’s state certification program.

Her students’ test scores rose impressively in each of the three years she taught at Morton Middle School, winning Spotts a reputation as one of the best teachers in the school and the district’s coveted master teacher award her first year on the job.

“I just think that teaching is something I’m good at and something I want to get better at,” she said. “It’s something I can do for years and years and be part of a community.”

Spotts was working for TFA as a staffer when her now-husband was accepted into law school here. She moved with him, and started looking for ways to get back into the classroom. She applied to graduate schools of education at Penn, Harvard and Stanford; the first two admitted her. But by then she was getting married and didn’t want to move again.

Request denied

She applied for a Minnesota teaching license, figuring she would be required to take a few classes. The board denied her request and suggested that she consider getting a master’s from the University of Minnesota.

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Preferring to learn new skills, Spotts applied for a middle-school reading program but was denied because she was not a licensed Minnesota teacher. She then applied for a more generic education program, only to be told that a review of her Carlton transcript suggested she’d need a full year of prerequisites.

Desperate, last spring she applied for a Kentucky license, which she received within two weeks. At the same time, she heard about the alternative certification law. Spotts called the state again, only to be told her application would be rejected again because there was no program.

Spotts applied for jobs at two local charters and got an offer from each to teach under a temporary variance license. She took all of the state teacher skills tests and passed. She starts work this month teaching sixth grade writing at Adelante College Prep, a Minneapolis middle school opened by Hiawatha.

A sympathetic principal

MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
John Kaczorek

Spotts’ new boss, Principal John Kaczorek, is sympathetic. He has a master’s in math education from a university in New York, a license from that state and one from New Jersey, yet he, too, spent his summer taking Minnesota’s skills tests.

“It’s necessary that they do have benchmarks to check someone out on,” he said. “But this is almost always an issue if you went to school or got your license elsewhere.”

In order to get Spotts’ temporary license, he had prove he had “searched far and wide” but failed to find a better candidate. He had to submit ads for the job and a letter to the state. By law, they can have two more variances but must reapply for each.

“An awful lot of work needs to go into it,” he said. “I wish as a principal I was able to just focus on the skill set of the people I want to hire.”

Laura Pastor has a variance, too, and will soon start teaching kindergarten at New Visions Academy in Minneapolis. A graduate of Barnard College, she was a TFA corps member in St. Louis. Bitten hard by the teaching bug, she earned a master’s in teaching from Webster University in interdisciplinary studies.

“I want to be on that career path,” she said. “After my first week with TFA I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I have really high standards for myself and my kids and I have gotten really good results with underserved kids.”

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Seven years of experience

After seven years in the classroom Pastor, too, followed a fiancé here, but with fewer illusions. “I had heard stories about Minnesota licensure,” she said. “’Start early,’ people told me.”

In 2009, she applied for a license and was told there was no licensing reciprocity in Minnesota. The licensing official who rejected her request suggested she submit her transcripts to local programs to see what her options might be.

So she spent two years and nearly $18,000 completing the requirements for a K-6 license only to learn a few weeks ago that the state would require her to student-teach — at a cost of thousands more. Her new principal could supervise that teaching on her new job, but Pastor said she’d prefer to wait “for clarity” on the new law.

“I certainly appreciate that Minnesota has high standards for teachers,” she said. “Many states do not. But a lot of families are missing out on a lot of high-quality educators who are just not going to put themselves in that position to move here with no assurance they’ll be licensed.”

‘We’re wanting to move the work forward’

Again, teaching board director Balmer said her small staff, the equivalent of six positions, has been working diligently on more than they are equipped to handle. “I don’t disagree that the system is in need of an overhaul,” she said. “We’re wanting to move the work forward in a way that feels substantive.”

“There are a whole laundry list of teacher preparation programs from across the country,” she said. Some prepare excellent instructors. “We want to somehow honor the work of those teachers. … For better or for worse, the rules we have on the books have the language of substantial equivalency.”

On its face, the new law seems fairly straightforward:

“The Board of Teaching must issue a standard license to an otherwise qualified teacher candidate under this section who successfully performs throughout a program under this section, successfully completes all required skills, pedagogy and content area examinations,” and either demonstrates proficiency to a site-based evaluation team or completed an alternative certification program in another state.

The board’s statement

Within days of the new law’s passage, the board posted a statement online discouraging applicants and cautioning that implementation “would take time.”

“Alternative programs completed outside of Minnesota will be reviewed and compared to alternative programs developed under the new law,” the statement reads. “Until programs are developed and approved alternative program completers from outside of Minnesota will be reviewed according to past practice. Individuals who have been licensed in another state via an alternative program should apply for a Minnesota license via the online application process.”

Which is precisely the Catch-22 Pastor, Spotts and Kaczorek tripped on.

Balmer said she appreciates the problems caused by the delay. In addition to waiting to take up alternative certification and then suspending work because of the state shutdown, she said the board focused much of its energy on the work of a task force created to consider a tiered teacher licensure system in Minnesota.

As part of the compromise that ended the state shutdown, the task force was not created until the special session in July 2011, four months after the alternative certification law was passed and weeks before the law was to go into effect. Its report was delivered in February.

Tired of waiting

By that point, alternative certification’s proponents had grown tired of waiting for signs that implementation was in the offing. Charter School Partners introduced “Charters 2.0,” a package of statutory tweaks that included language clarifying and reinforcing the intent of the 2011 reform. Like most of the education policy introduced this year, the bill was laid over.

And what of the teachers without jobs? Could Spotts, Kaczorek and Pastor simply rejoin TFA and qualify under the first half of the new law? No.

Right now, Teach for America Twin Cities has an experimental agreement with Hamline University to certify its teachers. Because the process for receiving state approval as an alternative certification program was established late, in January, TFA did not have time to apply for the upcoming school year. Instead, this spring it sought an extension of its Hamline partnership, which the board approved by a 6-4 vote.

(Adding insult to injury, a July Star Tribune article questioned why, after all the fuss, no group had applied to be an alternative certification provider.)

To get board feedback

At the board’s next monthly meeting, scheduled for this Friday, Balmer said staff will present “good progress” toward implementation. “I think what you’ll see moving forward into this next meeting is a bundle of things that add up to a cohesive whole,” she said, adding that depending on board feedback, some of the puzzle pieces could go into effect quite quickly.

“Some will not be immediate but I think we’ll have some pretty good feedback and go from there,” said Balmer. “We’re happy to do the work. It’s not for lack of wanting to.”