The long road to alternative licensure in Minnesota

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In 2011, a legislative battle was fought over what is known as alternative teacher certification or “alt cert.” Its passage was supposed to create programs that would allow teacher candidates to run their own classrooms before they graduate from their education program. It also directed Minnesota’s Board of Teaching to make it easier for teachers from out of state to get licenses here.

This article is part of a series that will examine the requirements Minnesotans must meet to become teachers, the ways in which training programs are changing, and the people they continue to leave out. For related stories, go to Who's teaching in Minnesota?

It was, and still is, a proxy battle in a bigger fight between Teach for America and the teachers union, between self-proclaimed education reformers and those who reject what they see as an agenda of privatization. It’s tempting to dismiss alt cert as nothing more than that.

But the shape of the legislation reflects less overtly politicized concerns over who gets to enter the classroom and what they have to do to get there. Alternative certification is a useful lens through which to understand how teacher preparation programs and their politics work in Minnesota.

Standards, Bureaucracy Unchanged

More than two years later, it’s no easier for out-of-state teachers to teach in Minnesota, and only silhouettes of alternative certification programs exist. No organization has even submitted an application to obtain that classification.

Even Teach for America’s new and controversial partnership with the University of Minnesota still has a series of hoops to jump through before it can call itself alternative certification. The St. Paul teachers union has also designed an alt cert program, but it still lacks a required district partner. St. Paul Public Schools has thus far declined to participate.

Whether the lack of movement is the result of ineffective policy, a recalcitrant Board of Teaching, or a lack of demand for alternative programs, is a matter of debate. Another possibility: the expectation that programs would appear overnight, or that reciprocity policies would simply change, was unreasonable, especially considering how highly regulated teacher preparation programs are.

“It’s hard work to prepare teachers,” said JoAnn Van Aernum a staff person for the governor-appointed, 11-member Board of Teaching. Her point is particularly true in Minnesota. Van Aernum added, “We pride ourselves at being at the top of the pile.”

The policies passed in 2011 did nothing to change Minnesota teacher standards, nor did they alter the complex bureaucracy that stands ahead of any changes to how the Board evaluates teachers from out of state.

To gain approval, any alt cert program has to start at the same place as every other existing licensure program: with a lengthy list of teacher standards closely guarded by the state Board of Teaching.

Somewhere inside the incomprehensible numbering system that organizes Minnesota’s state statutes, readers will find described the ideal teacher. She or he is able to connect abstract and ever-developing bodies of knowledge to the lived experiences of two and a half dozen dissimilar children. This person is able to recognize racism and respond to it. They have knowledge of federal tribal law. In their efforts to understand the human motivations that drive disruptive children, they draw on psychology, anthropology, and communication theory. The teacher delineated in state statute teaches technology and uses technology to teach. The ideal teacher is a master of assessment, undoubtedly a phenomenal educator.

The state Board of Teaching seeks to protect that version of a teacher. “There are restrictions to what the board can do, as long as the board is held to making sure those teachers adhere to those standards,” said Board of Teaching interim director Allen Hoffman. “It’s a compact with the public.”

In the interest of satisfying that compact, the board puts any rule-change, however small, through a lengthy review process. Change can be especially slow given the Board of Teaching’s single staff person, and the many programs it is tasked with reviewing each year. Most of the board’s work is carried out by volunteers.

The process by which the board is attempting to comply with the legislation around reciprocity exemplifies how slowly change happens.

Minnesota offers a grades 5-12 license, but many other states offer 7-12 licenses. What does the board do with someone who comes in with a 7-12 license? The state mandates that the board go through a 26-step rulemaking process, which involves an administrative law judge and multiple public hearings, just to create a place in Minnesota for a 7-12 license. This is just one item that the board is working to reconcile.

Many advocates for alt-cert were upset that the board took nearly six months to come up with a process for granting state approval to applicants. Bureaucracy and small staff help explain that.

Said Van Aernum, “It’s democracy. Everybody has input all down the line.”

Standards doing their job?

Some wonder if the teacher standards and the processes that uphold them are doing what they are supposed to.

Charter School Partners has been a vocal supporter of the 2011 legislation. CSP director Al Fan weighed in, saying, “I believe that there has been no evidence, or limited evidence, that supports Minnesota standards as equivalent to quality teaching. I look at the significant achievement gap, and I look at the low graduation rates and can’t see how teachers with Minnesota standards are proving effectiveness in reducing those gaps.“

When asked if he thinks the standards ought to be changed, Fan replied, “I think the standards are fine. I just think we need to open the licensure process to acknowledge that teachers from other states with experience in teaching lower-income and minority students in successful schools, and have a reliable track record on that, should be allowed to teach in Minnesota.” He later added, “I think the argument that our standards are better than everyone else’s standards completely ignores the outcomes.”

Fan’s argument is the crux of a disagreement between education reformers who advocate for enhanced school choice and those who see reform ideas as harmful to workers and to the most vulnerable children. Their disagreement is over whether the difference in test scores between students of color and white students, and between low-income and high-income students, can be significantly reduced with improved teacher performance.

Arguments like Fan’s and the fact that Teach for America was a leader in the effort to pass alt-cert, and that it currently stands to benefit most from it, are reasons for the state teachers union's opposition to versions of the bill in 2011.

Many object to TFA’s very short training period and see the organization as a tool in a broader effort to weaken teachers unions. In Minnesota, leaders of charter schools, whose teachers are not in the union and generally earn less than union-represented district teachers, have been the most vocal advocates for allowing more TFA teachers into classrooms.

“What we’ve said all along is that we need more high quality schools for our students across the state. We need more high quality teachers in those schools,” said Fan. “Alternative certification programs and reciprocity are ways of expanding the pool of talent.”

TFA and the University of Minnesota

Currently, Teach for America provides five weeks of training before sending participants, largely high-achieving graduates of prestigious colleges, into struggling schools. The Board of Teaching and the state Department of Education approves each TFA candidate individually to enter the classroom temporarily. TFA leaders want to do away with this ad-hoc, individualized approval process.

Alt-cert legislation requires new programs to partner with a traditional institution of higher learning for their first five years. TFA recently partnered with the University of Minnesota. The new program will extend TFA’s training period to eight weeks. Other changes are still being discussed.

According to Twin Cities TFA director Crystal Brakke, the two institutions are attempting to create something from scratch together. “There’s an opportunity to really create something that is able to build on the best of what we’ve both learned, both in traditional teacher learning programs and in our program,” she said. “It’s showing that the same standards apply in terms of what we expect from our teachers and what we know students deserve from our teachers, but acknowledging that there are different ways to work towards those standards.”

TFA intends to apply for alt-cert status this spring. It’s unclear how long the process will take.

Alt-cert and high-demand licensure areas

Although TFA teachers are in demand locally by a handful of mostly charter school leaders, the program does not train teachers in a licensure area that is particularly under-served. It trains in elementary education, a licensure held by many, many traditionally trained teachers who are looking for work. Meanwhile, special education positions, for example, are vastly under-filled.

Said Brakke, “My hope is that Teach for America will not be the only alternative program that is established in Minnesota. I think that there are a lot of different and unique needs that TFA as an organization cannot and should not aim to fill.”

Few education organizations have the same political power and funding that TFA does to build programs from scratch, but there certainly are areas of need in Minnesota education that are not currently being effectively served by traditional teacher training pathways.

Leaders of language immersion schools, like Melisa Rivera at Riverview School, who was recently profiled as a part of this series, struggle to find teachers with the language skills they need. This is exacerbated by how difficult it is for teachers from out of state to teach in Minnesota.

The time-structure of teaching programs and their costs are real barriers to people of color, low-income people, and career-changers who want to enter the classroom. That has repercussions for Twin Cities youth.

Whether the 2011 legislation can solve any of those problems is still unproven. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers’ Career Teacher alt-cert plan would create a pathway for individuals who are not using their teacher's license to earn a special ed license through a teacher residency. SPFT is still looking for a state-required partner district.

Another organization that initially showed interest in alt-cert found that the designation didn’t fit its needs. The Montessori Training Center of Minnesota is building a specialized program in partnership with St. Catherine University, via a pathway that already existed before alt-cert.

What will it take to get there?

Fan would like to see more from local policymakers and the governor. “I’d like to see them use their influence to encourage more providers. It’s a little bit like when charter schools were introduced 22 years ago. It took a lot of public support from legislators and the governor to get people interested in opening up charter schools,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a policy piece missing, although I would say reciprocity needs to be much more explicit.”

Said Hoffman, “If a very creative, innovative program came in, and JoAnn were to review it, those standards have to be met. If it looks strange, and they’ve done that, then away we go.

Related articles:


Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.

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  • I think this statement is the most important part of Brown's article: "Another possibility: the expectation that programs would appear overnight, or that reciprocity policies would simply change, was unreasonable, especially considering how highly regulated teacher preparation programs are." As a new member of the Board of Teaching, I've come to appreciate the fact that MN standards were set in place for a reason (and subject to public input). The alt cert. law passed a few years ago was never meant to be an "anything goes" law. MN does have high standards for its teachers and its teacher preparation programs and will not simply throw all of that out with the bath water because of one alt. certification law. As Mr. Hoffman states, if an alt. certification program meets MN standards, then we will proceed accordingly, but until or unless that happens, our job isn't to lower our standards, but to require that programs meet high standards. Regarding the streamlining of out of state licensure, the public can look for additional steps to be taken early in 2014. Jim Barnhill, MN Board of Teaching - by Jimmy Barnhill on Mon, 12/23/2013 - 11:36pm
  • This is nothing but an attack on the integrity of the teaching profession and offensive to the thousands of highly qualified and experienced teachers in this state who have devoted their careers and hearts to helping children learn. It is a thinly (if at all) veiled undermining of teacher unions who have worked tirelessly for the welfare of their members who can then devote their energies to their students. Shame on the U of MN which used to be a shining light in the country for its fine leadership in public education, hence the high quality of MN public schools while other states languished, for partnering with TFA at the expense of licensed teachers who are fully prepared to begin their careers. As stated in the article, we are not referring to "hard to fill" positions, rather positions for which there are hundreds of applicants for each vacancy. These policies are put in place to advance the ill-conceived and unfounded reforms destroying this country's public schools. Causes for achievement gaps is not due to teacher incompetence; it is due to our society's unwillingness to invest in a large portion of its people, especially its children, in poverty. Poverty is the most relevant correlation to underachieving young people. Wake up Minnesotans before our state looks like an underdeveloped country! - by Paul Read on Thu, 12/19/2013 - 12:37pm

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Alleen Brown's picture
Alleen Brown

Alleen Brown (alleenbrown [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net or Twitter @AlleenBrown) is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.

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Two of the most interesting

Two of the most interesting sentences in this story:  

"The St. Paul teachers union has also designed an alt cert program, but it still lacks a required district partner. St. Paul Public Schools has thus far declined to participate."

How about more explanation of what the ST. Paul Teachers are proposing?  Thanks for considering this.

Joe Nathan