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Over the past six weeks, two review committees convened by the Montana Office of Public Instruction have begun discussing potential revisions to state regulations governing educator licensure. So far their deliberations have focused on bolstering recruitment and retention in the midst of a teacher shortage and providing a clearer pathway for school counselors to become administrators — all in hopes of removing roadblocks to certifying the people charged with educating Montana’s youth.

For OPI and the Board of Public Education, the process is a matter of routine, a revisitation of agency rules that by law occurs every five years. It’s also a fundamental component in ensuring the quality of teachers staffing the state’s K-12 classrooms, and one that was highlighted numerous times during the 2021 Legislature. Lawmakers debated a significant piece of legislation, House Bill 246, that inserted elements of current licensure rules into state law. Though the Board of Public Education, via Executive Director McCall Flynn, suggested several times that OPI’s non-legislative review process is a more appropriate venue for such changes, the board ultimately supported HB 246, which was signed into law in April.

“We do try to be cautious and careful about codifying administrative rules,” Flynn said in an interview. “We don’t want that to necessarily be the norm, just because it does take a little bit more time and explanation on why those administrative rules were made and why maybe they were changed.”

Now, OPI’s review committees are trying to clean up and build on the regulatory framework that inspired the new law, aided with data, survey results and focus group feedback compiled by OPI throughout last fall and winter. The specific portions of the agency’s rules under review are Chapter 57, which lays out the requirements for educator licensure, and Chapter 58, which addresses educator preparation at the college level. Each has its own assigned task force composed of teachers, administrators, parents and stakeholders from Montana’s various education-affiliated associations.

“These task forces really include such a broad range of people, from community members to parents to folks directly in either licensure or educator prep programs,” Flynn said. “It’s really necessary to the work of the Board of Public Ed and OPI together.”

Over the course of weekly Thursday meetings in June and July, task force members have already identified several key areas of interest and concern. High on the list for those reviewing Chapter 57 is the need to remove obstacles facing school counselors who want to transition into administrative positions such as superintendent or principal, which require a separate tier of licensing. Current rules for administrator licenses require that applicants have a master’s degree and a minimum of three years of teaching experience, but do not account for experience as a school counselor.

Flynn said the Board of Public Education has specifically noted counselors’ difficulty in obtaining administrative licenses as “something that we really need to get a handle on to ensure that we’re helping clear out this pathway.”

According to OPI’s 2020 licensure report, the agency denied administrator licenses to three applicants seeking jobs as K-12 principals last year. All three held valid school counselor licenses. The Chapter 57 task force has already reviewed a recommendation from the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education’s teacher recruitment and retention task force that would add counseling experience to the accepted qualifications.

 “We do want to make sure that our rules are providing the pathway for folks to get into these positions. We want to be sure that folks are not getting in a situation where they can’t get to licensure.”

Julie Murgel, senior manager for school innovation and improvement at OPI

Kirk Miller, executive director of the School Administrators of Montana and a member of the OCHE task force, said the change would widen the pipeline of qualified candidates for open superintendent and principal positions in the state. It was crafted after numerous conversations with administrators and counselors, he added, and reflects the expanded role counselors have begun to play in classrooms and schools in recent years, making them fitting candidates for higher-level positions.

“In instances nowadays, which is different than in the past, the counselor actually does spend a lot of time as a classroom teacher with several different classes,” Miller said. “And counselors, because they are not confined to a specific classroom, generally are helping with the functioning of the school in a broad way, so they really have an understanding of the broadness of an elementary, middle or high school.”

In recent weeks, discussion about educator licensing has shifted heavily to the topic of reciprocity. Licensing requirements vary from state to state, and teachers who relocate to Montana may not meet all the criteria necessary to immediately obtain certification. The Board of Public Education sought to ease that situation in 2019 by adopting a rule granting licenses to teachers certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards — a standard that was included in HB 246. But barriers for out-of-state teachers persist, enough that Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls, introduced a bill this session that would have offered full reciprocity for educators certified elsewhere in the country. The proposal failed after meeting strong opposition from public education advocates, who stressed the need for Montana to maintain control over teacher quality.

A reciprocity report commissioned by OPI this year to aid the review process acknowledged that the state’s current licensure requirements may limit the pool of potential teachers, particularly in school districts located close to state borders. The report cited a 2017 study that showed math test scores among 8th grade students were lower in schools where at least a quarter of the potential educator workforce lived across a state line. Prior to 2002, Montana did have interstate agreements with Utah, South Dakota and Idaho granting full license reciprocity to teachers from those states, but the agreements have since been terminated due to concerns about lax teacher standards. 

The conversation about reciprocity ties into OPI’s broader interest in improving teacher recruitment and retention in Montana. Based on research it compiled before convening the task forces, OPI has identified a number of potential changes, including reducing the amount of teaching experience required for out-of-state educators to obtain certification, which is currently five years. Julie Murgel, OPI’s senior manager for school innovation and improvement, said a primary goal of the review process is to make it easier to put teachers in classrooms without sacrificing educator quality.

“We do want to make sure that our rules are providing the pathway for folks to get into these positions,” Murgel said. “We want to be sure that folks are not getting in a situation where they can’t get to licensure.”

Dovetailing with the work of the Chapter 57 task force is that of the committee charged with reviewing Chapter 58. John Melick sits on the former, but his job as director of field placement and licensure at Montana State University’s Department of Education is tightly tied to the latter. He said the recommendations his task force produces could help streamline the path for graduates of in-state teaching programs seeking employment in Montana classrooms, while those generated by the Chapter 58 team can help Montana colleges and universities ensure those new educators are adequately prepared for the job.

“If you want to be a 5-12 math teacher, Chapter 58 is really what spells out what content you need,” Melick said. “And so we use Chapter 58 to build our programs.”

Discussions on Chapter 58 have so far raised the prospect of standardizing language curricula in rural schools in response to the loss of Native speakers in tribal communities, and of piloting a year-long residency program for aspiring teachers in rural or reservation communities that are struggling to fill positions. The latter idea echoes an initiative Melick’s program at MSU has been experimenting with in recent years: placing teaching students in smaller communities including Broadus, Cartwright, Richey and Sidney for a week at a time. Melick said the goal is to give the students an opportunity to picture themselves working in a rural setting, and he intends to share his resulting insights through the rules review process.

“It’s hard to see yourself belonging somewhere if you’ve never been there,” Melick said. “Part of that experience is also spending some time in the community, getting to learn about what makes those communities really unique and special.”

Both task forces will continue to refine those points during meetings publicly accessible via Zoom throughout the coming months, and will ultimately craft recommendations for presentation to state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen by the close of the year. From there, OPI will further hone them before taking its proposed regulatory changes to the Board of Public Education for final approval in summer 2022.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...