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Minnesota Board of Teaching, Teach for America reach at least temporary détente

MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
Andrew Theis with Crystal Brakke, executive director of TFA-Twin Cities

Friday morning Andrew Theis learned that, as he has hoped for months, he will be able to report to his new job teaching fourth grade at Sojourner Truth Academy in Minneapolis.

Standing in the sunshine outside the state Department of Education headquarters in Roseville, he couldn’t stop beaming.

Theis was one of nine whose applications for temporary permission to begin teaching in coming days were approved by the Board of Teaching following three months of contentious, political limbo. Eight of the nine are first-year corps members of Teach for America (TFA); the ninth is an alumna of the program.

(Our now-standard Kramer Disclaimer: TFA’s national co-CEO, Matt Kramer, is the son of MinnPost Editor and CEO Joel Kramer. Matt Kramer’s wife is a TFA alum and his sister-in-law is a TFA employee. Another Kramer son, Eli, is the director of a network of schools that hired three of the candidates under review this morning. Joel Kramer was not involved in the preparation of this story.) 

The board took the unusual step of quizzing all nine about their fitness for the jobs they may now fill and the principals who hired them about the credentials of the other applicants.

In Theis’ case, board members wanted to know why Sojourner Truth School Director Julie Guy did not hire any of the 24 conventionally trained teachers in her 28-applicant pool.

None were a good fit for the school’s “no excuses” philosophy, she said. “One question we asked candidates was, ‘Give us an example of a whatever-it-takes attitude,’” Guy said. “One said, ‘What do you mean?’ That’s a problem.”

Theis had to defend himself — unusual, but not too hard. He has a master’s degree in accounting from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and gave up a good job at Price Waterhouse Coopers to retrain as a teacher. His goal: To work with impoverished students in the neighborhood where his parents grew up.

When he left to begin the summer training program in Tulsa, Okla., that was to equip him to enter the classroom this fall, his prospects seemed pretty solid. Six weeks ago, however, the state Board of Education ended an arrangement that has smoothed the pathway for TFA trainees. 

TFA recruits top college graduates, gives them intensive training, places them in high-poverty schools and then provides ongoing training and support. Since TFA’s arrival here in 2009, demand for its recruits has outstripped its supply. TFA Twin Cities’ 2013-2014 corps has 43 members.

Critics — including leaders of Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teacher’s union, and traditional teacher colleges — claim that its recruits are not qualified and are being given jobs that could be filled by conventionally prepared, licensed teachers. 

Two years ago, the Legislature passed a law that was supposed to create permanent pathways for alternatively certified teachers, and Gov. Mark Dayton signed it. The state board — then composed mostly of appointees of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty — was slow to create the programs.

When it did take up the issue, its members frequently expressed ambivalence and confusion.

In the meantime, local schools were struggling to hire experienced teachers who had been trained by TFA and similar programs in other states and who had evidence that their students had made outsized gains. Many were able to take offered jobs because they were granted “community expert” variances, a category of temporary license available to educators who for a variety of reasons need time to qualify for a full license.

A year ago, with implementation 18 months overdue, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius sent the board a strongly worded letter reminding them of lawmakers’ intent.   

In the meantime, the last of the Pawlenty appointees’ terms ended, and their replacements — many with strong ties to Education Minnesota or traditional teacher colleges — began sending signals that more than delaying implementation, they wanted to revisit TFA’s legitimacy.

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.)

In May, the board deadlocked on whether to renew the arrangement. In June, it voted to screen candidates individually. In July, it rejected several applications, approving only those made by a principal who had taken the then-unheard of step of showing up to explain why she wanted to make the hires.

As a consequence, Friday’s meeting was packed with teachers, school leaders and others who had begun to fear that the impasse would end in a return trip to the Legislature. The principals present pointed out they had also hired conventionally licensed teachers for the coming year.

As in Theis’ case, mindset and classroom skills were more important than academic background, they told the board. “It’s not a question of who is qualified,” the Center for School Change’s Joe Nathan explained in the audience. “It’s a question of who is the best fit.”

For the moment, anyhow, there appears to be détente. The three board members most closely associated with union leadership were not in attendance. And after hearing from school leaders and candidates, all nine were granted permission to begin work.

The board also voted without comment to renew its approval of TFA’s relationship to Hamline. Several members expressed what sounded like a change of heart.

“I’m thrilled,” Crystal Brakke, executive director of TFA-Twin Cities, said afterward. “I’m grateful to the board for their thoughtful and rigorous discussion. … We’re looking forward to the months ahead, to have more good and rigorous conversations with the board.”

Theis, meanwhile, will start work at 7:30 Monday morning in a north Minneapolis building that once housed the parochial school his mother attended, and that’s located a couple of blocks from his father’s alma mater, Patrick Henry High School. 

“It’s just an incredible experience for me with my ties to that neighborhood,” said Theis. “It’s kind of a dream come true.”

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Pat Missling on 08/02/2013 - 03:54 pm.

    “TFA recruits top college graduates” ??

    TFA applicant prerequisites:

    You hold a bachelor’s degree by the first day of your assigned summer institute
    Your undergraduate cumulative GPA is at least 2.50 on a 4.00 scale
    You have US citizenship or national/permanent resident status or have received deferred action for childhood arrivals.

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/02/2013 - 04:47 pm.

    “Intensive training” ?? Compared to what? Five weeks vs. at least four years for traditionally trained teachers. And it’s quite an insult to say that the only substantive criticism of TFA comes from teachers’ unions. Not to mention false.

  3. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 08/02/2013 - 07:05 pm.

    Clarifying a few things

    Regardless of GPA, no one is guaranteed a spot in TFA. And regardless of whether you are in TFA, no one is guaranteed a job offer.

    In fact, many of the principals and administrators who spoke today at the Board of Teaching meeting pointed out that they had hired a number of traditionally trained candidates.

    As to my comment, I was responding to the concerns some college of ed representatives raised. They are not happy that many of their graduates who the college profs called “qualified” are not being offered jobs. Perhaps the state board will encourage the to take a look at themselves to see what they could do to increase the # of their graduates who are offered positions.

    One thing they could do: much more strongly encourage teacher preparation candidates to learn Spanish, Somali, Hmong or another of the languages spoken by increasing numbers of Minnesota high school students.

    Another thing – learn more about techniques teachers use at schools that are “beating the odds.”

    • Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 08/02/2013 - 09:30 pm.

      There are three common threads to the few successful charters

      I would ask how many TFAers are learning Hmong, Somali, or Spanish, but that would be silly.

      As for the “breathing the odds” charters, the thee most common threads throughout “successful” ones are :

      1) Increased instruction time either in the school day length or in the school year
      2) increased investment in money
      3) Rigid, some would say even draconian, discipline measures with expulsion rates for minority rates that far outstrip their comparable public schools

      And I would add a fourth is that they have an almost singular focus on math and reading to the exclusion of the creative and critical thinking skills required and instilled in the leadership class.

      But yeah, if credentialed teachers would just learn Hmong they would get hired over TFAers.

      • Submitted by James Kindle on 08/04/2013 - 04:43 pm.

        Silly?

        Hi Alec,
        I’m not sure why you’re saying it would be silly to ask how many TFAers are learning Hmong, Somali, or Spanish. I think that’s an interesting question.
        Anecdotally, I’ve met several of the incoming TFA teachers for this year, and I know at least six are already fluent Spanish speakers (either raised speaking Spanish as a first language, or by studying it in school), at least one is a native Hmong speaker, and I’m not aware of any native Somali speakers. As for myself, a former TFA teacher about to start his fifth year of teaching, I’ve been working on my Somali (mostly with a “lunch bunch” group of students who tutor me as we eat together, but also independently using Martin Orwin’s CD and book program and an iPad app called uTalk Somali). I have a long, long way to go before I’m fluent, of course, but the students enjoy teaching me, and it’s been great to incorporate comparing/contrasting Somali and English in my ESL grammar lessons.
        I would love to see all teachers, TFA and traditionally licensed, working on speaking the languages of the students we work with. I don’t think that’s silly at all.
        -James

    • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/02/2013 - 09:32 pm.

      Just what are those “beating the odds” techniques, Joe? Because when I read pieces like this I think TFA is not only hurting education but also destroying a love for learning among its students:

      http://truth-out.org/articles/item/17750-teach-for-america-apostates-a-primer-of-alumni-resistance

  4. Submitted by Patty Wycoff on 08/02/2013 - 07:14 pm.

    Rigorous! Rigorous!

    The best and the brightest! Top colleges and universities! Both lies.

    Joe Nathan’s quote is my all time favorite…“It’s not a question of who is qualified,” the Center for School Change’s Joe Nathan explained in the audience. “It’s a question of who is the best fit.”

    Good luck to all of the TFA who will be in classroom this fall. You will need it.

  5. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 08/02/2013 - 09:34 pm.

    Evidence of outsize results?

    You stated as prima facie that all of the applicants provided evidence of “outsized” student gains.

    Could you provide evidence or a source or two showing the students the applicants had outsize gains with?

    Also, could you better define “outsized”? 1 standard deviation above the mean? In the fourth quartile of the distribution?

    Thanks for your clarification,
    Alec

  6. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 08/03/2013 - 07:20 am.

    Trying again

    Not sure that this will satisfy TFA critics, but I”ll try again to clarify my comment – which was accurate, but as is often the case, was part of a several minute conversation.

    Both Minneapolis Public Schools and several charges asked to hire some people who do not currently have a teaching license (in the case of MPS, they asked to hire one such person). MPS made the point that the person they were hiring is a native speaker of Spanish along with having other skills and knowledge that they feel makes her a better fit for a position at the Spanish Immersion Elementary School.

    There were several other instances where charters said something similar about being bi-lingual and having other knowledge that led schools to want to hire them instead of someone with a teaching license.

    A person can have a teaching license but not be a good fit for a teaching position.
    Several of the directors who spoke yesterday are from “Beat the Odds” schools that are being ignored by most colleges of education but not by low income, inner city parents, who are enrolling their youngsters (examples include Higher Ground Academy and Hiawatha Academies).

    While critics and skeptics are putting TFA and these schools down, parents are selecting them for their children.

  7. Submitted by Joanne Simons on 08/03/2013 - 07:28 am.

    5 week workshop hardly “intensive training”

    “TFA recruits top college graduates, gives them intensive training ….”

    Baloney. TFA provides 5 weeks of training. Period. To call that “intensive” is both false and misleading. No coursework on child development, instructional techniques, learning theories. No classroom observation. No student teaching.

    You can flippantly post your “disclaimer” over and over, Beth, pretending to be objective, but you are still a TFA publicist.

    TFA puts inexperienced, untrained recruits into classrooms of other people’s kids. Funny how they are never found in tony private schools where TFA hierarchy and ed “reformers” send their children.

    When other professions, like doctors, lawyers, and accountants, see the wisdom of the TFA preparatory model, then and only then should it be appropriate for educating precious children.

  8. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 08/03/2013 - 02:02 pm.

    Clarifying

    I fear I’ve done Joe Nathan a disservice in setting up his quote. He’s fully capable of defending himself, but I want to make sure I put better context on it. He did not say, nor did anyone present, that qualifications were unimportant. Quite the contrary. Allowing the principals to select from a broad pool of applicants enables them to pick someone who is a good fit for a particular job. In selecting his remark I was attempting to communicate something the principals who spoke all said: That they interviewed licensed candidates who might or might not have had beliefs, attitudes or specific skill-sets that made them good prospects for a particular school or position. Several of the school leaders present hired licensed candidates AND TFA recruits. 

  9. Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/03/2013 - 07:49 pm.

    a question

    I a. Happy to see Andrew emplyeed . However what unemployed Minnesota teacher will now not get a job because Andrew did ?

  10. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 08/03/2013 - 11:38 pm.

    Teach for America Apostates

    Many young graduates with high ideals sign up for Teach for America because they believe they will be in a position to make a contribution to America’s children. Many leave (most after only a couple of years) with their ideals in shreds. Some have become respected spokespersons for the value of completely trained educators, as opposed to many of these five-week wonders. Truthout.com ran such an article just yesterday: http://www.truth-out.org/articles/item/17750-teach-for-america-apostates-a-primer-of-alumni-resistance It sheds some light in some of the darker places of this debate.

    • Submitted by James Kindle on 08/04/2013 - 05:02 pm.

      Quitters or apostates?

      Hi Sue,
      I echoed my comments here on the article you link to above, but I don’t fully understand how a major problem of TFA can be that too many of its recruits leave the classroom after only a couple years, while meanwhile these same quitters can, as you say, “become respected spokespersons for the value of completely trained educators.” So those of us who stay in the classroom and become fully licensed (or pursue master’s degrees or National Board Certification) are still part of the problem, but TFAers who quit the profession are fine, so long as they leave it to criticize TFA? I know this sounds like I’m being impertinent, but I truly am genuinely confused.
      -James

  11. Submitted by Molly Redmond on 08/05/2013 - 11:27 am.

    Still Waiting for Proof Citations

    …for the statement in Ms. Hawkins’ article regarding so-called “outsized gains” by students in TFA classrooms.

    It seems to me that this is an easy claim for any educational innovation, one which is often debunked when real studies are conducted.

    Without real data re these gains, the article seems like a piece of cheerful propaganda for TFA.

  12. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 08/05/2013 - 11:37 pm.

    Margaret, Alec;

    Here’s the sentence I think you are referring to: “In the meantime, local schools were struggling to hire experienced teachers who had been trained by TFA and similar programs in other states and who had evidence that their students had made outsized gains.”

    I did not write that TFA-trained teachers per se get outsized gains. Some do, some do not. What I wrote was that local principals have been stymied in trying to hire some of those who have because their demonstrated effectiveness in the classroom does nothing to advance their license applications.

    While I’m at it: A little more than half of TFA-Twin Cities teachers stay in the classroom after their two-year stints, which is the same as the national average for all new teachers–as calculated by the union. Another 25 percent stay in education in some capacity. 

  13. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/09/2013 - 08:42 am.

    Who ruins education?

    The problem with this debate is that it assumes that it’s all about the teachers. Certainly, there is a problem with some teachers. However, it’s not the main problem (and I would assert that it’s relatively rare). Sure, there’s that one teacher that turns a kid off to a subject here and there–maybe they have a negative impact, but there’s that one person in every population (whether traditionally trained or TFA).

    But the vast majority of the problem with education in America, in my estimation based on the existence of the education gap (which isn’t a gap of race, but a gap of income and culture), is the lack of value that students and their parents put on education. You can stick the most knowledgeable, most charismatic teacher in any school, but until kids show up and show up open to learning (including having all the tools required for learning, such as reasonable safety at school and home, a reasonable nutrition, parental and/or peer supervision and encouragement), they will do nothing.

    In light of this, my problem with TFA is that it fixes a problem that doesn’t really exist. Quite frankly, I would love to see more teachers with more experience or training in their field of knowledge. However, if it diverts attention away from the real problem, which are social and economic problems with the students and their communities, I think it does a HUGE disservice to the kids that it hopes to help. I really don’t believe that a crash course in how to navigate a classroom is sufficient. But even if it is, these schools are busy being attracted to the non-union-ness of these teachers (and probably the possibility of being able to hire and fire as convenient; I don’t believe for a moment that it’s really “fit”) in order to meet a budget goal that is still failing to address the problem of poverty and disdain for learning.

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