In Minnesota, is earning a teaching degree and license from a college of education the only, or best, way to obtain the content knowledge and practicum experience required to become an effective teacher? The answer is no and no.
Until just three years ago, there were only two ways to become a licensed teacher in Minnesota. The more traditional way was to attend an accredited Minnesota college program, pass the course work, participate in a practicum experience, and pass the state test required to obtain a teaching license. You can also hold a license from another state that has reciprocity with Minnesota. After passing the state exam, you apply for licensure in Minnesota. This is an onerous, frustrating process mired in red tape and road blocks.
Much to the dismay of the teachers’ unions and colleges of education, an alternative licensure program was adopted in Minnesota about three years ago. To date, only one organization, Teach for America (TFA), working in partnership with the University of Minnesota’s College of Education, has received approval to become a licensing agency, probably only because they are partnering with a university with an accredited education program.
Does obtaining a teaching license from a college or university ensure that you are ready to teach in the classroom? I would argue not. Look at the reading scores of Minnesota fourth graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing. The reading scores reveal that almost 30% of Minnesota fourth graders do not read at a basic reading level; they have great difficulty decoding (reading) the printed word. About 60% are not proficient readers; they do not read with good comprehension. The vast majority (more than 90%) of these students are taught by public school teachers with teaching licenses.
In fact, a strong argument can be made that teachers who obtain their teaching licenses in the traditional “college of education way” are ill prepared to teach students to read. Due to poor reading scores, the Minnesota’s Board of Teaching in 2007 convened a statewide reading task force charged with examining and making recommendations regarding the knowledge standards required for the licensing of any teacher who teaches reading to any public school student. There were five licensure categories spanning early childhood through twelfth grade. The task force divided into subcommittees, and because of the critical need to have students reading at grade level by fourth grade, Susan Thomson, literacy advocate, and John Alexander, head of school at Groves Academy, joined the Early Childhood and Elementary Licensure Committee, one of five categories involving reading.
Alexander and Thomson brought evidence-based research and passion to a Task Force that was largely comprised of university professors who were comfortable with the status quo. Because of differences of opinion between Thomson and Alexander and the rest of the task force, the original one-year commitment turned into a three-year responsibility. The professors on the committee flatly disagreed that there was a problem with the way teacher candidates were being trained to teach reading, and they would not agree with the new standards for licensure proposed by Alexander and Thomson.
After two more years of bitter debate within the reading task force, Alexander and Thomson’s reading knowledge standards were unanimously approved by the Board of teaching to the dismay of the professors of higher education. At the same time, a literacy bill requiring a comprehensive knowledge-based assessment of the five strands of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development and comprehension) that Alexander, Thomson, Bette Erickson, and many others worked for was passed into law. A great deal had been accomplished, but there is more to do as the new reading standards and reading assessment apply only to teachers entering the teaching profession. Teachers with teaching licenses prior to 2009 were grandfathered and do not have to obtain the same knowledge standards.
Ironically, although Alexander has a master’s degree from Harvard in reading and for the last 29 years has taught both students to read and teachers to become better reading teachers, and participated on the reading task force, he cannot teach in a Minnesota public school because he lacks a teaching license. Similarly, there are over 96,000 students in Minnesota who are taught in 546 independent (private) schools. Most of these independent schools do not require their teachers to be licensed. Apparently the market has determined that these schools and their unlicensed teachers are doing a good job as private school enrollment is growing.
Something seems inherently wrong with the education system when people like Alexander and many proven, non-licensed private school teachers are not allowed to teach in Minnesota public schools, many of which are steeped in mediocrity and in need of an infusion of talent and energy, because they do not hold a teacher’s license. Not surprisingly, the teachers’ unions and colleges of education are opposed to alternative licensure because it creates competition among teachers and institutions which grant licenses. They reject competition even though competition ultimately benefits students. Teachers’ unions and colleges of education wield tremendous political weight, making it difficult to institute true educational reform.
One day Groves Academy will compete against colleges of education as we apply to become an alternative licensure site. We plan on attracting teacher candidates who have recently earned a liberal arts degree and who have had positive experiences with students as coaches, camp counselors, youth church leaders, etc. These student-teachers will take content courses in reading and spelling development, the teaching of writing, mathematics instruction, and pedagogy in the evenings and then work with Groves master teachers and students during the day. They will have the best of both worlds—deep content level classes and an extraordinary practicum experience.
In the coming years, we will be collecting teacher and student data from teachers who have received a teaching license through Groves, and we will compare a number of metrics to determine their effectiveness versus the effectiveness of teachers who take a more traditional pathway. I think we will find that there are better ways to prepare teachers than the way the traditional system does.