Minnesota educators are asking lawmakers to postpone a new state requirement for new teachers to pass a college-level reading, writing and math exam before they can work in public schools.
Signed by Gov. Mark Dayton in February, the new law was intended to raise the bar for Minnesota's aspiring teachers. It saw little opposition because teachers already have had to pass a basic skills exam; the new measure simply requires them to do so before setting foot in the classroom.
But now educators say teachers need more time to pass the test. Without the delay, hundreds might fail the exam, leading to staffing shortages across the state.
In the past, teachers could fail the exam but were still granted a three-year provisional license until they passed. The new law closes that window.
"What we see is the potential for 400 current classroom teachers not to be in the classroom next year," said Keith Hovis, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education. "And that could cause significant staffing problems statewide."
The new law has also rankled supporters of Minnesota's 60 immersion schools, where students are expected to become fluent in a second language. They argue that the requirement unfairly penalizes many of their teachers who are not native English speakers and could keep candidates from applying at a time when their numbers are already in short supply.
"They are not here to teach English," said Dennis Peterson, superintendent of Minnetonka Public Schools, which offers immersion programs at each of the district's elementary schools. "They are here to speak to our students only in Spanish or Chinese. That's what we want them to be proficient in."
Time is tight
Renee Rushdy, whose children attend Eagle Heights Spanish Immersion School in Eden Prairie, said the native-Spanish-speaking teachers are an integral part of the school's success. Without them, students wouldn't be able to pick up on dialect and grasp fast-paced conversations.
"I'm afraid," she said. "I'm afraid that we won't be able to attract viable, credentialed teachers with native-level fluency and of the potential for losing the teachers we currently have."
While immersion school supporters like Rushdy are hoping for a legislative fix, it's unclear whether that's going to happen this session. Lawmakers are running out of time and they are also divided on how to solve the problem.
Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, has introduced legislation giving immersion school teachers who already have a provisional license until 2014 to pass the exam. She said hundreds of concerned parents, teachers and administrators have called since the new law was signed.
"The last thing we want to do is penalize these outstanding students, teachers and programs because of an unintended consequence of the law," Bonoff said.
In the House, Rep. Connie Doepke, R-Orono, introduced a measure that would grant the same extension for all teachers who have a provisional license.
That's the remedy favored by Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who has told lawmakers that the new law means that 400 teachers who are already teaching will have to pass the test before going back to the classroom next school year. Another 1,100 would-be teachers have failed the test and have license applications pending.
Bonoff's plan, she said, doesn't help all the teachers who need it.
"That's problematic," Cassellius said in a letter written last week to Rep. Doepke. "All teacher candidates should be held to consistent standards."
Not so basic
While many legislators seem sympathetic to the plight of the immersion school teachers, fewer seem to support the idea of hitting the pause button for all of the teachers struggling to pass the exam.
Over the past year, Republicans have successfully pushed through several new mandates that hold teachers more accountable for student performance.
Sen. Ted Daley, R-Eagan, one of the new law's primary authors, said he would consider allowing more time for immersion school teachers but not everyone else.
"We know that teacher quality is the number one thing that affects student achievement," he said Friday. "And we know that we have a tremendous achievement gap in Minnesota. I'm not here to attack teachers. I want to attack our state's achievement gap."
Minnesota has long been considered a leader when it comes to setting standards for teacher candidates. In 2010, the state Board of Teaching changed the exam, making it more challenging. Consequently, the reading and writing failure rate has grown from 12 percent to nearly 30 percent. The failure rate in math rose from 8 percent to almost 30 percent.
Some educators say it's misleading to call it a "basic skills" exam.
"I would challenge our lawmakers to take the exam," Peterson said. "It goes beyond what we think of as basics."
Cassellius is now urging lawmakers to direct the Board of Teaching to review the new exam and other licensure requirements to ensure the tools used to measure teaching candidates are the correct ones.
For example, Hovis said: "Do third-grade English teachers need to be proficient in sine, cosine and advanced trigonometry?"
At XinXing Academy in Hopkins, Principal Terri Sigüenza worries about the chilling effect the new law might have on the school's ability to recruit and retain new teachers from other countries.
"We expect so much from these teachers in such short time" she said. "They move here from another country, they're starting a new job, learning our culture, they have to study constantly. It needs to be realistic."
Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469