By Vernae Hasbargen, MREA Legislative Consultant
Groups like the Business Partnership and the Chamber of Commerce have pushed hard to raise the skill level of teachers and have been successful in gaining legislative approval for tests called the “Minnesota Teacher Licensure Examinations” (MTLE).
Starting in 2010, candidates seeking licensure in Minnesota must pass the MTLE math, reading, and writing tests, a pedagogy test consisting of two subtests, and a test on the content knowledge related to a specific licensure field. Even teachers prepared outside of Minnesota and with previous teaching experience must take the MTLE tests.
The MTLE couldn’t have come at a worse time for Minnesota because the pool of qualified teachers is shrinking and the need for teachers of color has never been greater.
Last session the Legislature spent a great deal of time revisiting the MTLE and in the end settled for a first step – allowing candidates who have not passed to become teachers for one year, with an extension for up to three years. They also delegated the responsibility of coming up with a solution to a task force who will report back during the 2014 session.
Glaring problems with MTLE
Opponents of the MTLE charge there is no correlation between passing a basic skills tests and effectiveness in the classroom. As one administrator put it, “We want teachers who know how to teach, not college math”.
Initially the Board of Teaching set the math cut score a whole standard deviation higher than the testing company recommended which, according to the former director of the Board, meant 72 percent of the American public would not be able to pass the math test. Many argue future elementary teachers don’t need to know college calculus.
But the MTLE has another problem It is a timed test, so those whose primary language is not English can not reformulate the questions in their own language within the given time limit.
The most significant disadvantage for all teacher candidates is the cost of repeated retaking of MTLE, which on top of student loans, further shrinks the teacher supply.
Rural districts feel the pinch most
This fall MREA completed a series of eleven Area Meetings and its Annual Conference. It is clear that the biggest issue facing rural districts is the shrinking supply of teachers. For many districts along the state’s borders, the MTLE drives candidates to neighboring states rather than take the test in Minnesota.
Even in curriculum areas with a past surplus of candidates like elementary education, the pool has dried up and in science or special ed, the supply is nonexistent. Increasingly districts are turning to community experts because as one MREA superintendent put it, “In some areas it’s no longer a question of quality, but a warm body in the classroom.”
Besides calling for the Board of Teaching to revisit the MTLE’s cut scores and time limits, MREA wants colleges preparing teachers to be accountable for its graduates and school administrators to evaluate who can teach effectively in classrooms, rather than using single-point-in-time pencil and paper tests.
Further MREA wants a college tuition rebate program for those who are newly licensed and choose to teach in small rural schools and/or in hard to find disciplines.
Recently the chair of the Higher Education Committee, Senator Terri Bonoff, completed a listening tour of Minnesota’s colleges and found the average college graduate has $30,000 in student loans, the third highest in the nation.
Bonhoff wants to offer student loan debt forgiveness in exchange for public service after graduation. When asked by MREA if this public service could include teaching in small communities or remote areas of the state she replied, “We offer loan forgiveness to Dr’s in hard to serve areas. Why not teachers?”