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Forms Are All Around: Minnesota’s Baffling System for Licensing Teachers

March 8, 2016

Talking Points

Getting a teacher’s license in Minnesota is nonsensically difficult, even during a state shortage

Kafkaesque rules for transferring out-of-state licenses keeps Minnesota’s teaching force nearly all white

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Kirsten Rogers was a principal’s dream hire.
She’d spent 12 years in Utah classrooms. She held credentials to teach history, English, geography, reading, and English as a second language, and had a master’s degree. Rogers had won teacher of the year at her school and been awarded Fulbright grants to travel to Russia and Japan to teach.
When she moved to Minnesota 11 years ago to be with her then-boyfriend, now-husband, she never questioned that she’d be able to get a new job. “I said, ‘Well I’m a teacher, everywhere needs a teacher. It seems by far the most transportable profession.’
“I was wrong, at least here,” she said.
Despite her extensive experience in the classroom and academic credentials, the Minnesota state board of teaching gave her only a two-year temporary history license.
Rogers’ situation was not unique in Minnesota. Legislators and advocates have tried for years to untangle what a just-released nonpartisan state auditor’s report called a “complex, unclear and confusing” licensing system. Advocates say it keeps qualified educators – particularly teachers of color – out of classrooms where they’re needed.
After being denied a full license, Rogers contacted the state education department, who said she had to speak with a college. The University of Minnesota told her that to get the state equivalent of her Utah certifications, she’d need between 15 and 18 additional credits including student teaching in both English and social studies – even though she had more than a decade of experience. And she’d have to complete those courses before her temporary license expired.
“I was rather upset, to say the least,” she said. She was getting married and wanted to start a family. “I just thought I can’t afford, emotionally or economically, to pay for school while teaching, while trying to start a family, so I stopped teaching.”
Even as it deters prospective teachers with byzantine licensure rules, Minnesota has suffered from a teacher shortage for years.   
State data from 2014 shows that more than 3,500 of Minnesota’s 58,000 teachers had not achieved a full license. According to federal data, the state went from shortages in three areas in 1990-1991 to 27 areas in 2015-2016.  
The number of superintendents and school human resources officers who report that it is difficult or impossible to hire qualified educators has doubled since 2012, according to Denise Dittrich, associate director of government relations at the Minnesota School Boards Association.
“When you start looking at those types of numbers, what we have been saying is that we have the perfect storm brewing, and it has been for several years,” she said.
The state also has a wide discrepancy between the makeup of its student body and teaching workforce. About 30 percent of Minnesota students are children of color, but just 6 percent of teachers fit that description.
Statistics from a 2015 state department of education report show that although the number of teachers of color has increased over the last five years – most quickly among Asian and Hispanic teachers, less quickly among black and American Indian educators – the change hasn’t had a substantial effect overall. In the 2008-2009 school year, Minnesota’s educator workforce was 93.9 percent white. By 2013-2014, it was 93.7 percent.
Research has shown that students of color tend to perform better and, among African-American students, get suspended less when taught by educators of the same race. Currently, Minnesota has one of the country’s widest gaps in graduation rates between its white students and students of color.
“We are preventing schools from recruiting from a very diverse pool of candidates, which is teachers from everywhere else around the country, almost all of which have more diverse teaching pools,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of the education reform group MinnCAN.
A Tangled Web  
Part of Minnesota’s problem is that responsibility for granting credentials licenses is split between the state Department of Education, which issues licenses, and the Board of Teaching, which sets the standards for those licenses and hears appeals from educators denied licenses by the education department.
That’s different from most states, which either leave all licensure issues to their education departments or have teaching boards that are merely advisory. Seven states have independent boards, but Minnesota’s is the only state board not responsible for actually issuing the license, according to the auditor’s report.
Minnesota also licenses teachers differently from the way it licenses other professionals.  Most professionals, like doctors, firefighters, and cosmetologists, are certified by independent boards. A few, like insurance adjustors and real estate agents, are licensed through a state agency. But five professions – electricians, plumbers, those who operate “high pressure piping systems,” school administrators, and teachers – come under the purview of both a professional board and state agency.
There’s also a complicated taxonomy of different license types, depending on where a teacher completed his or her training, given for different lengths of time, sometimes renewable—either indefinitely or for a set number of renewals— and sometimes not.
The auditor’s report made a number of recommendations, including legislative changes simplifying license types and moving the authority for licensure to either just the Board of Teaching or the Education Department.
Erin Doan, executive director of the Board of Teaching, said the board in large part agrees with the auditor’s findings.
“There are many things that have been pointed out by the board to our legislature that are confirmed in the audit,” she said. It’s rare that any agency being audited is glad for the spotlight, she said, but the agency is pleased the report will raise a broader conversation about how to issue licenses differently.
New rules introduced
Last year it appeared that educators licensed out-of-state had caught a break: the Minnesota legislature eliminated a requirement that out-of-state education degrees had to be “essentially equivalent” to those issued in-state. The old rule had forced educators like Rogers to return to universities for often extensive coursework and student teaching in order to qualify for a license.
The new regulations made it marginally easier to get an out-of-state license transferred into the state than to earn one in-state. Educators trained in Minnesota are subject to more restrictive degree and student teaching requirements, and they’ll have to complete reading and technology training that educators trained out of state won’t, according to the auditor’s report.
Not all of the new requirements have taken hold, though. The board missed a January 1 deadline for drafting rules that make it less arduous to get credit for out-of-state qualifications.
Doan said that rulemaking in Minnesota takes six to eight months “even for something that is fairly non-controversial.” The majority of the changes required under the law - including, for example, increasing the number of times teachers can renew one-year temporary licenses as they work to meet state requirements - took effect within a few months after the law passed in summer 2015, she said.
Education advocates, however, say some of the proposed regulations are “in clear violation of the law,” according to MinnCAN’s Sellers, and might actually put new limits in place of the old.
He pointed to a new provision that would allow out-of-state educators with two years of classroom experience to verify their credentials by submitting an evaluation rating of proficient or higher from their prior school.
About half of the states don’t give that type of evaluation, and those that do often require three years in the classroom, Sellers said.
Doan said the regulations don’t require the evaluation to be the product of a formal state-mandated teacher evaluation system. “It’s really just, do you have an evaluation from someone in your building,” Doan said. The board wants candidates to have some verification that they’re good teachers other than their own word, she said.
The out-of-state license transfer problem isn’t unique to Minnesota.
“There is no true reciprocity” for teaching licenses, said Phillip Rogers, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. “You can’t just have a certificate in Georgia and just go to North Carolina and start teaching.”
In most states, educators who enter with at least two or three years in the classroom and a full license can transfer their credentials with reasonable ease, though they likely will have to pay fees and may have to take additional tests or coursework. “There are always a few jumps,” Rogers said.
Doan also emphasized that Minnesota’s granting of temporary licenses to experienced educators from elsewhere isn’t unique. “While there’s been a lot of attention to that as being a poor model in Minnesota, that’s actually the norm across the United States,” she said.
Less experienced teachers will likely have a harder time, Rogers said. They may be required to pass a slate of assessments or enter a more time-consuming teacher induction program.
Despite those hurdles, the overall trend is moving toward making it easier for teachers to move, Rogers said.
“I’ve never seen so many states that were open to reciprocity conversations. There’s some low hanging fruit out there,” he said. “In this day and age when teachers are at a premium in some states, there’s a lot of focus on how we can move people more quickly.”   
History of Distrust
The 2015 law is the latest in a series of attempts to fix the tangled process. A law in 2011 mandating that the Board of Teaching “streamline” the process for out-of-state credentials had little impact. Advocates previously tried fixing the rules in 2004 with little success, said Dittrich of the School Boards Association.
A group of educators – including Kirsten Rogers – have sued the Board of Teaching, arguing that it was illegally vague about the standards it used for granting Minnesota credentials to out-of-state teachers and inappropriately denied transfer requests. They also said it should reinstate a license-by-portfolio process it ended in 2012, which was used primarily by experienced educators who had worked in schools that didn’t require state licenses elsewhere, like parochial and charter schools.
“For too long the Board’s systematic failure to comply with Minnesota law has been depriving teachers of their livelihoods and children of the best qualified teachers. Perhaps most troubling, the Board’s actions are disproportionately affecting minority and disadvantaged children,” the plaintiffs said.
The lawsuit, which was filed before the legislature’s 2015 changes, remains pending. Most recently, the Board of Teaching lost a motion to dismiss the case. An appeal on that motion could take another nine to 12 months, Sellers said.
As part of the lawsuit, a judge required the director of the Board of Teaching to work with Rogers to find a way to get her licensed. She now holds full licenses in English, social studies, and reading, and plans to return to the classroom in the fall.
“That’s kind of the silly part. Why would I have to have a lawsuit and meet with the executive director to get the license I clearly always deserved?”