Teacher licensing rules are one reason small schools don’t have enough teachers

FAIRFIELD, Mont. — Maggie Anderson teaches sixth grade at Greenfield School. Her principal, Paul Wilson, thinks she does a great job and is happy to have her. But until recently Anderson, a Vermont native who found a new home among the windswept grainfields of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, had been inadvertently costing the school money and potentially harming its reputation.

That’s because she didn’t have a teaching license, even though she should have qualified and she and Wilson tried for months to get her one. 

“I went and talked to Maggie, which was probably the hardest conversation because she’s teaching full-time, taking classes, mom of two kids, and I had to tell her [the state is] not going to issue your provisional license and we’re going to take an accreditation ding,” Wilson said. “She just felt so bad about it, that the school was going to take a hit because of something that was out of our control.”

teacher licensing
Maggie Anderson never considered a career in teaching until she stepped into a classroom at Fairfield, Montana’s Greenfield School. While she enjoys the creativity and freedom of the job, she likens her attempt to obtain a provisional license in Montana to a visit to the DMV: slow, bureaucratic and frustrating. Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report

Obtaining a full teacher license in Montana isn’t easy. As in most states, would-be educators have to demonstrate their experience, knowledge and moral suitability through recommendations, transcripts, licensure exams and criminal background checks, a multi-step undertaking that can take over a month in the best of circumstances. The process would be easier with clear directions and sufficient support from the state’s education department, which aren’t always forthcoming in Montana due to glacial bureaucracy, according to multiple sources.

Local News Fellowship

This story is one of four produced by local reporters under Hechinger’s inaugural Local News Fellowship project.

During a recent meeting of the Montana Legislature’s Education Interim Committee, Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, noted that during her years as a public school superintendent, it sometimes took the state six weeks just to process an applicant’s fingerprints. In some places, the multiple hurdles to licensure slow the process so much that they have exacerbated the state’s teacher shortage.

While the state has implemented several alternative certification options to speed things up, the number of unlicensed teachers in Montana classrooms has more than doubled in the past four school years, from 88 in 2017-18 to 185 last year. In total, 137 Montana schools — 65 percent of which were classified as rural — employed unlicensed teachers during the 2020-21 school year. Like Anderson, those teachers are still working, but their lack of state certification carries significant consequences for both students and schools. Aspiring teachers are hard enough to come by in rural districts, and any unexpected twists in the path to licensure could result in a classroom led by uncertified staff and a school having to answer to the state.

The rich barley fields surrounding Fairfield, Montana, have prompted locals to dub this 729-person town the “Malting Barley Capital of the World.” But its rural nature has made recruiting outside teachers to Greenfield School a significant challenge for Principal Paul Wilson.

School leaders across the country have made it clear that there must be alternative licensing pathways available for nontraditional teachers. Nationally, schools employ thousands of educators who are not fully certified in their teaching areas, according to data from the Learning Policy Institute, a national education research nonprofit.

“What we see policymakers balancing is the need to have a high bar for entry into the profession — to make sure everyone who gets in front of a classroom of students is prepared — with ensuring we have enough teachers and ensuring that there aren’t artificial barriers that are unintentionally keeping really great people out of the classroom,” said Tiffany McDole, an assistant director at the Education Commission of the States, a research organization that supports state policymakers.

Related: When schools reopen, we may not have enough teachers

In Montana, employing unlicensed educators puts schools at risk of failing to earn a clean accreditation record, which can threaten the school’s reputation and funding. (For example, Greenfield missed out on a $3,300 state quality educator payment, awarded to districts for each full-time licensed educator.) While state officials say licensing is important to safeguard the quality of teachers in front of Montana’s public school students, the current regulations make staffing that much harder on schools.

Anderson has worked at Greenfield School for nearly a decade. She first arrived at the small cluster of classrooms and offices after graduating from college with a double major in criminal justice and Spanish. She quickly landed a part-time job teaching Spanish to Greenfield’s fifth and sixth graders.

“I never wanted to do education, but then I got the job and I just loved it,” Anderson said. “I like to be creative, and then working in a small rural school, it’s really nice because you do have a lot more freedom to change things up and kind of do your thing.”

Teacher applicants in places like Fairfield can be scarce, and there’s no guarantee new teachers will stay. One hire several years ago lasted just two weeks, Wilson said, leaving their class dependent on local substitutes for an entire semester.

In early 2019, Wilson was ready to hire Anderson, who plans to stay in Montana for the foreseeable future, to teach sixth grade full-time. She’d been teaching Spanish to elementary and middle school students, but he felt she was ready to take charge of a classroom of her own. He even had one available: The sixth-grade teacher was set to retire at the end of the school year.

At Wilson’s request, the district agreed to cover Anderson’s costs for an online teaching course through Montana State University. In fall 2019, with her studies still ongoing, she took over Greenfield’s sixth-grade classroom. Anderson had filed an application the previous spring with the Montana Office of Public Instruction — called OPI by most educators in the state — for a three-year provisional license that would allow her to teach while completing her coursework. But word came back in spring 2020 that her paperwork was incomplete.

“The school was going to take a hit because of something that was out of our control.”

Paul Wilson, principal of a K-8 public school

Her license was denied; the state declared Greenfield deficient for employing an unlicensed teacher. Wilson conferred with Anderson, confirmed that she had submitted all the requisite documents and then pushed back on the state, without success.

“It really just blew my mind. I didn’t know where to go with it,” Wilson said. “After I got told by OPI that this wasn’t going to work, then of course I had to go talk to my board [of trustees] just to let them know ahead of time so when the accreditation report came out they didn’t say, ‘What in the world is this? How did you guys drop the ball on it?’”

Officials and teachers note consistent difficulties securing adequate help from the state. The Office of Public Instruction has a licensure staff of three. They process thousands of license applications, renewals and upgrades every year using an extremely outdated system, according to Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton. Melton said the state has adopted a “hyper-regulatory mindset” when it comes to teacher licensing. Officials are “figuring out if there’s a reason to deny [a license] instead of figuring out if there’s a reason to grant one,” he said.

For Maggie Anderson, a part-time job teaching Spanish at central Montana’s Greenfield School blossomed into a full-time post as a grade 6 teacher. But even obtaining a provisional license proved significantly challenging, resulting in an accreditation deficiency for Greenfield in 2020. Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report

The Education Commission’s McDole notes that artificial barriers to licensure are sometimes a byproduct of bureaucratic processes, an issue that’s not isolated to Montana. Standards and rules for educator licensing vary from state to state, and a teacher certified in one may find that their certification doesn’t line up with the requirements in another if they relocate. Alternative licenses knock down that potential barrier, McDole said, by buying individual teachers time to sort through the steps necessary to obtain a full license.

Provisional licenses, which were established in Montana in 2019, offer schools a way to fill classrooms with educators by allowing prospective teachers to stay in schools while they complete the requirements for full licensure. The state issued 182 three-year provisional licenses for teachers, counselors and administrators in 2020 as well as 89 one-year provisional licenses and 116 emergency authorizations. (Emergency authorizations allow schools to employ unlicensed teachers if they’ve exhausted all other options.)

All but four states now have some form of provisional license, which can offer an alternative route to licensure for would-be teachers working toward full certification while in the classroom. The goal of such licenses has been to provide educators a quicker path into the classroom while still maintaining the standards necessary to guarantee students a quality education, McDole said.

In Cut Bank, some 100 dusty road miles north of Fairfield, Superintendent Wade Johnson has tried to make working in smaller, remote schools more tempting. He’s teamed up with the Cut Bank Education Foundation and Alumni Association to offer $2,000 signing bonuses to new teachers — $4,000 for applicants who graduated from Cut Bank High School.

Johnson sees the bonuses as a tool for improving recruitment and retention, both of which are made harder by an unwieldy licensing process.

Kathy Lindberg, the high school instrumental music teacher in Cut Bank, obtained a provisional license this spring after nearly two years of back-and-forth over her qualifications. Lindberg, who holds a doctorate in music, said OPI had insisted she repeat college courses, including several she’d previously taught, to meet licensing requirements.

teacher licensing
Schools in Montana agricultural towns like Fairfield have struggled in recent years to put teachers in their classrooms. They also make up the majority of those experiencing accreditation deficiencies for employing unlicensed educators. Of the 137 schools dinged for such a deficiency last year, 89 were classified as rural. Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report

“It made me question whether this was the right career move for a while, because I could easily have gone back to teaching college,” Lindberg said. “It was very frustrating.”

At times the effort to clear obstacles to licensure has rankled some public education associations. In 2016, Utah responded to a crippling teacher shortage by dramatically scaling back its licensing standards, effectively making it possible for anyone with a bachelor’s degree to teach. The Utah Education Association pushed back, arguing that content knowledge alone isn’t enough to make a quality teacher.

The state has since created a three-tiered licensing system that includes a temporary three-year district-specific license. Individual districts can apply to the state for such a license provided all other licensing routes for a candidate are “untenable.” Those licenses, which place certification authority in the hands of local officials rather than a state agency, are only valid in that particular district, and can’t be used to teach special education or preschool.

A total of 137 Montana schools — 65 percent of which were classified as rural — employed unlicensed teachers during the 2020-21 school year.

Sara Jones, director of education excellence and government relations at the Utah Education Association, said the state still has some oversight of applicants when it comes to background checks.

“But as far as pedagogy, content knowledge, all of the things that will make them effective in a classroom, it’s left up to the district to determine what exactly those criteria will be to hire somebody on this [district]-specific license,” Jones continued. “So, there’s a lot of flexibility with it.”

A district-based licensing solution could help school leaders like Wilson avoid jeopardizing their accreditation status. Melton, of the Montana School Boards Association, said accreditation deficiencies aren’t enough to seriously jeopardize state or federal funding in Montana, at least not until they result in a decline in student performance. But deficiencies do require corrective action before the Board of Public Education, and don’t look good on paper to school boards, parents or prospective hires. The impact on perception is particularly troubling to Wilson. According to state accreditation reports, the Greenfield School deficiency associated with Anderson’s licensing delay isn’t the only one his school has received in recent years.

“I’m really invested in this school,” Wilson said of Greenfield, where he started as a teacher’s aide in 2003. “I take a lot of pride in it, and it’s very important to me that our reputation is always highly regarded in the community, in the state, with other teachers … It’s not a good feeling to think that other people will see our accreditation status and go, ‘They’re not fully accredited, again?’”

About 35 miles west of Cut Bank, Corrina Guardipee-Hall oversees a student population of 1,828 students in the Browning School District on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The district’s small office building sits in front of the towering peaks of Glacier National Park. Four of the district’s five schools were dinged with accreditation deficiencies for unlicensed teachers in 2019-20. One of those, Guardipee-Hall said, was due solely to a teacher forgetting to send in a filing fee.

“We actually got a deficiency in one of our buildings because the employee didn’t pay $10,” Guardipee-Hall said. “If [OPI] would have called us or helped us, communicated with us, we would have been able to bridge that gap for them.”

When Kayla Jeckell first arrived at Browning Elementary School from Pennsylvania five years ago, she’d been told the process of transferring her teacher certification would be fairly easy. But Jeckell quickly discovered that her certification didn’t match Montana’s requirements, and OPI gave her a short window of time to take the Praxis certification exam — a standardized test used in more than 40 states to gauge aspiring teachers’ subject-area knowledge — to obtain her license.

“It made me question whether this was the right career move for a while, because I could easily have gone back to teaching college.”

Kathy Lindberg, music teacher

“That was really frustrating at the beginning,” Jeckell said, “just trying to scramble, get a test, pass it, while also having to get my classroom set up.”

The obstacles sometimes faced by new-to-Montana teachers like Jeckell include sorting out differing certification requirements between states and confusion over exactly which forms to fill out. One bill introduced in the Legislature this spring sought to expedite the teacher licensing process by offering blanket reciprocity to out-of-state teachers. It was loudly rebuffed by the education community for loosening the standards too much. Lawmakers instead passed an omnibus bill streamlining teacher licensing for those certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and giving the Montana Board of Public Education greater leeway in determining the experience necessary to certify out-of-state educators.

Montana Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen is well aware of the importance of timely, efficient teacher licensing, both for individual educators and their schools. She and other top OPI officials meet with the agency’s teacher licensing bureau on a weekly basis to discuss any unusual or challenging licensure situations and make a determination how to proceed.

teacher licensing
Montana’s teacher shortage has hit rural schools particularly hard, with 65 percent reporting difficulty filling vacancies. The situation has been accompanied by an increase in unlicensed teachers in Montana classrooms, from 88 in 2017-18 to 185 last school year. Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report

“We’ve already added additional staffing this year to our licensing unit to help address these issues,” Allen said. “We’ve added those based on the budget we have available from the allocation that we get from the Legislature.”

She expects to begin collecting bids from private contractors to modernize the state’s teacher licensing database, an effort for which the Montana Legislature earmarked $8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding this spring.

In its capacity as the arbiter of Montana teacher licensing rules, the Board of Public Education has also tried to make the process smoother by adopting the new provisional teacher licenses and began preparations for an in-depth public review of its teacher licensing and accreditation rules this summer, which occurs every five years.

“The board is willing to do anything possible to really be helpful to these school districts that are looking to both recruit and retain a qualified workforce,” said McCall Flynn, the executive director of the state board of education.

Related: Are uncertified teachers better than substitutes?

School leaders often put themselves between teachers and OPI, knowing prospective hires probably aren’t looking exclusively at jobs in Montana, said Dennis Parman, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association. During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers and educators said Wyoming, where salaries are higher and the number of uncertified teachers is far lower, is a fierce competitor for teachers. Administrators worry that a difficult teacher licensing process makes it even less likely that teachers licensed in other states will consider moving to Montana, Parman said.

Parman said school administrators worry teachers will “just look at it and say, ‘The money’s not worth it. I’ve already got my schooling; I’m already licensed somewhere. I’m not going to spend more money to get a license in Montana.’”

Back in Browning, Guardipee-Hall has decided to focus on hiring locals. She partnered with Dee Hoyt, education division chair at Blackfeet Community College, and Vikki Howard, coordinator of the special education program at the University of Montana Western, to develop a grow-your-own-teacher program for the district. Since its start in 2016, the program has succeeded in filling 60 teacher positions, Guardipee-Hall said. In addition to classroom training, the Blackfeet program helps students meet licensure requirements with a special focus on passing the Praxis exam.

“We just met as a faculty at Montana Western a few weeks ago and looked at our Praxis score data across the years, and we find that, overall, our Western students are challenged on the Praxis,” Howard said. “A high percentage, over 60 percent, of our students don’t pass the Praxis on the first attempt.”

That problem is also common nationally. The National Council on Teacher Quality estimates that only 46 percent of elementary school teachers pass their licensing exams the first time around — more than 20 percent lower than the first-time pass rate in other exam-based professions including law, medicine and psychiatry.

Related: Rural schools have a teacher shortage. Why don’t people who live there, teach there?

Howard said the program she and Hoyt developed intentionally seeks to shore up would-be teacher preparation in content areas in hopes of improving pass rates and removing that “stumbling block” toward full licensure. They believe the benefits of having local teachers, especially those who share an Indigenous heritage with their students, are well worth the extra effort.

Jeremy Wells, a graduate of the program now teaching fifth grade in Browning, said his ability to establish a shared identity with students through references to local landmarks and familiar family names is critical in establishing a classroom environment free of judgment or discrimination. “Once they see that, then they realize that there’s this trust,” Wells said, “and then you just transfer that trust back to them.”

The rich barley fields surrounding Fairfield, Montana, have prompted locals to dub this 729-person town the “Malting Barley Capital of the World.” But its rural nature has made recruiting outside teachers to Greenfield School a significant challenge for Principal Paul Wilson. Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report

Whether it’s failing to pass the Praxis or missing a filing fee or improperly filled-out paperwork, identifying the obstacles to licensing educators in a smooth, efficient fashion is an ongoing effort in Montana and an immediate need for local school officials. At Greenfield School, Anderson said she counts herself lucky to have had a principal who put more value on keeping a trusted educator in the classroom than on avoiding an accreditation hit. With Wilson’s help, she finally got a 3-year provisional license approved in the spring of 2021 and will continue with her coursework with the goal of eventually earning a full Montana teaching license within the next 18 months.

“I don’t even know what you would do if you were just hitting roadblock after roadblock” without help from your boss, she said. “Even if you were a new [teacher] just out of school and you got hired with the intention of having that piece of paper when you started and then you didn’t have it, I don’t know if your school would be like, ‘Well, sorry. See you later.’ That’s the scary thing.”

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