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

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

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

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.) 

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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.

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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.

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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.”