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Contentious Teach for America variance before Minnesota Board of Teaching on Friday

The variance would allow TFA to use a streamlined process to secure temporary licenses for its teachers.

On Friday the Minnesota Board of Teaching decides whether to renew a variance that allows Teach for America to use a streamlined process to secure temporary licenses for its teachers.
REUTERS/Sergio Perez

As public policy arenas go, the monthly meetings of Minnesota’s Board of Teaching are pretty sleepy. On Friday, however, a small army is expected to show up in support of the local branch of Teach for America (TFA), which recruits, trains and places new teachers in impoverished schools.

The item on the agenda concerns TFA-Twin Cities’ effort to renew a variance that allows it to use a streamlined process to secure temporary licenses for its teachers. The board is likely to get an earful from frustrated advocates of alternative teacher-training programs.

The board’s reticence to extend the agreement caps a frustrating two years for TFA and Twin Cities schools that are eager to hire its recruits and alumni. With strong early support from the Legislature and executive branch, proponents had expected to be out of regulatory limbo by now.       

In the wake of an intensive anti-TFA teacher-union letter-writing campaign, Gov. Mark Dayton in May vetoed funding that would have allowed the program to double in size here. In his veto letter, the governor expressed a preference for a competitive funding process and said TFA had not demonstrated financial need.

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Five of the board’s 11 gubernatorial appointees hold leadership positions in Education Minnesota, its locals or affiliates or the AFL-CIO. Two others represent traditional teacher preparation programs; the Minnesota Association of Colleges for Teacher Education also lobbied for a veto.

All of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s appointees have left the board at this point. The five who voted to extend the agreement are the newest.

The board isn’t the only actor within Minnesota’s mainstream education establishment that’s ambivalent about some of the policy changes advocates hope will boost impoverished schools. It is, however, unclear what happens when such a body seems reluctant to implement policies enacted by elected officials.

Two years ago, Minnesota enacted two laws intended to help would-be teachers whose training took place outside a traditional school of education earn licenses. In addition to TFA, the changes were expected to benefit career-changers and programs designed to funnel a more diverse potential teacher corps into understaffed specialties.

(Full disclosure: TFA’s national co-CEO, Matt Kramer, is the son of MinnPost Editor and CEO Joel Kramer. Matt Kramer’s wife and brother  are TFA alums and his sister-in-law is a TFA employee. Joel Kramer was not involved in the preparation of this story.) 

One of the new laws allowed for the creation of local alternative training programs such as TFA. The other created a reciprocity provision for alternatively prepared teachers licensed in other states to get Minnesota licenses without having to get another degree.

The new laws took effect Aug. 1, 2011. The board signed off on the standards any new training program would be expected to live up to in January 2012. TFA-Twin Cities is in the process of preparing its application to become a certified alternative. 

The board has yet to create the reciprocity provision. Last August, 18 months after the law was passed, Board Director Karen Balmer told MinnPost her staff was stretched woefully thin. It would take time to determine whether training programs in other states were “substantially equivalent” to Minnesota’s requirements.

Critics countered that the law did not ask the board to evaluate the quality of the out-of-state programs, instead requiring it to “issue a standard license to an otherwise qualified teacher candidate under this section who successfully performs throughout a program under this section, successfully completes all required skills, pedagogy and content area examinations,” and either demonstrates proficiency to a site-based evaluation team or completed an alternative certification program in another state.

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“As you know, this was a high priority for both Gov. Dayton and the Legislature as a strategy to attract highly qualified mid-career professionals to address shortages in high need areas, help close achievement gaps and diversify our teaching corps,” state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius wrote to the board at the time.

“I understand developing this approval process is a complex and lengthy endeavor; however, more than one year later it is still unclear how the BOT is moving forward to ensure its success.”

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) physically houses the board and provides it with some administrative and technical support but has no authority over it.  

TFA and its alumni have been operating in a state of licensure limbo since the teacher-corps’ arrival in Minnesota in 2009. Recently, its backers have begun to fear that the board’s ambivalence will result in backward movement.

In each of the program’s first four years here, the board granted TFA a temporary variance from licensing rules that allowed its recruits to begin teaching as soon as they are done with their initial TFA training and pass the same state licensing exams as any conventionally trained teacher.

Simultaneously the new teachers are enrolled in a two-year program at Hamline that allows them to qualify for full, traditional licenses upon graduation. (Many go ahead and earn a master’s degree while they are enrolled.)

At its May meeting, with one member absent, the board deadlocked 5-5 on whether to renew TFA’s variance. Chief among the concerns raised was whether too few corps members stay in teaching when their initial two-year commitment ends.

After the vote at the May meeting, Assistant Commissioner of Education Rose Hermodson, who oversees MDE’s charter school programming, urged the board members to delay making a decision.

“We respect their authority as an independent entity,” explained MDE Chief of Staff Charlene Briner, who noted that the alternative certification laws were among the first signed by Dayton after taking office. “This department and this governor have been highly supportive of getting a diverse teacher corps in the classroom.”

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TFA-Twin Cities Executive Director Crystal Brakke was prepared to address board members’ concerns [PDF] at today’s June meeting. As of May 2013, she said in an interview this week, 51 percent of TFA teachers who start here stay in teaching after their initial commitment.

Factoring in alums who stay in K-12 education in some capacity besides classroom teaching increases the retention rate to 76 percent, said Brakke. The group’s latest variance application includes glowing ratings by principals concerning TFA teachers.

A number of studies, including one conducted by the National Education Association, a teachers union, suggest that half of traditionally trained teachers quit within their first five years on the job.

Perhaps more to the point, TFA corps members are in demand. Twin Cities principals sought to hire 80 for the 2012-2013 school year, but the local program had just 36. For next year, the program is currently training 43 recruits, 70 percent of whom have job offers.

In May, Dayton vetoed $1.5 million earmarked for TFA in the Legislature’s higher-education omnibus bill. According to Brakke that money would have allowed TFA-Twin Cities to double its capacity, adding an additional 25 recruits in each of the biennium’s two years.

Each local TFA affiliate raises the money to recruit, select, train and support its corps members, who are typically drawn from the very top of their academic classes. They receive five weeks of intensive training before entering the classroom, where their formal education continues throughout their time in the program.

The schools where they teach pay their salaries and provide benefits. In districts with collective bargaining agreements, like Minneapolis, they are union members covered by the contracts.

Nonetheless, Education Minnesota and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers — which just began contract talks that are expected to be contentious — urged members to lobby Dayton to reject the Legislature’s TFA appropriation. In an op-ed published in the Star Tribune, union head Tom Dooher insisted that the program’s teachers do not meet state standards.

Whatever the outcome of today’s meeting, the new teachers are still likely to start school this fall, but at the cost of significantly more paperwork for the principals who want to hire them.

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Without the variance, Minneapolis Public Schools and the 14 charter schools hoping to hire TFA’s 43 new corps members will have to request a temporary license for each individual applicant. Which means, in turn, that the Board of Teaching will have to process 43 requests instead of one.