Could new system curb teacher shortage?

Educators say proposed legislative checks to licensing will help fill positions

By Christopher Magan
St. Paul Pioneer Press

For educators like Derek Davidson and Troy Haugen, changes to the way Minnesota licenses teachers can’t come soon enough.

Both Davidson, a leader at an urban charter school, and Haugen, who helps provide technical education at rural schools, hope the overhaul of Minnesota’s teacher licensing system pending at the Legislature will make it easier for them to place qualified people in hard-to-fill jobs.

Minnesota faces a growing shortage of teachers in math, science, special education and technical programs. State education leaders hope fixing what has been described as a “broken” licensing process will make it easier for teachers trained out-of-state or in alternative ways to get into Minnesota classrooms.

“It is almost impossible to navigate the statute as it is right now,” said Haugen, who works for the Lakes Country Service Cooperative in Fergus Falls.

Davidson, who taught at high-performing charter schools before moving to the Twin Cities, says it’s nearly impossible for him to attract teachers from other states to the Venture Academy High School in Minneapolis, where he works as a dean and reading teacher. State rules are a maze for out-of-state teachers without certain credentials.

“It’s such a ridiculously overwhelming amount of work,” for qualified people to get a full teaching license, Davidson said.

However, Minnesota’s teaching shortage will not be solved by changes to the credentialing system alone.

Teacher Maria Le from Central Park Elementary in Roseville says that if the state doesn’t do more to retain teachers, it will continue to struggle to have a qualified teaching force that reflects its growing diversity.

“If you don’t have a robust retention strategy, then recruitment will not do anything, because as fast as they come in, they will go out,” Le said.

Legislation overhauling the licensing system has passed the Minnesota House on its own and the Senate as part of the large education funding bill. The measures have bipartisan support, but Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers, have also raised concerns that parts of the new requirements may not be rigorous enough.

The Legislature also has proposed grants and tax credits designed to attract young people to education careers and diversify the state’s teaching force, which has remained overwhelmingly white while student bodies have become more diverse.

Hard to get a license

Venture Academy’s Davidson worked for Teach for America and at charter schools in other states before landing in Minnesota. He’s not traditionally trained, and when he moved to the Twin Cities, he was only able to get what is essentially a temporary teaching license.

Frustrated with the credentialing system, Davidson joined legal action against the state Board of Teaching. Davidson believes educators with his teaching history should be able to get licensed under the state’s portfolio system, which considers applicants’ past successes and experiences, but he’s found that system to be overly onerous.

The lack of a clear pathway to a license for teachers from other states or trained in other ways makes it tough for Davidson to hire teachers who want to spend their careers in urban schools.

“There are not enough (local) people who have been successful in urban schools who are willing to come teach here,” Davidson said. “How do I get those people if they don’t come from other places?”

Davidson hopes the legislative overhaul will make the licensing system more transparent so job candidates have a clearer understanding of the credentials they need.

Under the proposed changes, a new Professional Educator Licensing Board would take over responsibilities now shared by the state Department of Education and the Board of Teaching.

There would also be a new, four-tiered licensing system with clearer expectations. The lower tiers would credential educators with less experience or alternative training, and the higher tiers would license experienced teachers with advanced degrees.

Democrats and some educators have expressed concern that the new tiered system could lead to school districts hiring less-qualified educators to save money.

Republicans have rejected that claim, and school lobbyists, such as Kirk Schneidawind from the Minnesota School Boards Association, say districts need more flexibility when hiring hard-to-fill positions.

“It’s a big issue,” Schneidawind said. “I think we are at the point that we need to look at some of the barriers in licensing and rulemaking that are prohibiting folks from getting into the classroom.”

Alternative pathways

Haugen, of the Lakes Country Service Cooperative, which serves schools and other governmental bodies in western Minnesota, agrees that licensing barriers — often tied to the more traditional way of training teachers — make it tough to fill high-demand positions.

Haugen is working to create Minnesota’s first alternative teacher-licensing system that is not tied to an institution of higher education. He hopes to create a training program that gives professionals with technical expertise in fields like welding or medical sciences the skills they need to teach high school classes or oversee work-study programs.

“The expectation is not for alternative programs to be of lesser quality,” Haugen said.

The licensing changes at the Legislature would make it easier for alternative programs like the one Haugen hopes to create to get up and running. However, there are differences between the House and Senate proposals that need to be worked out before the legislation is sent to Gov. Mark Dayton.

Daniel Sellers, who leads the Ed Allies education-reform group, says alternative licensing programs should be an important part of an overhauled system. “If we are going to increase teacher diversity and find new ways to attract talent, alternative prep programs have to be part of the picture,” he said.

Recruitment and diversity

Licensing problems aren’t the only reason Minnesota is short of teachers.

State and federal data show the number of college students pursuing education as a career is on the decline. Enrollment in Minnesota teacher training programs fell 27 percent from 2010 to 2014, according to the latest federal data available.

Minnesota also struggles to attract people of color to the education field.

Just 4 percent of the state’s teachers are people of color, while 30 percent of public school students are. In 2014, about 11 percent of the students enrolled in Minnesota’s education training programs were people of color.

Those statistics look pretty dire, but some teacher-education programs are making progress.

Metropolitan State University in St. Paul started a School of Urban Education in 2001 at the direction of the Legislature to help improve the diversity of the state’s teaching force.

Through contacts with school districts and other efforts, more than 50 percent of Metro State’s teachers-in-training are now people of color, and the university is developing partnerships to place graduates in Twin Cities classrooms.

Rene Antrop-Gonzalez, dean of the school, says a more diverse teaching force is essential if Minnesota is going to close one of the nation’s worst academic achievement gaps between poor and minority students and their peers. Students not only need to see more educators who look like them, they need more teachers who understand the unique challenges they face.

“Our main goal is to provide our students with the knowledge, skills and disposition to be effective teachers for urban learners,” Antrop-Gonzalez said. “How you feel about your students is going to impact how you practice your teaching.”

The University of Minnesota is also working to diversify the state’s educators and address teacher shortages by creating new training pathways. These so-called “grow-your-own” programs include partnerships with local districts to provide opportunities for teacher’s aides or workers with multilingual skills to work toward an education career.

“The demand is coming from the school districts who need to fill these positions,” said Mistilina Sato, an associate professor of teacher development at the U.

The Legislature is considering a mix of grants, financial aid and student loan forgiveness programs designed to attract more young people to education, but advocates say even more could be done to increase and diversify enrollments in teacher training programs.

Retainment

One of Minnesota’s biggest challenges when it comes to finding a long-term solution to its teacher shortage is figuring out how to keep new teachers in the classroom for a career.

One in three Minnesota educators leaves the profession in his or her first five years on the job, a recent state report on teacher supply and demand found. In 2014, 25 percent of departing educators left for “personal reasons,” up from 20 percent who cited that reason for leaving in 2009.

That’s more than the 20 percent of departing educators who retired, the 16 percent who moved to another district or the 7 percent who lost their jobs due to staff cuts.

Roseville teacher Le, who researched Minnesota’s teacher shortage for Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, has seen the flight of young educators firsthand. Most of the educators Le completed school with have left the field.

Le suggests more robust mentoring for new teachers, less emphasis on standardized testing and more time to collaborate with other teachers could help keep young educators from becoming disheartened. Without those types of changes, teachers will continue to feel like they have less control over their careers and their classrooms.

“They are not able to teach in the same way they had envisioned going into education,” Le said. “I don’t feel like kids are allowed to be children anymore, and it is hard to be part of that system.”

Le and other educators also say teachers are often blamed for struggling students who face societal challenges outside of a school’s control. Feeling like a scapegoat for outside factors can make the profession unappealing for would-be and existing educators.

“I don’t get to choose who I teach. I teach everybody,” Le said. “The priority needs to be put on education in general in our society. It is all of our jobs to prepare our next leaders. We all need to take equal accountability and collective responsibility in making sure our kids are prepared to lead our nation.”

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