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Dropping portfolio approach to licensing teachers violated state law, suit argues

Dropping portfolio approach to licensing teachers violated state law
In 2012 the board stopped allowing teachers to earn licenses by submitting portfolios showing their teaching skill.

The state Board of Teaching violated Minnesota law when it unilaterally discontinued a popular and effective process for licensing teachers, argue motions filed in a lawsuit against the board in Ramsey County District Court.

Filed on behalf of a growing list of plaintiffs, the suit contends that the board has engaged in a pattern of arbitrarily and without explanation denying licenses to would-be teachers. To date, much of the controversy has centered on a 2011 law the board has largely failed to enact that would make it easier for out-of-state candidates.

The most dramatic action at a Ramsey County District Court hearing scheduled for June 25, however, will concern a teacher-licensing measure the board lobbied lawmakers to approve several years ago, but has since quietly discontinued.

The decision, the plaintiffs are expected to argue, compounds a fundamental problem: No matter their skill or experience, those who want to teach in Minnesota must spend time and money with one of the traditional teacher training programs.

In 2012 the board stopped allowing teachers to earn licenses by submitting portfolios showing their teaching skill. Those who wanted to teach but whose backgrounds had wrinkles — they went to school elsewhere, were changing careers or wanted to add a new specialty — had had a variety of possibilities for demonstrating their abilities.

Process was used by nearly 500 teachers

A top board priority just four years earlier, the process had been used successfully by nearly 500 teachers. Some 200 applications were pending when the board terminated the program. There was no public discussion, just a note posted to the Minnesota Department of Education website.

“Due to budget reductions and policy changes, the Licensure via Portfolio process has been discontinued,” it explains. “Interested candidates who were unsuccessful are encouraged to contact a Minnesota college or university to complete a teacher preparation program.”

What changed between 2008, when the board asked the Legislature to enshrine Licensure via Portfolio in state law, and 2012? A couple of major factors. The first: A Republican governor with an eye toward education reform left office. When his DFL replacement appointed new members to the Board of Teaching, they no longer included critics of the status quo.

The other thing that delivered a shock to the teacher prep system was the arrival in the Twin Cities of the highly successful alternative teacher preparation Teach for America (TFA). Faced with an influx of elite college graduates who entered the classroom after a summer of nontraditional training, board members were talking openly of needing to protect their constituencies.

In 2011, two years after TFA’s arrival, Minnesota passed a law mandating two processes to make it easier for teachers with nontraditional training and those who have taught successfully elsewhere to get Minnesota licenses. Until then, the board had been enthusiastic about the portfolio process, which the current lawsuit claims was actually generating more revenue than it cost to operate.

(The By-Now-Standard Kramer Disclaimer: MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer are the parents of TFA Co-CEO Matt Kramer. Matt Kramer’s wife, Katie Barrett Kramer, is a former TFA teacher and corps leader. Matt’s brother Eli Kramer is married to Jessica Cordova Kramer, who works for TFA. None of them is aware that this story is being prepared.)

Teacher attempts thwarted

Some of the plaintiffs in the suit [PDF] say they should have been able to use the portfolio option. Others attempted to use a streamlined process for licensing teachers trained in other states that the board has failed to implement despite the 2011 law ordering its creation. Requests for appeals by some went unanswered.

At a court hearing scheduled for late June, the board is expected to argue that in general [PDF] the plaintiffs do not have a legal remedy and are presenting their case to the wrong court. The board’s court filings also argue that it has fulfilled the 2011 law requiring a process for out-of-state teachers. The board’s executive director was not available to respond to questions for this article; the board’s chair did not respond to an e-mail.

Instead of spelling out the reasons for its denials, the board routinely recommends to even experienced and lauded teachers that they contact Minnesota training programs, which in turn require expensive and redundant coursework. The lawsuit is one of several ongoing efforts to force the agency to license teachers trained outside traditional Minnesota programs.

Legislative efforts, state audit

Depending on the outcome of this year’s legislative special session, the board will face a revamped version of the 2011 law that advocates for the plaintiffs and other potential teachers say contains language that is stronger and more difficult to evade. The board also faces a state audit.

Board members — all appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton and many with strong ties to teacher-prep programs and Education Minnesota, which opposes some of the changes — have offered only oblique answers why the debate has dragged on. At the public meetings where the topic has come up repeatedly since the 2011 law’s passage, board members have expressed distaste for the changes.

Portfolio licensure would be a godsend to Campbell-Tintah teacher Tony Munsterman, one of the teacher-plaintiffs who has spent years and thousands of dollars trying to secure a Minnesota license. In 1984, Munsterman graduated from Augsburg College with what was then the appropriate degree to teach music at the secondary level.

The parameters of the grades 5-12 music license changed that year, though the coursework to earn the credential stayed the same. Because music teachers are among the first to be laid off when budgets fall, Munsterman has spent the last three decades moving his family of five from one Greater Minnesota community to another.

In part because of this dynamic, teachers are in particularly short supply outside of Minnesota’s larger cities. Consequently, credentialing teachers in hard-to-fill areas is a policy priority for state education officials. In many of Munsterman’s past postings, district officials didn’t worry too much about his license and asked him to teach music in numerous settings.

In search of a permanent credential, Munsterman earned most of a master’s degree from St. Cloud State University, but quit when he realized the extra degree would price him out of the market in the towns where he wanted to work.

In an attempt to keep his current job, in Otter Tail County, Munsterman did what licensing officials said he should do and contacted a number of Minnesota colleges, several of which suggested he start over. He was one hour from losing his job — which no one else had applied for despite a statewide advertising campaign — when Concordia University agreed to help.

Munsterman was told he needed to take five classes at a cost of up to $3,000 each, including a course in choral methods. Last Friday, in an unexplained about-face, state licensing officials concluded he and at least one other plaintiff in the BOT lawsuit did not need to take a reading class.

Some of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit and similar ones filed in the past were subsequently offered licenses or temporary teaching credentials. None has received an explanation to date, though at least one was told that if he were not a plaintiff state officials could more easily communicate with him.

Envisioned as a gap-closing mechanism

Resolving problems like Munsterman’s was only part of the original appeal of a portfolio procedure. The original intent, according to the lawsuit, was to satisfy a requirement, linked to federal funding, that Minnesota adopt “highly qualified teacher” requirements as a mechanism to closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.

Portfolio licensure, the state told the U.S. Department of Education, “provides opportunities to expand the field of teachers thereby providing district administrators greater opportunity to hire highly qualified teachers particularly in schools with high poverty and [that] have been identified as having inequities in their teacher assignments.”

The portfolio pathway was particularly advantageous to impoverished schools and charter schools, MDE noted: “The state cannot ignore the fact that many of the students that enroll in charter schools have high needs, have not been successful in ‘traditional’ school and the enrollment of students in charter schools continues to increase.”

In 2008, the board successfully lobbied lawmakers to make the portfolio process a state law. In 2009 and 2011, the board returned to the Capitol to ask for funding to support the portfolio program. Both times its director asked teachers to testify about the process.

‘Portfolio option was just awesome’

Despite the fact that she had a master’s degree, one testified, “the classes that they were suggesting were basically beginners teaching classes, so for me the portfolio option was just awesome.”

Not only was a revenue stream created, including state money and fees from portfolio applicants, the Legislature reauthorized the board’s portfolio account for 2014 and 2015, according to the motion before the Ramsey County court.

MDE was then part of a Republican administration, which was, of course, not aligned with the teacher’s union and which appointed its own board members. The out-of-state licensing provisions passed in 2011 but not implemented were developed on their watch.

“It’s certainly my assessment that politics is playing a role in how candidates from out of state are being treated and how the board deals with programs like alternative licensure,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of the advocacy group MinnCAN, which has monitored the issue for several years.

Indeed perhaps the fate of the portfolio process is best sorted out in a court of law. The teachers’ motion contends the portfolio program was self-funding, noting that e-mails between the board and MDE show that from 2009 to January 2011, the program took in $15,000 more in application fees than it spent. After portfolio was discontinued, other e-mails show, there was discussion about what to do with an undisclosed surplus.

MDE: ‘Pathway was not self-sustaining’

MDE disputes the notion that the program paid for itself.

“The pathway was not self-sustaining,” the agency asserted in reply to a MinnPost request. “Revenues collected from applicants offset the costs related to external portfolio reviewers, but did not cover costs related to online tools, technology, or staff time with either the department or the board.”

The department estimated to lawmakers that the process would require one full-time employee to manage the process at an estimated cost of $95,361 and a half-time employee at the board of teaching at an estimated cost of $58,496 as well as online tools and technology costs of $75,000.

As late as November 2011 — after the out-of-state licensure pathway was supposed to have been created — the board was telling applicants that the portfolio process was their best option for securing a Minnesota license.

Asked whether he would submit a portfolio, Munsterman immediately starts touting the big-city competitions in which his budding small-town musicians have held their own. Heck, he adds, who but a zealot would pick up and move every couple of years just to stay in the same line of work?

“When I get up in the morning, the only thing I want to be is a music teacher,” Munsterman said. “I want my license. I want to stay where I am without interruption. I don’t want to have to pay all this money for coursework I don’t necessarily need.

“In jail, this would be called time served.” 

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/09/2015 - 10:54 am.

    Biased much?

    I think something was left out of the story, but I’ve fixed it for you: “Board members — all appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton and many with strong ties to teacher-prep programs and Education Minnesota, which opposes some of the changes — have offered only oblique answers why the debate has dragged on. We don’t need to consider what those answers are, the basis for their ‘distaste,’or why they might be opposed to the program. All you need to know is teachers’ unions=bad. Those who support them=bad. Let’s move on.”

    I can’t be the only one who notices that the opinions of Education Minnesota or advocates for teachers’ unions seldom, if ever, appear in this space. Usually, they don’t respond in time for publication. Rarely, however, do we see such a blatant out-of-hand dismissal.

    Incidentally, by what logic did Governor Pawlenty have “an eye toward education reform?” He made some noises about things done elsewhere that sounded like good ideas, but dropped them when he deduced they would cost money and it would interfere with his run for the White House (remember his plan to pay for two years of college for every qualified student–you know, the one he said he would give details about after his reelection?). Or is a distaste for teachers’ unions what passes for “an eye toward education reform” these days?

    • Submitted by Chris Williams on 06/09/2015 - 02:32 pm.


      I’m waiting for the column exploring why the local franchise of a right-leaning national education policy group, 50CAN, has become so interested in the licensing difficulties of a few out-of-state teachers in Minnesota, who rarely meet the state’s “human relations” requirements for culturally appropriate instruction of students of color. Is the group’s motivation financial? Strategic?

      • Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 06/09/2015 - 03:31 pm.

        Point of Housekeeping

        I’m just going to pop in here and ID Chris as the press secretary for Education Minnesota.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/09/2015 - 04:27 pm.


          He raises interesting questions, don’t you think?

          • Submitted by Joshua Crosson on 06/09/2015 - 08:13 pm.


            If the questions posed were based on something other than accusations and conspiracy theories, sure – they would be interesting questions.

            • Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 06/10/2015 - 02:10 pm.

              Another point of information

              Joshua Crossen works for MinnCAN, which has worked with many of the teachers who ultimately brought this suit.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/09/2015 - 09:20 pm.

        Simple Logic

        Maybe they want to put the kid’s and the most energetic capable and effective Teachers first.

        Unlike Ed MN who apparently wants to reward employee longevity and union membership. (ie tenure, steps, lanes, long termination processes, limited performance reviews /rewards, preferred placement by seniority, etc) I mean that is good for the Union and the long time Teacher’s, but I don’t think it does much for the kid’s who need the most help.

        Interesting web site. It reads kind of like the Ed MN Site, except it talks more about the student needs and less about the employee wants.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/09/2015 - 09:27 pm.


      Just curious. What would you like to see here?

      Schools want more money and less accountability?
      Dayton wants universal pre-K only in Ed MN schools?
      Teachers telling students to skip MCA tests?

      I think Beth discusses many Ed MN issues, unfortunately they just aren’t very flattering. Ideas welcome.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/10/2015 - 09:07 am.


        My remark was directed at Ms. Hawkins’s reporting. While her biases are apparent to all who read her, I don’t think it’s too much to expect comments from those she routinely slams.

        Unless they refuse to provide comments to her. That seems plausible.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/10/2015 - 09:06 pm.


          You see biased reporting where as I see mostly fact based reporting.

          What do you think Ed MN and the others would have to say regarding how many road blocks there are for new Teaching candidates in MN?

          I think it would go something like this. “It is critical that the children of MN only have the best licensed Teachers. And since we know better than all the personnel in other states, we need to help these inadequate candidates improve by forcing them to spend money and time on additional classes, rather than have them helping to teach our children.”

          By the way, licensing would not be very important if the schools used “employment at will”. If the Teacher is poor at their job, the administrators would just fire them. Most jobs in the state are filled with a resume, background check and a drug test, why Teachers are different is beyond me.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/11/2015 - 04:28 pm.

            “What do you think Ed MN and the others would have to say . . .”

            Neither you nor I know for sure. Their perspective is not sought for these articles.

            Fact-based vs. biased? Again, it’s all a matter of whose ox is being gored.

          • Submitted by karen Ingeman on 06/12/2015 - 12:08 pm.

            Teacher Preparedness

            I have been teaching for 40 years so I’ve seen it all. I am teaching in an immersion school which has struggled to find native language speakers who also have degrees in teaching elementary education. Why would this be important? Wouldn’t a portfolio be enough to show competence?

            All the Spanish teachers speak fluently but very few have had degrees in el. education. (They have waivers and now many are going to school for their degrees.) They have struggled with managing their classrooms, much more than any first year teacher from an elementary education degree. Why? They have not had classes and student teaching that prepares them for managing kids and delivering instruction to all learners. They simply are not prepared. A crash course just doesn’t do it. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of student teaching with an experienced teacher. (I would say that one should be in the field 6+ years before being allowed to be a supervising teacher.)

            I have also worked with TFA teachers and most quit after one or two years. They use the classroom as a stepping stone to pad a resume when really they haven’t enough experience in the field to be a “voice for education”.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/13/2015 - 10:48 am.


              So wouldn’t it then make sense to make it easier for degreed El Ed Teachers to come to MN to work? Then you could fill your classrooms with qualified Teachers faster.

              Just accept their past qualifications and given them a license. Then the Principal can just terminate their employment ASAP if they prove to be incompetent in the classroom. Same for the TFA and or normal MN Teachers.

              If the goal is to have the best most energetic Teachers for the kids, why all the rules protecting questionable Teachers….

          • Submitted by Matt Haas on 06/14/2015 - 01:01 pm.

            Hey what a plan

            I can get behind this abolishment of licensure. Let’s see where to begin, doctors, lawyers, financial analysts (I mean certainly your kids are as important as your investment portfolio right?), daycare providers for sure (hey you can take 50 kids right?). We might as well go ahead and let drivers off too, I mean think of the cost saving of eliminating the DMV. It’s not as if WE need rules and regulations because once something bad happens we can just go back and fix it right? Libertarian naivete at its finest.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/14/2015 - 05:00 pm.

              A Key Difference

              Teachers work in a relatively controlled atmosphere with peers in the next room and an administrator down the hall. I think accepting a Teacher’s license from another State and conducting a background check seem pretty safe.

              Whereas your other examples have little oversight, therefore a license is more important. And thankfully our Driver’s license works in multiple states.

  2. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 06/09/2015 - 11:32 am.

    Teach for Awhile

    Teach for America is successful if you measure success by how well it has advanced its right-wing agenda. If sucess is based on teacher quality, then it hasn’t been successful at all since TFA teachers, on average, perform worse than teachers with traditional training. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that teachers with only a few weeks training and who don’t want to be teachers long-term aren’t very good at it.

    I do feel bad for teachers who are actually trained and want to teach, but some of this is a backlash to the TFA agenda. Don’t conflate the two situations (TFA vs trained out-of-state) because they are very different. Looking at the trainwreck next door in Wisconsin, where you no longer even need a degree to teach, protecting teacher licensing standards is especially important.

    Bring back portfolio and get rid of TFA – Everyone will benefit frim that.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/09/2015 - 09:08 pm.

      How Would We Know

      “since TFA teachers, on average, perform worse than teachers with traditional training.”

      I thought according to Ed MN, measuring a Teachers performance was like finding the Holy Grail? 🙂

      Otherwise we would do it regularly and base compensation levels on it.

    • Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/10/2015 - 12:26 am.

      talk about what you know and use data to support your claims

      I am a TFA parent and a research professional. I have read many, many articles on modern education. Is it successful? In wealthy communities, yes, in poor communities, no. Why? Because the traditional education establishment accepts the following – separate, but unequal education that produces a high level of dropouts, many who have unsuccessful lives with many ending up in prison. A country whose achievement levels are behind other countries. The status quo is failing and the teaching establishment is afraid of competition from new approaches.. No point in arguing about data, because the education establishment in unwilling to justify its underperformance.

      My son and his wife are both former TFA teachers. When their two year commitment was done, they had completed master’s degrees in Education. They teach in New York City – just completing their 7th year. Teaching is their calling. My son teaches middle school in Harlem – three different subjects in two different grades, with ultimate goal of being a school leader. His wife teaches honors HS English and just passed the National Teaching Board exam, something few teachers pursue. Both are high GPA graduates of highly selective schools who picked teaching over professional or graduate schools, because they want to address what ails American education. They are the very kind of thoughtful and committed teachers and leaders this country needs.

      The education establishment reminds me of the leaders of the Islamic religious schools who believe only one viewpoint has value and that all children – notable girls – don’t need an equal education. If traditional education programs don’t improve, maybe they should be getting dumped as ineffective.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/10/2015 - 09:23 am.

        Good for them.Now ask them

        Good for them.

        Now ask them if they were as prepared then, as they are now, for effectively teaching students? Do they look back and say there are things they know now from years of teaching that they would have done differently in those first two years? Or were those first two years the peak of their teaching ability?

        Now consider those in TFA who obviously do not have an enduring passion for teaching that your children do. Were they great teachers in their two years of service and did they serve their students as well as someone with a life-long passion for teaching?

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/09/2015 - 10:00 pm.

    Double negative

    I have no real use for TFA, and think Dan Hintz is not far off with his subject line. If it’s that easy to teach, and do it well, why bother with licensure at all? On the other hand, I also have little use for the State Board of Teaching, which – at least during my 6 years here – has mostly served an obstructionist role in granting licenses to perfectly capable teachers who happened to be trained elsewhere.

    While I’m willing to accept that some of this might well be because of the influence of Education Minnesota, another angle that’s rarely mentioned is the vested financial interest of various colleges and universities in requiring otherwise-qualified people to take unnecessary courses at their institutions. It’s not just K-12 teachers who might be engaging in a little job-protection here. There are plenty of deans and professors in state institutions with departments of education who also have a vested interest in requiring people to take extra courses to make up for what they missed by getting their degrees elsewhere. There’s no data of which I’m aware suggesting or implying that schools, students and curricula in Minnesota are so amazingly special that only in-state training at one of our own institutions will prepare a prospective teacher for the nirvana-like experience of a Minnesota classroom.

    Anyone with an appropriate degree from an institution accredited by the same authorities that grant accreditation to Minnesota institutions, regardless of the state in which that institution is located, ought to be able to secure a teaching license with little delay, fanfare, or frustration. If I were in charge, and of course I’m not, the Board of Teaching members would all be looking for another job, and the day after I fired them for gross incompetence, portfolio applications would, once again, be accepted. At least a couple of those unemployed Board of Teaching members might be able to get one of the positions mentioned for administering a portfolio program. In my highest-paid contract year, I made less than half of the $95,000+ the Board is willing to pay someone to administer a portfolio program, and I never came close to the $58,000+ that someone could make as a *half-time* employee. Are you kidding me? $58,000+ for a part-time job that doesn’t even involve classroom time?

    We’re dealing with job-protection at both individual and institutional levels. I’ve so far seen no evidence that Minnesota children benefit significantly from having teachers who’ve been approved only by Minnesota institutions.

  4. Submitted by Jeffrey McIntyre on 06/20/2015 - 05:08 pm.

    Licensing out of state teachers

    My daughter (BA Macalester, Masters Northwestern, Masters in Education Loyola) moved back home to teach in Mn…she said she had to take one BS class at St. Thomas, and that was it. She, and I, are wondering what all the hoopla is about. My take is, it’s just another ploy to bring in less than qualified “teachers”…ones that get paid less…smells like another union busting effort from the right.

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