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Why the Legislature is trying to fix a teacher-licensing problem it fixed four years ago

Lawmakers are considering making it easier for teachers from other states to get licenses to work in Minnesota. Funny thing: the Legislature passed a similar law four years ago.

Teachers from other states who want to work in Minnesota must go back to school here or gird themselves for a bureaucratic snipe hunt.

Hey MinnPost,
I need a consult from a fellow policy nerd. I heard the other day that over at the Capitol they’re considering a bill to make it easier for teachers from other states to get licenses to work in Minnesota. I thought we passed something along these lines a few years back? Or maybe I’ve just got a bad case of déjà vu all over again.
Politically Perplexed

Dear Politically Perplexed,

I feel ya. After a certain point in life the biennia begin to blur together, don’t they? But in this case you’re right. A measure directing the state Board of Teaching to draw up a procedure for issuing Minnesota licenses to people who have taught elsewhere was in fact the first bill Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law after he was first sworn into office in 2011. It’s back on the Legislature’s agenda because, well, law schmaw, it was actually never implemented.

More on that in a minute, but in case your memory is hazy: Like many states, Minnesota makes getting a teaching license after moving here from another state a kind of bureaucratic snipe hunt. Among other things, no licensed teacher from one of the lesser provinces can get a Minnesota credential until they’ve submitted syllabi from the classes they took in college. Why? To prove the classes they took in college look like the classes they would have taken had they been lucky enough to go to school here in Lake Wobegon.

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I’m not making that up. And you know, since syllabi can be like snowflakes, the practical result of having to navigate this gantlet for lots of would-be teachers is to simply go back to school in Minnesota for another degree. Which is a win for the state’s teacher colleges, which in turn see it as an act of benevolence because high standards are good for kids, right?

True dat, as the kids say. Except it presumes earning a degree in Minnesota guarantees a teacher meets those high standards. A successful classroom track record? Not so much. As a result, the state is accumulating a community of education refugees, once-and-maybe-future teachers with dazzling resumes who are forced to take a circuitous route into the classroom here. Some stick it out; more than a few quit.

Consider the experience of Amber Adrian. Bitten hard by the teaching bug after spending two years as a Teach for America corps member in Los Angeles, she went on to get a master’s and an additional teaching credential from Loyola Marymount University.

A Midwesterner, she wanted to return home and four years ago found the job of her dreams at a middle school in St. Paul, Laura Jeffrey Academy, where she had been working on a series of temporary permits. Her talent earned her a promotion to a position where she also coaches other teachers.

Yet Adrian couldn’t get a Minnesota license. As she tried, she created a 2,500-word chronology of her efforts to prove her academic background and teaching experience were“essentially equivalent” to a Minnesota degree, a story that reads like it was written by Kafka — for The Onion.

Quick, which is more absurd: Begging your retired college professor to dig a syllabus out of his attic so you can show that a class you took covered the same bases as one at a local college — or paying hundreds of dollars to take entry-level classes (plural) at a local community college because, well, your master’s-level work isn’t good enough. How about unboxing your dog-eared graduate school textbooks to use as Exhibit A?

After taking several classes to the tune of several hundred dollars each, Adrian finally argued her way into a license — but then left teaching altogether. Before she did, she seriously considered moving home to South Dakota, which would have be thrilled to extend her a license.

Hold on—is this really that big a deal? Are you engaging in the classic reporter ploy of picking an outlier and insisting her outrageous tale adds up to a widespread crisis? Wasn’t there testimony last week from members of the Board of Teaching that this wrinkle affects very, very few teacher candidates?
Perplexed and Skeptical

Well, let’s just leave to the side for a moment the question of whether “this is a non-problem” is the proper response to being directed by the legislature to create a policy; we’re building up to the politics of this.

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Yes, there was testimony to that effect, and there is a brand new Department of Education report that calculates that only 2 percent of Minnesota teaching jobs each year are filled by teachers moving here from other states or leaving private schools for the public system. That same report also shows relatively few out-of-state teachers are formally denied licenses.

Funny thing about life in the age of the Internet, though: It turns out that when a frustrated teacher candidate gets on Google in search of a system hack, what pops up is a string of stories about this issue — published in this very space over the last three years.

Some of the stories announce that the problem’s being fixed, so the desperate license-seeker e-mails me to say he or she called and was told that the process described in the MinnPost stories does not exist and that they should contact an accredited Minnesota college or university.

I give them contact information for an education advocacy group, MinnCAN, that has been tracking the issue. MinnCAN has hooked any number of teacher candidates up with attorneys who are steeped in the issue and — voila! — faster than you can schedule a hearing with an administrative law judge a license appears.

Or a limp-along solution. There is one teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) who couldn’t get a license to teach middle school math here. Instead, she is teaching other MPS middle school math teachers the strategies she used elsewhere.

You won’t find Adrian or the MPS coach in either the column of teachers who won licenses — or those denied. Theirs are often considered applications in process. So no one knows how many callers have been told they will not qualify for licensure unless they go back to school.

The Minneapolis middle school Venture Academy has attracted national attention for its pioneering strategies. Four of its educators, including the instructional leader — who created its groundbreaking individualized learning program — are in this boat.

(Full disclosure: One of the school groups pushing for an easier path for out-of-state teachers is Hiawatha Leadership Academies, which is led by Eli Kramer, the son of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer. None of them was consulted about this story, which they will learn of at the same time as MinnPost readers.)

Indeed, it was a parade of school administrators who, hats in hands, convinced the Legislature in 2011 that it was time to remove the roadblocks that kept them from hiring teachers who acquired their skills elsewhere. Some told tales of being unable, as a consequence, to fill vacancies in specialties with teacher shortages, such as special ed or math. Some, particularly in Greater Minnesota, struggled to hire from small candidate pools.

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And then there are the teachers of color. Minnesota’s teacher corps is 96 percent white, even while student bodies become more diverse. Yet at a workshop last year, one after another graduates of the nation’s prestigious Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges stood and described being told their credentials wouldn’t qualify them here.

Okay, I get it. It’s a problem. So why is it a 4-year-old problem? Why is the issue back on the Legislature’s agenda?

In the first MinnPost story on the topic, published in August 2012, the Board of Teaching’s administrator blamed the previous year’s state government shutdown for the agency falling behind. True, the shutdown had been over for a year at that point, but that’s how she chose to comment.

The explanations have varied since then, with members of the board displaying great skepticism at their monthly meetings — as recently as last week — that the law is good policy in the first place. About a year and a half ago, the issue was declared fixed. The board had created a matrix of a number of ways — including experience — a teacher could demonstrate their qualifications.

A handful of licenses were issued. I dutifully wrote a story declaring the issue finally resolved. For real this time. … And then promptly got e-mails from more teachers who had called about applying —  and were told the process did not exist.

Or that it did exist but wasn’t published. Or that it existed and consisted of submitting syllabi and other materials to prove your non-Minnesota degree was “essentially equivalent” to a Minnesota degree.

All of which may cause you to ask a simple question: Why the fixation with a Minnesota degree?

Well, members of the board are appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton and most represent Minnesota teacher preparation programs, which they also accredit, and teacher union locals. The Minnesota Association of Teacher Colleges and Education Minnesota oppose this year’s legislation.

The board operates independently of the state Department of Education, whose top teacher, Brenda Cassellius, sent members a strongly worded letter demanding they get with it —  three years ago. Dayton, who has displayed tremendous ambivalence to challenging teaching policies since taking office, has been publicly mum on the whole thing.

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Which is a tidy segue to the politics of this year’s effort to clarify things. There are actually four bills in the state House of Representatives right now that would spell out in more precise language the intent of the law and drive a spike through the concept of essential equivalence. One of the measures has passed out of the requisite committees and is likely headed for a vote of the full House.

That’s not the end of it, though. The bill that’s headed to the floor in the GOP-controlled House also contains the most controversial education policy item of the year, the ability to include teacher effectiveness in layoff decisions. You may have heard this somewhat misleadingly referred to as the LIFO bill, for last in first out.

While changing the layoff law has some bipartisan traction in both chambers, it’s far less popular in the Senate, where DFL leadership is pushing an education agenda that is focused on funding. The effort to streamline things for out-of-state teachers is up in the air there.

Maplewood DFLer Charles Wiger heads both the Senate Education Committee and the Finance Committee’s K-12 branch. He has said he is open to hearing the issue — which is pretty much par for the course for a guy in his position at this point in the session.

If the House passes the measure and the Senate doesn’t, then its fate will come down to what happens during conference committee.

Let me guess: If the session ends without the passage of clarifying language, there really won’t be any way of pushing the Board of Teaching to honor the intent of the 2011 legislation, will there? For that matter, what’s to say the process would get created this time around? Is it time to reconsider the whole chain of authority?
— Now More Cynical than Perplexed

We ran your query past the folks at the National Council on Teacher Quality, which keeps tabs on teacher prep, professional development and evaluation and state policies. Most states, they said, claim to have reciprocity agreements in licensing but in practice throw up roadblocks like transcript reviews.

In 15 states, licenses are issued by boards of teaching. In a number of others they are issued by the state board of education (which Minnesota abolished a number of years ago)l in a few places the department of education does the issuing. Each method has its pros and cons; the professional standards boards — what we have now — are “less reform-minded” than the others, the national group says.

If they had to single out a progressive policy, it would be the one passed last year by Delaware, which created a process to extend newcomers licenses based on teachers’ effectiveness on evaluations in their home states.

One of the bills on the table at the Legislature this year would allow school districts to extend “community expert” credentials to non-Minnesota teachers, totally end-running the board. There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for this option, but it gives you an idea of the level of frustration.

So are you taking bets?

Not a chance. We’ve penned a lot of stranger-than-fiction columns over the years but this saga still retains its ability to perplex. Bated breath and all, we’ll be watching with you.