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Educators, policymakers can’t agree on a solution to Minnesota's spreading teacher shortage

ST. PAUL - Minnesota faces a growing shortage of teachers in key specialties, and educators and policymakers are divided over how to attract and retain qualified teachers.

Amber Adrian, left, tutors 10th grade student Alex Chipman on history Friday in his Anoka home. Adrian faced multiple hurdles in her fight to get a Minnesota teaching license even though she had a license from another state and a master’s degree in education. Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL – Minnesota faces a growing shortage of teachers in key specialties, and educators and policymakers are divided over how to attract and retain qualified teachers.
Administrators argue that Minnesota’s strict licensing requirements and union rules make it difficult to attract and retain highly effective and diverse teachers. Teachers union leaders say that state law already gives schools flexibility and that the rules Minnesota has now ensure students get the best teachers possible.
As lawmakers debate ways to address the state’s teacher shortage, some worry the proposed changes could lead to risky unintended consequences. Complicating the debate is state data on Minnesota’s teaching force that sometimes paints a conflicting picture of the hurdles and shortages described to lawmakers.
Despite the attention they draw, teacher layoffs are rather rare. At the height of the recession, less than 2 percent of Minnesota’s teaching force was cut, although in a system that emphasizes seniority those cuts typically fall on the youngest teachers.
Minnesota’s process for licensing teachers is often criticized as convoluted, but the number of teachers from outside the state being licensed has more than doubled since 2010, state data shows. Nevertheless, those licenses are nearly all temporary, with most recipients being required to take tests or training to receive full licenses.
One of the more controversial proposals to address these concerns, a bill sponsored by state Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, is expected to be debated this week. It’s a top Republican priority that faces strong opposition in the DFL-led Senate, where Democratic-Farmer-Labor Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka has sponsored companion legislation.
The bill would require districts to use teachers’ effectiveness when making staffing decisions. It also would significantly broaden the paths to a Minnesota teaching license – considered by many to be the “gold standard” in the Midwest.
Loon says the changes she’s proposed will ensure students get the best educators. “Every child deserves the opportunity to achieve academic success, and quality teaching is an important part of that,” she said.
Many DFLers and Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, oppose the bill. They note that licensing issues and layoffs are only a small part of why Minnesota struggles to attract and retain qualified teachers.
“Our school districts already have the tools they need to hire, fire, assign and develop teachers,” said Denise Specht, union president. “We need to take a good look at what issues are driving good teachers out of the profession.”
The shortage
Minnesota’s teaching force stands at about 58,000 educators, according to a recent report by the state Education Department. Each year, about 10 percent of that workforce leaves, mostly because of retirements, personal reasons or being hired elsewhere.
The data suggests about half of those departing teachers leave education altogether. Young teachers have some of the highest attrition rates, with 32 percent leaving teaching within their first five years.
In 2013, the latest year for which data is available, Minnesota issued about 4,600 new licenses to recent graduates. That means school administrators had to turn to teachers with limited licenses or special exemptions for hard-to-fill jobs.
“I believe we are already in the early stages, at best, of a teacher shortage,” said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. “We headed into this school year hearing from more and more superintendents, not just in Greater Minnesota but in the metro, that had challenges finding licensed teachers in many areas.”
State data show some of the toughest teaching jobs to fill are those working with students with learning or developmental disabilities, students learning English and jobs that require special language skills. Districts also often struggle to fill spots in the sciences and mathematics, where there are more-lucrative careers in the private sector.
Yet, even as administrators complain that it’s hard to find certain types of teachers, the number of special licenses and exemptions granted by the Minnesota Board of Teaching fell 7 percent in the past five years. The number of special licenses granted is often used to illustrate how difficult it is to hire teachers with particular skills.
The need for temporary licenses for teachers in once hard-to-fill specialties such as those who work with students with developmental and learning disabilities fell by up to 40 percent, state data shows. But in other areas, such as school psychologists or bilingual elementary educators, the need grew by as much as 25 percent.
Richard Wassen, director of teacher licensing for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the fluctuation in temporary licensing shows both the continued need and where Minnesota has been successful recruiting.
“Over the last several years, we have said we need to improve teaching of math in our schools, we made it sound like it’s really cool and we’ve done a better job recruiting and retaining math teachers,” Wassen said.
Licensing process
Educators and lawmakers agree the best way to solve the state’s teacher shortage is to make sure qualified teachers can get into the state’s classrooms. Policymakers have championed numerous changes since 2011 to streamline licensing, although many still criticize the process.
Despite a small staff and limited resources, Erin Doan, executive director of the state Board of Teaching, says the board has implemented a number of reforms to improve licensing. Candidates now can use things such as ACT scores or portfolios of their work to prove their qualifications.
In 2014, nearly 40 percent of the licenses issued by the state went to teachers trained outside Minnesota. That’s more than double the 1,697 teaching licenses that went to candidates trained out-of-state in 2010.
But nearly all those licenses were for one year, and those teachers were required to meet other qualifications before they could receive a full, five-year certification. For some, that’s where things get tricky.
Amber Adrian, a South Dakota native and honors student, joined Teach for America after receiving her bachelor’s degree. TFA places new graduates in troubled schools, and Adrian landed in Los Angeles and eventually earned her master’s degree in education.
But when she came to Minnesota and helped found the Laura Jeffrey Academy charter school in St. Paul, Adrian encountered hurdle after hurdle in her journey to a full Minnesota teaching license.
Adrian was told to work with a local teacher training college to see if she needed any extra training to meet Minnesota’s standards.
“And that’s where the craziness began,” she said.
Adrian says she had to dig into old college records to prove she met basic training requirements. She had to take multiple courses, while teaching full time, to meet other standards.
“No teacher should have to go through this,” Adrian said.
In the end, Adrian got her full license, but by the time she did, she was burned out on teaching.
“Overall, I was feeling no matter how hard I work, I can’t give every kid what they need,” she said.
Doan acknowledges the licensing process can sometimes be confusing. The state Department of Education is the agency that issues actual licenses, but the Board of Teaching handles appeals and counsels candidates on how to address missing qualifications.
“One thing I will own is we have communication issues and we need to help people better understand our role so, when something goes wrong, they know where to go to get it addressed,” she said.
Nevertheless, Doan says Minnesota’s rules are designed to make sure teachers are properly trained.
“We want to know, when we issue a special-education license, that person has been trained to deal with our most vulnerable students,” Doan said.
School administrators also argue that Minnesota’s union rules keep qualified people from considering teaching careers because they worry they’ll be subject to layoffs even if they’re effective in the classroom. They want to overhaul state rules to require performance be a key part of staffing decisions.
Minnesota schools now use seniority, essentially how long a teacher worked in a district, as the primary criterion when they are forced to cut staff. Law allows districts to negotiate more nuanced rules, and data provided by Education Minnesota shows about 40 percent of districts use criteria in addition to seniority.
But those urging changes say that seniority is still the default in state law and that school board members have trouble negotiating more meaningful systems.
“What I like about the proposal is it empowers teachers and districts to work together to craft a solution,” Amoroso said.
But union leaders disagree. They say forcing districts to give effectiveness ratings to teachers would undermine the new evaluation system just as it’s getting started.
One thing is clear: Layoffs of teachers are relatively rare, even in tough times.
Last year, 350 teachers were cut, about 6 percent of the 5,899 Minnesota teachers who left teaching. That’s down from 667 teachers who lost their jobs to layoffs in 2008 at the height of the recession. Yet, there were 2,345 new teachers in 2008, and state data suggests up to 28 percent of those new hires could face layoff in districts that emphasize seniority.
During that same time, about 1,000 teachers quit teaching for “personal reasons” and roughly 1,500 retired. One in three new teachers quit the profession in their first five years for various reasons including staff cuts, personal reasons and not being offered permanent jobs.
That level of turnover is worrisome to administrators and teachers. Members of both groups say Minnesota cannot solve its teacher shortage if a job appears unappealing and new teachers do not get the support they need.
“Teacher morale is at an all-time low,” Specht said. “We really need to think about retention. We wouldn’t have to worry so much about replacing these people if they weren’t leaving the profession.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.

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