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Alternative teachers and ‘white smoke’: What does Dayton’s deal signal?

'White smoke': A wag's apt metaphor for Monday's news of an end to Dayton's stalemate with the Legislature over alternative teacher licensing.
REUTERS/Jerry Lampen
‘White smoke’: A wag’s apt metaphor for Monday’s news of an end to Dayton’s stalemate with the Legislature over alternative teacher licensing.

On Monday, an e-mail landed in my inbox containing a photo of a wisp of steam emanating from a slender pipe atop the roof of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. The accompanying explanation, penned by a wag at the nonprofit Charter School Partners: “White smoke from the Capitol.”

Would that all press releases were so economically worded, and yet so spot on.

The image’s they’ve-come-to-an-agreement sentiment was apt. Earlier in the day, Gov. Mark Dayton announced he had reached a compromise with lawmakers over a bill allowing the licensing of nontraditional teacher candidates.

The deal ended a two-week-long stalemate over an education reform that enjoyed near-universal support at the start of the legislative session, only to end up tabled by its authors when the governor asked for changes they felt would gut it.

The wins
The win for Dayton: Candidates for alternative certification will have to pass the same “rigorous and subject-specific content examination” as other Minnesota license-holders, hopefully ensuring they are as qualified to enter the classroom.

The win for the bill’s supporters in the Legislature: The new training programs will not be required to operate under the watch of the state’s traditional teacher colleges, only to exchange information once a year about best practices.

In theory, anyway, there was no win for the state’s largest teacher’s union, Education Minnesota, which reportedly urged its members to press the governor for a veto — compromise notwithstanding.

The win for struggling students: Alternative certification — or alt cert, in the argot of policymakers — is designed to increase the number of minorities, career-changers and teachers with specialized training in instructional strategies to close the achievement gap. It is a key part of President Barack Obama’s education policy.

Differences over results
Proponents say evidence is mounting that states with good alternative certification laws see increases in test scores as well as more minority teachers and more of the best and the brightest.

Additionally, many of the handful of Twin Cities schools with high poverty rates and high test scores — so-called beat-the-odds schools — are staffed by teachers trained by Teach for America (TFA), The New Teacher Project and other alternative certification programs.

Critics, including leaders at Education Minnesota and some of the state’s traditional teacher colleges, argue the opposite, insisting that schools staffed by alternative license holders do not post higher test scores. Beyond that, they say, TFA teachers are expensive and frequently leave after just a couple of years on the job.

Adding to the debate, there are states where alternative certification arguably has ushered in a race to the bottom in terms of teacher quality.

Liberals divided
Finally, because alternative certification has been sought by racial minority groups advocating for education reform, the issue has divided political liberals into uncomfortable camps. Plenty of Twin Cities education activists describe themselves as both pro-labor and pro-reform.

White smoke notwithstanding, it’s safe to argue that no matter where one stands on alternative certification, we’re not looking at regime change so much as the addition of a new item to the state’s education reform toolkit.

More interesting, perhaps, are any smoke signals the deal sends about Dayton as a politician who turns out not to be terribly political.

At least in terms of education policy, the deal seems to continue to bolster Dayton’s image as a DFLer who appears to be willing to go to the mat to protect the right to collective bargaining yet isn’t terribly concerned about crossing organized labor.

Early concessions
It’s unusual for a governor to make dramatic concessions so early in the legislative session. Many of Dayton’s predecessors held out for the 11th hour, often in the hope of wresting concessions from lawmakers elsewhere. Indeed, last year’s Legislature deadlocked so badly over alt cert and virtually every other significant education reform that it adjourned without passing an omnibus education bill.

Dayton, by contrast, doesn’t seem concerned about re-election. “He’s not thinking about his next career,” said Bernie Hesse of the United Foods and Commercial Workers. “He’s gonna fix a lot of structural stuff. He’s gonna piss off a lot of his friends, even. And he’s gonna be provocative in terms of talking about revenue.”

Indeed, the seven-point education plan Dayton released last month was noticeably lacking in crowd-pleasing promises and catchy packaging and long on badly needed but decidedly unsexy structural fixes that won’t pay off during the governor’s term.

Education Minnesota, it’s worth noting, endorsed Dayton during last year’s gubernatorial contest — but he wasn’t their first choice. Similarly, both as a candidate and a newly sworn-in governor, Dayton has been clear that he expects union concessions on initiatives designed to close the achievement gap. 

The union may not like it, one policymaker quipped yesterday, “But the teachers can’t exactly flee to the Republicans.”

And yet even as the governor and his education commissioner were drafting their correspondence to lawmakers, Dayton was rallying with workers protesting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on unions. Walker’s attempt to “force ‘extreme, drastic measures’ on working people won’t become law in MN ‘because I’m here,’ ” the governor tweeted.

Signs from the governor
In Hess’ view, one of the clearest signs from Dayton so far was his re-appointment of Ken Peterson, labor commissioner during the Rudy Perpich era, to helm the Department of Labor and Industry. Dayton, he speculated, will hold firm on things like prevailing wages, preserving teachers’ right to strike and not allowing Minnesota to become a right-to-work state.

“He really gets what working people are going through right now,” said Hesse. “The door’s open at the governor’s office. It’s been a long time since we’ve had that.”

By comparison, alternative certification seems like pretty small potatoes, other Capitol-watchers have noted. It’s not even the toughest education reform Dayton and lawmakers will need to agree on this term.

Yet to take center stage: Tenure reform and whether state law should allow teacher effectiveness to be a factor in layoffs — a virtual certainty during the next biennium. Tackling those issues will doubtless require more compromise than alt cert.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/02/2011 - 11:39 am.

    …Proponents say evidence is mounting that states with good alternative certification laws see increases in test scores as well as more minority teachers and more of the best and the brightest…

    When the links contained in that paragraph come from a study by the Hoover Institution (a conservative/libertarian think tank with a decided bias), and George Will (a noted conservative columnist), you have to back away and ask what agenda is being served.

    The Hoover study contains extraordinary findings of apparent achievement gains related to alternatively certified teachers.

    This is in stark contrast to a peer-reviewed study-of-studies related to alternatively certified teachers that generally showed little, if any, significant differences.

    This study is located at:

    These show alternative licensing does not significantly alter outcomes.

    So what would be the reasons for pushing for it?

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/02/2011 - 11:52 am.

    Never thought this issue was worth the political cost. I just don’t think there are all that many people seeking to become teachers in middle age, and I don’t think that if they were, that they would improve the quality of teaching to any significant extent. For me, this issue was always about bashing teachers, and solving mid-life crises of individuals who take their ideas of education from Welcome Back, Kotter or Leave it to Beaver reruns,

  3. Submitted by Rich Crose on 03/02/2011 - 12:29 pm.

    This bill is so people with six figure incomes can quit and take a 35 grand a year teaching position and put up with spit-balls on their glasses, tacks on their chairs and bureaucratic boards of education that make private corporations look like knitting clubs.

    I don’t see too many Einsteins in the class rooms real soon.

    Its just a way to get back at teacher’s unions who have supported Democrats in every election.

  4. Submitted by Amy Wilde on 03/02/2011 - 12:47 pm.

    Both sides have valid points. Our governor and leaders appear to have found a compromise. Although there is no overall shortage of good, licensed teachers, spot shortages in some specialties and in certain geographic locations DO exist and the unions have not done much to help school boards recruit and retain effective teachers in those areas. Mr. Foster is probably correct that few people would likely get jobs under the new criteria, but that’s also a reason not to get too worried. Most school boards will seek licensed teachers and use alternative licensure only when necessary. Achievement disparities in MN also exist. If eventual outcomes do not support alternative licensure, the rules can be changed again.

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/02/2011 - 12:56 pm.

    Don’t kid yourselves: This is the Teach For America Enabling Act. Four facts about TFA always seem to be left out by Ms Hawkins:

    1) Fifty percent of TFA teachers leave after two years; eighty percent by the end of the third year.
    2) Regularly certified teachers “significantly outperform” TFA teachers in the first two or three years of their careers.
    3) The first two or three years of a teacher’s career are his/her least productive and most trying.
    4) The high turnover rate of TFA teachers imposes significant financial and education burdens on school districts.

    So *what is the point* of “alt cert” laws? It is definitely NOT about education.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/02/2011 - 01:13 pm.

    I can only assume that Governor Dayton was influenced by people he trusts who told him this was a good idea.

    Those people are WRONG.

    What we will get, instead of better student outcomes, especially considering the current unemployment rate in the general population, is a collection of people looking for that “easy ride” that teaching is supposed to be, schooled by unspecified private teacher prep. companies (the requirements for alternative teachers beyond knowledge of their subjects, if any, being unspecified, here), then failing to pass the content exam and/or, in the case of the few who actually find jobs, discovering that it’s an exhausting job, requires long hours and tremendous dedication, and at least a couple of years to be any good at it, most of whom will blow right back out of what used to be a “profession” but will now be reduced to the status of a “trade.”

    Meanwhile, considering the recent large numbers of layoffs of teachers across the state, and the numbers of unemployed teachers looking for work, what chance do these less qualified, less-well-educated teachers have of even finding an opening in any school (unless the state interferes in local bargaining and mandates a new, lower starting teacher salary for alternatively-licensed teachers, an idea which, if enacted, would make them VERY popular, but would ABSOLUTEY reduce the status of teachers from “Professionals” to “tradesmen and women”).

    Finally, all the studies I’ve read say alternative licensure does nothing to improve overall student performance, (that appearance only being created by the grouping of more interested and involved parents into “charter” schools which promise better results.

    This, of course, only results in the parents whose kids remain in the neighboring public school being MORE apathetic, on average, than before),…

    Such programs do, however, end up costing would-be teachers a lot of money and making a lot of money for those who own and manage the “educational” programs which will immediately land in Minnesota falsely promising their unsuspecting students guaranteed employment.

    Watch for the late-night commercials promising “You, too, can be a teacher in eight weeks or less!” by tomorrow night.

  7. Submitted by Eric Larson on 03/02/2011 - 01:21 pm.

    “said Bernie Hess of the United Foods and Commercial Workers. “He’s gonna fix a lot of structural stuff. He’s gonna piss off a lot of his friends, even”.

    I remember some of Rudy Perpich’s last public words about then Commissioner Dayton were unkind. Give credit to Gov Dayton that he doesn’t bring them up. Gov Dayton has stated that Perpich was his most influential teacher in MN Govt. I think the Hess quote is dead on and reminicent of Perpich. Follow with me here.

    Over the screaming objection of the Teachers Union, Rudy spent boocou political capital for open enrollment,the forerunners of charters, high school kids going to college classrooms and even some small amounts of tax credits-deductions for the parents for education costs. Arne would pick up many of these initiatives.

    The teachers, the principals, the supr’s, the schoolboards and even some city and county officials were opposed to these new ideas. But Rudy new better. He was an ESL student before we knew the term. He was a GI Bill Dental student (he understood educational choice & vouchers). He was a schoolboard member before the unions became an impediment. Between Rudy and Arne, they new the value of WELL spent education dollars. And they were not going to stand idly by and let the education industry stop a good plan that would educate children. And if it pissed off some friends, so be it.

    I’m pretty far right. But stuff like this happens and……….

  8. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/02/2011 - 01:42 pm.

    Perpich never intended charters to be competition for regular public schools. It was to be an experiment to test out ideas that would then be extended to other schools. Albert Shanker, the teacher union leader who first endorsed charters, turned on them in the early 90s when he discovered charters were turning into a trojan horse to destroy public schools by competing with them.

  9. Submitted by Eric Larson on 03/02/2011 - 01:43 pm.

    Found an error in my rant. Commissioner Dayton strike. Should be Auditor Dayton.

  10. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 03/05/2011 - 02:03 pm.

    This was another long-drawn-out Republican solution to completely non-existent problem. Republicans are chasing bogeymen. They’re looking for people who are frustrated by teaching licensure — what 20 people in the whole state. And suspicious voting — another non-existent problem. MEANWHILE, the tsunami of a budget deficit is going to swell up and swamp everyone in the state. But, that’s good they almost solved a problem no one cares about. Meanwhile, after nearly two months in office, they have yet to come up with a viable budget. Repbulican legislators, if you didn’t want to legislate, why did you run for office?

  11. Submitted by Ross Reishus on 03/05/2011 - 07:08 pm.

    I sincerely appreciate the history lesson on Perpich and Dayton because it explains a few things. On the topic of charters being a Trojan Horse to destroy public schools? That, is exactly correct. And this is why ALL of the so called structural reforms are moving forward. To wreck what we have, not fix. All for the purpose of privatization of the entire nation’s school systems. On the public dollar, I might add. Having worked in a charter for-profit school, I can vouch that they are at best a constant reinvention of a wheel that already works better than what they’ve come up with. At worst, they are a money wasting pie in the sky because some of our tax payer monies find their ways into profiteer’s pockets instead of the classrooms—a major bone of contention between tax payers and public schools in general—so why do we allow it at all? Because our leaders have either been grossly misinformed and mis-advised, or they are choosing to look the other way. In either scenario, kids lose. They are the guinea pigs in all of this, and the experimenting needs to stop.

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