In certain education policy circles, the question of the hour is enough to send the most gifted Kremlinologist to her fainting couch. Does Gov. Mark Dayton support opening up Minnesota to teachers trained outside of the state’s traditional colleges of education?
And if he does, is he prepared to show his hand by weighing in on a swelling controversy involving recent moves by the state Board of Teaching that have frustrated Twin Cities schools that want to hire the teachers?
“I’m not seeing any muscle, and we know muscle exists,” said Terri Bonoff, the Minnetonka senator who was one of a handful of DFLers to support the laws in question. “I’ve not heard of any other state blocking TFA’s existence right now.”
“It’s been very frustrating to not be able to impact this,” Bonoff added, “to know we passed these laws because of the needs of our students.”
Last week, the board rejected applications for temporary permits for three prospective teachers recruited by Teach for America (TFA), a program that gives elite college grads intensive training in achievement-gap-closing methods and places them in schools serving impoverished students for two-year stints.
The Legislature 2½ years ago created a pipeline for getting the teachers and others with similar preparation into local schools. But board members have lagged, raising concerns ranging from the adequacy of the program’s initial training to the number of participants who leave education at the end of their term of service.
“We have another meeting Aug. 2,” said board Chair John Bellingham. “Those denied can reapply and we will reconsider.”
Early August school start
The three recruits had been hired to begin teaching in two Twin Cities schools early next month. Two weeks prior to that, and over the objections of the state Department of Education, it ended a five-year agreement with TFA that made it easier for principals to navigate the roadblocks to hiring the program’s trainees.
“If you don’t like the law, come back to us at the Legislature and ask us to change it,” Bonoff implored the board at the June meeting. “This conversation is akin to the Republicans and Democrats arguing in the Legislature, where we pit one side against the other, with traditional teachers against alternatively prepared teachers.”
Two of the rejected teacher candidates had been hired by Hiawatha Leadership Academies, a group of Minneapolis charters whose impoverished students achieve outsized results. Because Hiawatha is opening a third school in August, Executive Director Eli Kramer sorted through 1,000 teacher applications, interviewed about 100 and ultimately hired 30.
(Here we must pause for Your Humble Blogger’s by-now-standard Kramer disclaimer: Eli Kramer is the son of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer. He is married to TFA’s alumni relations director. His brother Matt Kramer is co-CEO of TFA’s national operations; Matt’s wife, Katie Barrett Kramer, is a TFA alum. Eli Kramer was interviewed for this story; the others were not involved and will learn of it when it is posted on MinnPost.)
Hiawatha asked the board for “community expert” variances for nine of the teachers. Six of them — who had no TFA affiliation — were among the 16 variances the licensing body approved without comment, according to TFA-Twin Cities Executive Director Crystal Brakke, who was present.
The eight other variance requests under consideration involved new TFA corps members. The application of one of the TFA recruits Hiawatha put forward was tabled because of a technicality. The other two were rejected, as was a corps member who had been hired by West Side Summit, a St. Paul charter.
Two of the four whose applications were approved were hired by Arch Academy, a new charter slated to open next month in Minneapolis. Principals have not previously been asked to speak in support of their variance requests, but Arch founder Angela Mansfield showed up to explain her thinking anyway.
‘It’s all about the mission, vision …’
“For me, it’s all about the mission, vision, mindset and values,” Mansfield said she told the board. “You can be a rock star teacher, but if you don’t align with the mission and vision of the school, there isn’t a fit.”
Last year the board considered 350 variance requests and denied three who reapplied and were eventually approved, said Brakke: “It’s just a different level of scrutiny than has been applied in the past.”
And it’s being applied by a differently constituted board. A year ago when questions were raised about the slow progress toward implementing the 2011 law, staff for the board — which still had some members appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty — cited a lack of resources and uncertainty about how to proceed.
This year all of the members are Dayton appointees with strong ties to institutions that oppose the change. Five hold leadership positions in Education Minnesota, its locals or affiliates or the AFL-CIO. Two others represent traditional teacher-preparation programs, which lobbied against the group variance. Deliberations by the new members have centered on whether TFA belongs in Minnesota schools.
A number of policymakers and advocates question whether the board is subverting the laws it is charged with fulfilling.
‘I do expect the law to be implemented’
“I respect the Board of Teaching as a former member, but I am struggling with their attitude toward these applicants,” Rep. Sondra Erickson, a Princeton Republican, said in a recent interview. “I do expect the law to be implemented — I really do.”
When the Legislature approved the alternative certification legislation in March 2011, it was the first bill freshly inaugurated Dayton signed into law. Widely read as a signal the new governor was a broker of compromises, his signature ended a stalemate that threatened to kill the bill for a second consecutive session.
The Legislature’s then-GOP leaders and a small number of DFLers wanted to make it easier for programs like TFA to operate in Minnesota and for teachers trained by them to qualify for Minnesota licenses. The state’s largest teacher’s union, Education Minnesota, and its traditional teacher colleges did not.
With the bill stalled, Dayton offered a solution: Nontraditional teachers had to have a degree with at least a minor in the area in which they sought a license and pass the same licensing exams as their mainstream cohorts. To win approval to operate here, a full-fledged training program would have to have ties to a local university or college until its successful track record was established.
Active in the Twin Cities since 2009, TFA had been placing a small number of recruits in local schools through a two-prong process. The teacher’s board — an independent entity that grants some licenses and approves teacher-training programs — granted candidates who had passed TFA’s training and the skills tests temporary permission to work. The temporary licensees then enrolled at Hamline University, where they fulfilled the requirements for a full license.
The new law was supposed to also make it easier for alternatively trained teachers who had worked in other states to earn Minnesota licenses. While 41 other states have relatively smooth licensing reciprocity laws, Minnesota’s education community has traditionally considered its teacher colleges to be superior.
Transplants have typically had to show college transcripts that are “substantially equivalent” to coursework that would be required here. Understanding that a teacher’s academic preparation often isn’t a guarantee of effectiveness, state Department of Education officials have been working on other ways of measuring a prospective teacher’s qualifications.
In the meantime, transplants often have had to earn new degrees and student-teach all over again. In these cases the board traditionally has virtually automatically extended temporary “community expert” variances so they may begin teaching at once.
The waivers are also typically granted to prospective teachers who are in demand for jobs in foreign-language immersion schools but whose English is not yet good enough to enable them to pass the licensing test.
For first time, board rejected blanket variance
As in years past, TFA this year asked for a blanket variance for its 43 new corps members to spare the principals who had hired them the time-consuming paperwork of preparing individual requests. For the first time, in June the board said no.
Kramer said Hiawatha will reapply for variances for his rejected teachers at the board’s Aug. 2 meeting, even though Hiawatha’s instructors will be starting work then.
“I may have to plan to fail even though I will ask them to reconsider,” he said. “We could adjust their role so that a teacher with a license is partnering with them.”
Unclear, too, is how the board would see TFA’s anticipated application for recognition as a training program — something that would put the variance issue to rest. News that the University of Minnesota was entertaining a request to partner with TFA on such a program sparked protests by Education Minnesota members.
Beyond that, legal experts and TFA’s advocates are not sure whether available legal remedies would be as effective as political ones. Appeals courts are typically reluctant to see such disputes as their purview, while the more customary route of appealing to an administrative law judge would create a factual record but no binding decision how to proceed.
Almost exactly one year ago Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius sent the board a letter reminding them of their responsibilities under the new laws, among other things. But administrative and licensing boards are set up to be independent in part to insulate them from politics.
Nor is there agreement whether political pressure will be forthcoming. It’s lost on no one that the other big change since the 2011 session — the election that handed the DFL control of the statehouse — is partly the result of the “L” in DFL.
Which leaves many convinced the outcome will be determined by the influence of a governor whose public profile is ambivalent. Alternative certification was the first thing Dayton signed into law and his administration is working to create processes.
But in May, he vetoed a $1.5 million appropriation that would have doubled the size of TFA’s training capacity to 80 teachers a cohort — approximately the demand Brakke said the program faced last year.
That demand, in the end, might propel change. “I really think there is a need for teachers who come through TFA,” said Erickson. “The results are very good — in some cases exceptional. The Board of Teaching might be selling itself short in terms of what they can offer.”