Keep Great Teachers in the Classroom. Period.
By Josh Crosson
With teachers being the most important in-school factor for student success, “Who should lead our classrooms?” is no small question. In answering it, we too often focus exclusively on inconclusive assumptions about the way we’ve always trained teachers, and disregard teachers’ actual impact on student academic outcomes. This is where the debate over teacher licensure often reaches an impasse—and where student-centered solutions, not long-held traditions, should move us forward.
To make sure Minnesota students learn from effective and diverse educators, we need a licensure system that keeps great teachers in the classroom by honoring the many pathways they may take into teaching.
FIXING A BROKEN SYSTEM
Just one year ago, prospective local teachers had to follow a strict, Minnesota-specific path to licensure. If you were an educator from another state or looking to move from another profession, the process of getting a license was confusing and inconsistent, forcing many out of the teaching field altogether. Relying on a single, rigid path to teacher licensure has resulted in a homogenous group of educators: nearly all white, over 75 percent female, and with far more elementary education and English teachers than science, math, and career and technical education teachers.
As both experienced and aspiring educators found it increasingly difficult to obtain licensure—even after demonstrating effectiveness in the classroom—Minnesotans called for different ways to license teachers. A 2015 report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor called Minnesota’s teacher licensure system “broken” and in need of “significant changes.” Numerous experienced teachers successfully sued the Board of Teaching to combat a process that was arbitrarily denying them their licenses.
In response, the Legislature and Gov. Dayton passed laws in 2017 to create a tiered licensure system, as the OLA explicitly recommended.
TIERED TEACHER LICENSURE
Tiered licensure, which went into effect in summer 2018, gives teachers a clear map to the classroom, laying out pathways and restrictions for teachers with varying experience, education, and training. Replacing a broken, patchwork system that relied on arbitrary decision-making, it created clear rules, set a floor for teacher qualifications at different levels, and gave schools flexibility to staff hard-to-fill positions.
By relying on traditional teacher preparation as the only barometer for classroom readiness, our former system created significant barriers—all based on inconclusive evidence on the effectiveness of traditional training. That’s why policymakers designed tiered licensure with an eye on supporting passionate, effective educators from diverse backgrounds, while creating viable pathways for them to move up the professional ladder.
- Tier 1: One-year licenses for professionals who haven’t completed teacher preparation. This category—formerly known as “community expert permissions”—sets new, clearer parameters around basic qualifications, such as requiring candidates to hold a bachelor’s degree and take licensure exams.
- Tier 2: Two-year licenses for teachers currently enrolled in teacher preparation programs, teachers with a master’s degree or Ph.D. in the content area, newly trained teachers from other states, or teachers with multiple years of classroom experience.
- Tier 3: Three-year licenses for teachers who have completed a Minnesota teacher preparation program, completed Licensure via Portfolio, or demonstrated multiple years of effectiveness as a Tier 2 teacher or teacher trained in another state.
- Tier 4: Five-year licenses reserved for master teachers who have completed training, have at least three years of experience, and demonstrated effectiveness based on evaluations.
TWO STEPS BACK
Although tiered licensure launched just eight months ago, the Minnesota House is already advancing proposals that would undo many key elements of the system, re-erecting bureaucratic hurdles and pushing qualified, experienced teachers out of the classroom. Proposals in HF 2400 would:
- Eliminate on-ramps to the classroom for teachers with a master’s degree or Ph.D.;
- Remove pathways to permanent licensure for teachers who have demonstrated effectiveness over several years on a Tier 2 license, essentially pushing successful educators out of the profession after six years of teaching; and
- Restrict schools from placing students in a Tier 1 or Tier 2 teacher’s classroom for consecutive years, making it difficult for schools to hire these teachers and potentially creating even more churn and instability for the state’s most underserved
These measures rely on the faulty assumption that teachers are highly effective simply based on the training or courses they have completed, rather than their impact on students. Far from “raising standards” for the profession, limiting and pushing out effective, proven Tier 1 and Tier 2 educators would actually weaken our teacher workforce.
TIER 1 AND TIER 2 TEACHERS BENEFIT STUDENTS
There is no evidence that Tier 1 and Tier 2 teachers are less effective than higher-tiered educators. There is evidence, however, that teachers of color and career and technical education teachers—who are over-represented in these tiers—are more likely to close achievement gaps, reduce student suspensions, and improve high school graduation rates, especially for students of color and indigenous students.
First, Tier 1 and Tier 2 teachers are much more diverse than their peers: A whopping 23 percent of Minnesota’s teachers of color—who, collectively, make up just 4 percent of the state’s licensed teachers—are in the classroom through a Tier 1 or Tier 2 license. As we work to close opportunity and achievement gaps, recruiting, retaining, and supporting teachers of color needs to be a priority.
Second, we know that creating non-traditional pathways to licensure brings educators into the field with rich life experiences that can enhance classrooms and broaden the types of programming schools can offer. Nearly half of the state’s current career and technical education teachers work with a Tier 1 or Tier 2 license. What’s more, career and technical education increases high school graduation rates, and has the biggest impact on Black and Native American students. Attempting to shoehorn CTE teachers into a traditional pathway will not benefit students, and will instead push educators with incredibly valuable skills and perspectives out of our schools.
LET TEACHERS TEACH
Some pathways to teaching work well for many teachers but create unnecessary hurdles for others. But, when it comes to student outcomes, no one on-ramp into teaching is a silver bullet. What’s clear, then, is that we should do everything to keep effective, dedicated teachers in the classroom, regardless of how they get there. Making it more difficult for great educators to continue teaching—by removing licensure pathways, setting arbitrary renewal limits, and pushing proven Tier 1 and Tier 2 teachers out of the profession—would be a huge step in the wrong direction for Minnesota’s students. It would also run counter to any efforts to address the state’s persistent opportunity and achievement gaps.
Instead, our policymakers and school leaders must work on recruiting and retaining great teachers, focusing on how they can help Minnesota students succeed. Do your part: Let state leaders know that you support commonsense licensure pathways and oppose the licensure measures in HF 2400.