File - Classroom

(The Center Square) – Prospective teachers coming from out of state or fields outside of education have a tougher time getting licensed, but making Montana’s Office of Public Education solutions-based and hiring more staff to handle a backlog of applications would help.

Teachers coming from out of state need a Praxis score, but for most, they took it too many years ago to be valid. Some say after teaching 25 or 30 years, the test can't show anything their experience already reveals, Dennis Parman, executive director of Montana Rural Education Association, told The Center Square.

“I think, for experienced people, it's that whole notion of ‘you really want me to take a test? I mean, I've taught 25 years here, I've got an exemplary career. And I have to take a test,’” he said.

“There was a rule passed several years ago that if you got an active license, and you've taught under that license for five years, you can get licensed in Montana, with a Praxis score and a background check. And that's helped,” Parman said.

Forty-five states require a Praxis score for a license – or teaching certificate, as some states call it. Three other states will accept a Praxis score while the other two have an assessment similar to it, he said. They all target content-area knowledge and pedagogy, Parman, who worked at the state education office for seven years, said.

The whole notion of having to take a test after teaching for decades puts off many educators.

Another pathway that enables a person with education and experience in a field is to enter an online program at Montana State University. The year-long program includes a short on-site requirement.

“But at the end of that time, MSU will give you a recommendation for [a] license, and that recommendation is your green-light ticket,” Parman said.

The problem with a provisional license for a non-teacher coming into the field is the individual has to go back to school for three years, which he said is a deal-breaker for a lot of folks.

Parman said for people like him who have worked for the state and in education, they know these rules and solutions.

“This is one of the things that I think is happening in the licensing unit at the Office of Public Instruction. They're not getting a phone call from somebody, or they're getting a phone call from somebody and they're not helping them find solutions,” he said.

The office tells the applicant what they have tried won’t work, but they don’t offer recommendations on what is needed. Instead, they refer the applicant to a university.

Teacher recruitment is a crisis everywhere in the country, Parman said. Montana has a unique set of circumstances.

“There really are only a small handful, less than a half dozen states that you could call rural states. Montana's one of those states, so recruiting from a rural state has its challenges,” he said.

The state only has seven cities as defined by the U.S. Census. Montana from the Rocky Mountain Front east, with the exception of two cities along the southern tier of the state, is from rural to frontier, he said.

“I'd say [the] last five years has just been really at this super-high, crisis-pitch level,” Parman said.

One recently retired superintendent would cold call people. She’d log into Indeed and look for teachers she thought would be worth hiring. Then she’d call them and try to convince them to move to Bainville, Montana.

School superintendents get frustrated when they can’t get anybody to apply for teaching positions, but when they find someone who is interested, they can’t get them licensed, Param said.

If a school hires an individual without a teacher’s license who can’t get an emergency authorization or a provisional license – or the three years for the provisional license runs out before they get a full license – the school could lose $3,300 per year that the unlicensed individual is employed. A quality educator payment is made to school districts for every licensed teacher and a few other licensed positions, including nurses, speech pathologists or physical therapists.

“They're losing about $3,300 from the state, but I'm telling you, they're happy to let that happen because they've got a teacher. They'd rather it not happen and, but…some of these schools have only might have 25 teachers and so they're not getting one of 25, odd educator payments,” Param said.

He sees three main steps toward solving some of these issues. The first is a review of the licensing rules, which is being done now with eyes wide open, as Montana is in a crisis.

The second solution would be for the Board of Public Education to insist that the licensing unit be a solutions-based operation – how can we help you get licensed, not how fast can we give you a denial letter, he said.

His last point comes from his experience as a deputy superintendent: that the state needs to bump up staffing at least during what he calls "harvest time,” when school districts are staffing up for the school year.

The Office of Public Instruction has been good, he said. When he worked there when a call came in from a school district that planned to hire someone whose application had been submitted, OPI tried to move it to the head of the line.

“But the backlog didn't change. We just put somebody at the front of the line. Still the same number of people in the line,” Param said.