New rules will make teacher requirements more flexible

Metal desktops fill a classroom inside the agriculture education center.
Shiny stainless steel metal desktops fill one of the classrooms inside the agriculture education center and greenhouse at Alexandria Area High School on Jan. 17, 2017.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News File

New licensing requirements for Minnesota teachers are set to take effect next summer after they were passed as part of the education budget last session.

The changes put more control in the hands of school districts and aim to address problems identified in a critical legislative audit last year. The audit called Minnesota's current licensing system "broken," citing confusing requirements and uneven standards for in- and out-of-state candidates.

The new system provides for four tiers of licenses. Teachers with fewer qualifications get licensed at a lower tier, where licenses expire more quickly and are apt to have limited renewals. Higher qualifications lead to a higher tier.

At Tier One, teachers will be able to obtain a one-year license with a four-year degree in any subject; or, if they're teaching in a technical field, with a two-year degree, a professional certificate or work experience. A school district must vouch for the teacher's skills and show it can't find a more qualified candidate.

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The short-term license replaces a system of state-issued variances that districts currently use to fill shortages.

Paths to teaching under new regulations.
New regulations are set to take effect in July 2018 that will change the paths to teaching.
William Lager | MPR News

In technical fields and shortage areas, the one-year licenses can be renewed indefinitely. In other subjects, such licenses carry a maximum of three renewals.

"The school (will have) the freedom to say, 'Hey, Keith is very qualified for the industrial tech position, and we want to keep him,'" said Keith Polus, an industrial technology teacher. He currently works under state permission with limited renewals at Dover-Eyota high school in southeast Minnesota.

But some parts of the new system have raised eyebrows — and others have roused anger from groups like the state teachers' union. Gov. Mark Dayton wants legislators to renegotiate parts of the system as part of his push for another special session this year.

The legislation allows unlimited renewals in any subject for Tier One licenses in "regions (of the state) where there is a shortage of licensed teachers who reflect the racial or ethnic diversity of students in the region."

Paths to teaching under new regulations.
New regulations are set to take effect in July 2018 that will change the paths to teaching.
William Lager | MPR News

That's every region, according to the most recent state enrollment and staffing data.

Teachers will also be able to get long-term licenses without going through a college or university-based teacher training program.

"It feels like the Legislature just took those hard-earned licenses off the classroom wall and spit on them. We won't forget this," Education Minnesota President Denise Specht wrote in a statement prior to the bill's approval.

Non-union teachers are upset, too. Social studies teacher Crystal Johnson works at the Minnesota International Middle School, a non-union charter school.

"I think it really demeans my effort and my classmates' efforts," Johnson said, adding that she went back to school as a single mom in 2012 to get her teaching degree.

Johnson said she can't imagine getting in the classroom without completing a college training program, either. Under the new system, candidates can use other sets of qualifications, like a Master's degree plus state testing and experience, or an out-of-state license plus experience.

"That's problematic," said René Antrop-González, dean of the School of Urban Education at Metropolitan State University.

Antrop-González said a requirement that teachers pass a state pedagogy test to become licensed at the third tier isn't enough.

"The test is not going to determine the extent to which you are able or not able to build relationships with children and youth," he said.

However, there's no guarantee anything radically different will happen under the new system.

"Theoretically ... there could be no change in who ultimately ends up in the classroom," said Dan Goldhaber, a professor and education researcher at the University of Washington. Goldhaber said there isn't solid research to predict how licensing changes affect the overall quality of teachers.

Hiring decisions rest with school districts, and Dover-Eyota Principal Todd Rowekamp said he, for one, doesn't plan to change his hiring criteria.

"It's not like you can just put anybody in the classroom and if they're completely incompetent we never hear about it," Rowekamp said. "The greater flexibility that we might have doesn't mean that we're just going to start pulling people in off the street."