No More of the Same

By Sharyl Allen | February 16, 2021

The review and revision of the Montana Board of Public Education’s administrative rules (which cover everything from school transportation to accreditation) is required by law every five years. This year’s effort is driven by an urgency to make more wide-ranging changes, especially to educator licensure and teacher preparation. To support this work, the Region 17 Comprehensive Center is providing research and technical assistance to the Office of Public Instruction (OPI). We asked Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen to explain why this year is different.

It has been a challenging year in education across the country. In Montana, the pandemic has exposed what we already knew: We need to make dramatic and purposeful improvements to our education system to better serve our children.

Many indicators point in this direction. Our state’s student achievement has been flat for over two decades, and there is an alarming gap in high school graduation rates between students overall (87 percent) and American Indian students (67 percent).

In addition, Montana has had more emergency authorizations this year than in the last 10, suggesting that school districts are struggling to recruit and retain educators.

We can do better—and the administrative rules can help.

For example, we need to approach teacher licensing differently. Some rules and regulations that are unique to Montana serve as barriers to entry into the teaching field (e.g., a qualified postsecondary instructor who wants to teach dual-credit classes is required to get a teacher license).

We also need to identify rules that are inequitable for small schools, which outnumber large schools in our state. If I’m in a northeastern Montana high school with 10 students, I have to meet the same accreditation rules as large schools, which challenges my ability to offer a full curriculum.

In educator preparation, we need to focus on what we are doing for every child. We also need to answer a core question: What do we mean by learning?

When we revise our rules, we must think deeply about whether we are preparing teachers to teach in a nontraditional environment, where students are at the center of the classroom. We must also examine whether we’re training teachers for a facilitative role or simply doing the same thing we’ve always done.

In 1972, the Montana Constitution mandated that our education system must help every person achieve their full educational potential. Decades later, we’re still saying we’re not there.

In some cases, we need to look at changing our culture. Specifically, we must emphasize taking personal responsibility to do whatever it takes to educate our children.

Our agency also needs to do its part by providing the flexibility and space for innovation. Ultimately, we need to become more nimble and dedicated to service.

We are laying the foundation for more significant rule changes. For instance, we’ve retooled the program side of our agency, with leadership capacity to lead the rules, complemented by the long-standing expertise of veteran staff. We are working diligently with the Montana Board of Public Education on these issues in an ongoing fashion.

We’re also preparing to release a request for proposals to develop a new digital licensing system that will help us better track licensure candidates and enhance recruitment of quality teachers. We want to be able to answer more questions, such as:

  • Are they still with us three years later?
  • If you’re thinking of leaving, what will make you stay?

We need to get better at asking these questions. And we always need to do a better job at the state level of explaining why Montana is a great place to teach.

We’ll know we’re making progress when we don’t have 600 incomplete educator licenses—and when the number of emergency authorizations drops dramatically.

We’ll know we’re successful when in-state and out-of-state teachers say they love the ease with which they can get licensed in Montana because their successful experiences in other states are recognized.

Elsie Arntzen, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, has said, “We must be forward focused in our work.”

Indeed. Here in Montana, we’re not patting ourselves on the back until we have the data to prove we’re doing better.

Connect with us!