May 17, 2017

The new licensure bill and why we need it

Madaline Edison Executive Director, E4E-Minnesota

If you’ve been paying attention to education news over the past few years, you’ve probably seen that Minnesota’s teacher licensure system has long drawn ire from educators and stakeholders alike – and for good reason. Whether you’ve read the Office of the Legislative Auditor report or rely on the testimony of educators themselves, it’s easy to see why people are frustrated that it has taken so long for leaders to address how we license teachers in Minnesota.

Just this week, I visited five schools and heard many stories from teachers who have been struggling with a licensure system that is opaque, inequitable, and antiquated. I met Jay (all names changed), a paraprofessional who is going to school to become a teacher, but can’t afford to leave his job to student teach. I talked with Julia, who taught in South Dakota before moving to Minnesota and couldn’t transfer her license, so she is now in an office administrative role. I also met Mai, a special education teacher working on a variance because her school couldn’t find a licensed special education teacher this year. These are just a few stories of many that demonstrate the need for a more streamlined, equitable system that will allow us to recruit and retain a strong, diverse teacher workforce.

This week, the Minnesota House and Senate passed House File 140, a bill seeking to address the flaws of our licensure system. There are two main components of the bill:

  1. Creating a new independent professional teacher licensure board, and;
  2. Replacing our many licensure categories with a four-tier licensure system.

While there has been widespread agreement about the need to address licensure, not all have agreed on the best way to do this. In light of these differing perspectives, it’s important to understand the changes being proposed and how it will impact teachers in Minnesota in the years to come if this bill passes. I hope you’ll find the following overview of the bill helpful, as well as my take on why the changes to the Community Expert Variance will benefit students and prospective teachers in our state.

Board of Teaching

The Board of Teaching (BOT) and the Minnesota Department of Education’s teacher licensure division would be reconstituted as the “Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board,” consolidating all licensing authority under this body instead of being split between two agencies. The new Board would be comprised mainly of educators from diverse school settings and would be directly responsible for implementing licensure law. This reconstitution would help streamline licensure and reduce the “run-around” that many teachers were getting in navigating multiple agencies.

Most current BOT members would be required to roll off of the Board and the Governor would appoint new members. Starting with a new Board would also bring fresh energy, new outlooks, and ideas to an agency that has been steeped in controversy, sued, and charged with dereliction of duty by two judges.

Tiered Licensure

House File 140 proposes four tiers of licensure. It establishes a “Master Teacher” Tier 4 license, which is a five-year license, renewable indefinitely as long as the teacher meets coursework, exam, experience, and evaluation requirements. Tier 3 is standard licensure as we currently know it – three years, unlimited renewals as long as a teacher meets degree, coursework, and exam requirements. It outlines specifically that teacher with out-of-state teacher licenses “in good standing” and who have two years of teaching experience would qualify for the coursework requirements – which would greatly streamline the process for teachers licensed in other states. It would also allow for licensure via portfolio, something that the current Board of Teaching has been reticent to resurrect, despite its popularity among many educators. One exciting addition is that Tier 3 and 4 include cultural competency requirements.

Tier 2 would be a limited licensure status for two years, with up to three renewals. It is for people who have a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree, professional credential, or five years of work experience - any of which must be in the content area, in addition to some teacher education coursework that must be completed. This codifies the current language and requirements around a limited, temporary license. Tier 2 would also serve as the license for alternative licenses, such as Teach For America or future residency programs.

Tier 1 is akin to the “Community Expert” variance we have today, but would add new requirements to the permission, thereby elevating standards for this license. It is a one-year license with conditional renewals for content areas and unlimited renewals for Career and Technical Education (CTE) teachers. It would allow people who have a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree, professional credential, or five years of work experience - any of which must be in the content area to teach – regardless of whether they have any teacher preparation training. Under this license, a school would need to affirm the person has necessary knowledge/skills to teach in the content area and that they have been unable to hire a licensed teacher. Schools must post the role every year and try to find a licensed teacher before renewing someone with this license.

The Controversy

Tier 1 has gotten the most attention in House File 140. You may have heard that this bill would open the door for “anyone” to teach or that it erodes professional standards for teachers. What I see when reading this framework is that it either would codify existing variances for prospective teachers that schools have needed for specific content areas and shortage areas, or create clear pathways for experienced educators to obtain a license.

In the school where I worked, our Hmong language and culture teacher operated under a “Community Expert” variance, uncovering her passion for teaching and then allowing her the space to work to attain a full professional license. At a local arts high school, a spoken word artist operated under a “Community Expert” variance to teach a class on spoken word. Up north, a union carpenter with 20 years of experience could teach a CTE course on carpentry. In my view, community experts, when applied in a limited and monitored way, can increase the diversity of adults in front of the classroom and acknowledge expertise of community members and the benefit they can bring to students.

We should be wary, however, if schools and administrators are using this framework as a reason to employ cheaper, unqualified staff – which is why the Legislature took steps to raise the Community Expert standards through the Tier 1 license and incentivize Tier 1 teachers to work toward a full license. If passed, the law would require the new Board to consider the education, professional experience, and renewal history carefully when considering the application of a Tier 1 teacher, whereas such standards currently do not exist for Community Experts. The new law would also require schools to search for and hire Tier 2, 3, or 4 teachers, which is also not currently required.

If it is passed into law, I hope this bill can help turn a new page for teachers like Jay, Julia, and Mai. This long overdue change will help move our state forward in recruiting and retaining a strong, talented, and diverse workforce, which our students desperately need and deserve.

Madaline Edison

Madaline Edison is the Executive Director of Educators for Excellence-Minnesota.