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

REUTERS/Sergio Perez
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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 06/14/2013 - 10:33 am.

    What’s Lacking in This Discussion So Far

    Is an accurate description of two factors:

    What does it cost a school to have a Teach for America teacher as compared to a regular, state-certified, well-educated, well-qualified, experienced teacher? Are principals and school boards wanting to hire these teachers because they’re universally excellent or because they’re less expensive?

    We all have the image, carefully-calculated and promulgated by Teach for America, itself, and especially its anti-union supporters, of TFA teachers as young, bright, capable, intelligent, enthusiastic, fresh-faced EFFECTIVE teachers,…

    but what’s the reality?

    Specifically – how many of these teachers are actually successful in the classroom (as most of us who teach or who have taught can tell you, it generally takes 2-3 years in the classroom to begin to be consistently successful)?

    – how many of them go on to gain their credentials and keep teaching?

    – how many of them actually stick it out for their entire assignment?

    – is it a benefit of TFA that a collection of those who spend a year teaching discover how difficult and challenging it really is to manage a classroom filled with kids with very different levels of interest, very different learning styles, very different personalities, some of whom are behaviorally challenged and have problems with authority,…

    while working with inadequate resources, in antiquated-if-not-dangerous buildings, with outdated textbooks and equipment, and a substantial portion of the population determined to criticize whatever, you do, limit your resources even further, then criticize you for not producing perfect progress in each and every student in your classroom,…

    (perhaps a helpful antidote to the sense so many people, especially “conservatives”,…

    and “kids aren’t learning enough in school, but I shouldn’t have to pay the taxes needed to improve that situation” business leaders seem to have,…

    that, since they spent twelve years sitting on the other side of the desk, and, in their business lives, they can just order people around and fire those who don’t comply,…

    they know how “easy” teachers have it and how overpaid and under worked they are)?

    If those business leaders had to pay a salary to each and every adult within a certain geographical area, were not allowed to fire any of those employees, and the success of their enterprises depended on their ability and that of their management team to educate AND motivate those employees to come to work and get their jobs done each day,…

    while depending on the good will of the city council and their fellow citizens for the funding required to build and maintain their offices and manufacturing facilities and fund their enterprise’s day-to-day expenses,…

    with a substantial part of their fellow citizens and the city council sharing the opinion that every penny that business leader and their managers was paid was coming directly out of those citizen’s and council member’s own pockets,…

    they might have a better understanding of what teaching is really like.

    Then the question for them would be – does TFA provide them with lower-level managers who, despite their youth, lack of experience, and training, can effectively manage their employees and supervise the processes those employees must complete in order to get their jobs done? Does it increase the likelihood of their enterprise’s long-term success? Does it help motivate their employees to show up and get the job done right?

    I suspect their answer would be “no!”

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/14/2013 - 01:06 pm.

      You raise some valid questions.

      Do you have any answers to them?

      “Specifically – how many of these teachers are actually successful in the classroom (as most of us who teach or who have taught can tell you, it generally takes 2-3 years in the classroom to begin to be consistently successful)?

      – how many of them go on to gain their credentials and keep teaching?

      – how many of them actually stick it out for their entire assignment?”

      As a middle school tutor in the St. Paul Public School District, I’m well aware of both my own limitations and those of many of the teachers with whose students I work. As the brother of a person who’s taught in various districts in Minnesota over the past 30+ years, and who’s been active in both union and administrative functions, I’ve also been exposed to a fair amount of information on the state of education in Minnesota. I’m also the uncle of a young woman who, months away from her education degree, finally gave up on teaching as a career after surveying the state of the state’s educational system. From this perspective, TFA strikes me as a reasonable way to introduce prospective teachers to the practice, before they invest years in a specialized education from which they may soon walk away.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/14/2013 - 11:23 am.

    Wrong battles

    The frustrating thing about Education Minnesota is that they have unmatched instinct for choosing the wrong battles. Their theme music should be the soundtrack from “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/14/2013 - 11:33 am.

    Reciprocal licensing of TFA teachers

    My son and his wife are former TFA teachers, continuing to teach after their two-year commitment was completed. They are just wrapping up their fifth year of teaching, are fully licensed in New York, have both completed Master’s Degrees, He teaches middle school English and coaches in a school in Harlem, she teaching HS English in lower Manhattan. Their students characterize all the diversity and economic challenges of the inner city. His school emphasizes making all student college ready – she is teaching AP English to equally highly motivated students. They both graduate with high grades from elite college, but choose careers of service, over opportunities for financial enrichment. They love teaching, but would not be teachers without TFA.

    As a parent, I would love them to consider moving to Minnesota. By any standard they are qualified, but would they pass muster with the State Board of Education, because of how they got into teaching. Our current education establishment is failing. Serious gaps in learning are explained almost entirely by poverty and race, because we haven’t seen fit as a society to equalize opportunities for all students. In America’s major cities, only about 3 of 5 students complete their education with high school diplomas. That is not the fault of any individual teacher, but a failure of the system. If we keep doing to the same things, using approaches that aren’t drastically different from those used during the Cold War and before, how can we help to fix this situation?

    The Education programs of America’s colleges and universities are not turning out the kind of teachers and education leader who either are fixing these issues or are willing to listen to people who have different goals and methods, like the TFA program. We trust teachers to be objective in evaluating our children – but how can we trust this when they bring their biases to evaluating fellow teachers. This isn’t about unions – because every teacher with a TFA background who teaching in a public school will join the union – and that is exactly what has to happen to shake the basic assumptions and myths about what works in education. We compare poorly to other countries and don’t even get close to graduating 100% of our students. In fact, boards of education tend to oppose mandatory requirements of school attendance until age 18, because it is simply too much trouble. In today’s society, the decision to drop out of school in the vast majority of cases ruins people’s lives. A system that tolerates that needs to be fully studied, taken apparent and put back together is which a way to get decent results.

    • Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 06/14/2013 - 02:26 pm.

      If Your Son and Daugher-in-Law

      Loved their Teach for America experience that they went on to finish master’s degrees in education, then I suspect there would be precious few hoops for them to jump through in order to be certified to teach in Minnesota.

      But it’s also a reality that after ten years or more of education funding in Minnesota not keeping up with inflation and the resulting layoffs of teachers across the state, Minnesota has a surplus of experienced, well-qualified teachers already,…

      except, perhaps, in the S.T.E.M. fields where any teacher who chooses to do so can leave education and find a job with a substantially larger salary in the private sector, and those who are attracted to these subjects generally don’t go into education because of the low salaries.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/14/2013 - 12:55 pm.

    Since the TFA teachers are so good with such excellent results, I expect that we’ll soon see districts like Edina bringing them in instead of career teachers….

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/14/2013 - 01:10 pm.


    Color me skeptical of TFA as some sort of silver bullet for Minnesota’s, and especially the Twin Cities’, education woes.

    Young and energetic people at the head of a classroom do start with something of an advantage in many cases, though even that depends upon the captive audience’s age, existing skills, community expectations, school district policies, blah, blah, blah. I was plenty energetic and just-turned 22 during my first classroom year, and in terms of connecting with students, I’m pretty sure it was the worst year of my 30 years in the classroom.

    I can see why school districts would like TFA members — they’re sure to be less expensive than experienced faculty, they don’t have tenure, and, since they’re young and, presumably, healthier than someone with 20 years’ experience, health coverage may well cost the district less. Not inconsequentially, they’ll also have been privy to whatever the latest research is saying about learning, which experienced teachers may or may not keep up with.

    I would hope they’d also bring to the classroom a measure of enthusiasm for their subject or grade level, though that enthusiasm may or may not be greater than that of an experienced teacher. I loved my job teaching history, enjoyed the company of teenagers, and doubt that any new teacher was much more enthused about the start of a new school year, or even a new semester, than I was.

    My own mantra is this: all the teacher can do — whether a graduate of Harvard’s School of Education or a TFA academy, whether in a public school or a private or parochial one — is offer to the children in his/her classroom what that teacher knows. It’s up to the student to take advantage of, to accept, that offer. There are consequences that flow from either choice.

    Frankly, I thought Mr. Dooher’s op-ed in the ‘Strib quite a bit less persuasive than the one in this morning’s paper by Eva Lockhart, to whom I might send flowers. I’m certainly not going to defend schools of education to the death, though labeling them as “wretched,” as Gary Davison did earlier in the ‘Strib seems over-the-top. That said, I think Ms. Lockhart nails it with her comparison of the similarly-aged graduate(s) of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and TFA’s 5-week summer training.

    There may be some, but offhand, I can’t think of another professional field requiring the sort of state certification that states and communities demand of teachers, wherein the practitioners are now being told they can credibly be replaced by someone with 5 weeks’ training. As Ms. Lockhart said:


    She’s being charitable. The assumption of equivalency built into TFA arguments would be — is — laughable in virtually every field outside of education, and ought to be laughable within education, as well.

    That far too many children, primarily coming from poor and/or minority households, fail to take advantage of the education being offered to them is a very serious, and very complex issue that reaches from the neighborhood school to the national level. It’s potentially disastrous for our society, and it needs to be effectively addressed — the sooner the better. TFA may provide a small part of a positive and successful solution, as might charter schools, and quite a few other programs including some that are offered online, but there ain’t no free lunch, and there ain’t no silver bullet. The problem ought to be addressed, I’d argue, from multiple angles, not least from one that no one in the policy-making world seems to want to acknowledge. That one is that, year after year, decade after decade, the single most reliable predictor of academic performance, or the lack thereof, is the socioeconomic status of that child’s parents.

    From prenatal care to preschool to the equity of the resources directed to one school district, or school, or family compared to another, if we don’t address economic inequity and poverty, the achievement gap in education will remain intractable.

    Meanwhile, the very fact that 5 weeks is seen in some circles as adequate preparation for the classroom suggests to me that, as a society, we continue to be unwilling to consider teaching to be a genuine profession, or, as Ms. Lockhart put it, “It’s so easy a caveman could do it.” Everywhere else in the developed world, teaching is a revered and widely-acknowledged profession, but this culture has not been able to come to grips with that view, and continues to see teaching as intellectual stoop labor.

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