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Debate in Legislature: Do the state’s requirements produce the best teachers?

CORBIS

Hannah Adams faces many challenges as a third-grade teacher at Adams Spanish Immersion Magnet in St. Paul.  Among them are these: She’s a new teacher with little teacher training.

Still, being a college graduate fluent in Spanish and yearning to teach, Adams is just the kind of person some legislators have in mind as they consider a Senate bill that would make it easier to put a teacher without a teaching degree into the classroom.

The issue is expected to be debated this week as House and Senate conferees try to reach compromise on their separate education financing bills.

The debate has the state’s largest teachers’ union, Education Minnesota, at odds with a handful of education reformers inside and outside the Legislature. There are numerous arguments for and against the idea, but at its core the debate comes down to this: Are traditional teaching certificates needed to ensure high-quality instruction or are our schools missing out on some of the best and the brightest because of these requirements? 

Supporters of the idea — including DFLers Carlos Mariani of St. Paul and Mindy Greiling of  Roseville, both on the House’s education finance division committee — say it would help alleviate teacher shortages in math, science, special education and English as a second language as well as improve teacher diversity.

It would, for example, make it easier for a person with strong math or science background but without teaching credits to teach those subjects to kids.  This year there were about 50 teacher shortages statewide, Greiling said.

Further, advocates argue, it’s not that those new to the classroom won’t get the teacher training. It’s that they will be mostly learning on the job.

Pulled from House bill
Some supporters of the proposal, included in the Senate’s Omnibus Education bill passed earlier this month, were surprised when the alternative teacher-preparation plan was suddenly yanked from the House bill by Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher with the explanation that legislators need to first more narrowly focus on school funding this session. It’s not clear if the proposal will be in final legislation that comes out of the conference committee.

Education Minnesota has its knickers in a knot over the proposal’s lack of traditional teacher training, which includes an education degree before entering the classroom.

“Very clearly, when we are expecting more from students, why would we expect less from the teachers who are going to be teaching them? We need the best and the brightest,” said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota. The union spearheaded a statewide telephone and email campaign earlier this month urging parents to call their legislators and protest the “shortcut” to teacher licensure.

Mariani answers that charge this way:  “This is really meant not to be a long-term solution, but to meet some immediate needs for Minneapolis, St. Paul, Brooklyn Center and some of the charter schools while we work at the big picture,” he said. 

Longer term, the goal is to entice more talented people into education and into challenging positions in districts with high numbers of students of color and poor students. The goal is to eliminate the academic achievement gap, Mariani said.  

“It’s not intended to displace any teachers,” explained Republican Sen. Gen Olson of Minnetrista, another supporter, who sees additional benefits to the proposal:  “We ought to recognize some alternative routes into education, because different life experiences other than spending all your life in school are a value.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is behind the idea as well.

Some critics of the idea argue the alternate training would be inadequate. “We’re concerned about language in the bill that allows someone to become a teacher without practicum,” Dooher said.

And some fear already-strapped school districts would have to pick up the bill for new-teacher staff training and supervision.

“Who’s going to pay for this? [My school district] has a deficit of $25 million currently,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.     

Some parents wonder whether the measure would lower the quality of a public school education. As written, the bill would allow the Board of Teaching to waive the minimum grade point average of those applying for teacher certification.

‘It’s been good’
Yet Adams, teaching in the St. Paul public school, is a 2008 magna cum laude graduate of Macalester College where she majored in Spanish. She picked up an education minor, but the college did not have a teacher licensure program, so she’s teaching under a temporary waiver while in a two-year program at Hamline University that will earn her a teacher license.

Now she’s teaching thanks to the St. Paul Teaching Fellows. The alternative teacher preparation program, a joint effort of the New Teacher Project, the U.S. Department of Education and St. Paul public schools, is shepherding Adams in the classroom.

“It’s been good. It’s been incredibly busy,” said Adams, who is 22. She often works 11-hour days at school.  Tuesdays after classes end, she takes graduate classes at Hamline University. Then she tackles homework, both hers and her students.

It can be tough. Being a brand new teacher, she’s learning curriculum as well as learning how to translate the curriculum into Spanish for her students, who attend Adams to learn Spanish along with their other lessons.

“I haven’t thought about sedimentary rock since middle school. Now I have to teach about it in Spanish. It’s exciting, but there’s also a lot of review for myself before I walk into class. How do I teach the math lesson, plus how do you say ‘carrying’ and ‘remainder’ in Spanish?”  Adams said.

Still, Adams said parents tell her they’re “satisfied with what’s going on in the classroom.” 

The Senate bill is aimed at college graduates. It creates guidelines for an alternative teacher preparation program like the St. Paul Teaching Fellows, leading to teacher licensure, and allows teacher candidates to teach while they learn about pedagogy, classroom management and best teaching practices. Besides that college training, the bill requires new teachers be mentored by experienced teachers.

The measure “removes an administrative hurdle,” explained Teresa Rogers, executive director of human resources for St. Paul Schools. Districts would no longer be required annually to ask the Board of Teaching for permission to put a non-traditional teacher into the classroom, she said.      

More competition for teaching jobs?
The bill would also help Teach for America, which is fundraising to bring its alternative teacher preparation program to Minnesota.

Though Daniel Sellers, executive director of Teach for America in the Twin Cities, said the bill does “not specifically support Teach for America,” some legislators cited the program. Greiling described it as “akin to the Peace Corps” because it recruits recent college grads who, despite not being education majors, commit to teaching two years in urban and rural schools with large numbers of diverse and poor students. Their aim: to close the achievement gap.

There is a sense the bill would increase competition for teaching jobs.

As Sellers put it: “This legislation gives school districts the opportunity to maximize teacher quality by allowing them to search for the best teachers among both traditionally certified candidates as well as strong, talented candidates that are accepted into alternative certification programs.

“This bill allows school districts to find more great teachers from other sources and bring them to disadvantaged communities,” Sellers said.

He said 91 percent of students in the schools Teach for America serves this year are children of color and 70 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The program recruits from Ivy League and other prestigious colleges. The 2008 crop of teachers-in-training — about 2,900 of them — had an average grade point average of 3.6, he said. Twenty-eight percent are people of color. 

Both St. Paul Teaching Fellows and Teach for America draw many more applicants than either can accommodate. Last year, St. Paul had 636 “incredible applicants who want to work toward closing the achievement gap” for 35 positions, according to site manager Norah Barrett.

Both legislators and educators speak of a need to look at how the United States trains its teachers, given the tremendous challenges and heavy workloads.

Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, praises her district’s teachers. “I’m amazed at how talented they are, how much they care about kids and how hard they work to do their very best. But after a four-year-degree and student teaching, they’re not always prepared for what they get in the classroom.”

The reality is, she said, many children come into the classroom bringing the “very difficult struggles of their lives” with them.

“Isn’t it time for us to look at doing education maybe a little differently?’ Nordgren asked. Maybe, because of teacher shortages in physical sciences and other fields, alternative teacher preparation programs are a good option, she suggested. “It’s not taking away jobs … just filling in the holes.”  

Cynthia Boyd reports on education and other topics. She can be reached at cboyd [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by David Joseph De Grio on 04/27/2009 - 08:57 am.

    I am a member of the teachers union and I support the goal this proposal. I have taught college level Introductory Chemistry for almost 4 years, prior to that I taught General Chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. I have often thought about going into high school teaching and feel that I am as well, if not more, qualified than someone coming out of college with a teaching degree, when it comes to teaching chemistry.

    The students I have at college, often comment that they wished they had me for high school chemistry because of my teaching style.

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 04/27/2009 - 09:06 am.

    There is a severe shortage of General Practitioners in rural towns. I have a strong science and math background, so I would like to start practicing medicine tomorrow. I have no actual medical training. I’ll eventually get credentials and a medical license, but the shortages need to be filled now. Who wants to sign up for my new medical practice.

  3. Submitted by Eric Glenne on 04/27/2009 - 09:55 am.

    My father was recruited to be a teacher during the early days of WWII. They were desperate for anyone who had a college degree. It didn’t matter that his degree was in English — they had him teaching biology and coaching the boy’s basketball team. Nothing nearly as dire as Alec Timmerman vaguely implies happened. In fact, Dad went back to school and got his teaching degree and a Masters as well. I think it’s important to realize that this proposed scenario has happened many times before in our past. There are good and bad results. I personally went to school 20 years ago, spent thousands of dollars on a teaching degree, graduated and couldn’t get a teaching job. The idea of getting teacher training with a guarantee of employment sounds pretty good to me.

  4. Submitted by Charlie Leonard on 04/27/2009 - 10:09 am.

    I taught for a number of years in both Wayzata and Hopkins, and loved every minute of it. However, due to some exciting changes in my life (I founded a youth theatre company and bought an independent book store), I made the decision not to teach this year — with the full intention of returning to it in some role at some point in the (hopefully) very near future.

    Of course, the problem is that my teaching license has now expired — which means that in order for me to return to a public school classroom, I have to jump through whatever hoops exist to renew it. I don’t believe I can even sub, under my current license status.

    I would welcome an examination of situations like mine. While I do stop short of suggesting that people without experience or education in the field should be allowed to jump in front of a room full of kids (it’s much harder than it looks), I do think that there are people out there (like me) who do have the experience, training, and who continue to work daily with kids in other areas — but who perhaps don’t hold a current teaching license anymore. I think it’s very reasonable to suggest that somebody in my situation (and I know I’m not the only one) should be able to return to teaching without having to jump through the hoops of getting our license renewed.

    When I was a young teacher, I remember hearing a frightening fact about what percentage of teachers leave the field within the first five years. I never thought I would be one of them, but like I said, some other exciting things came up that I needed to explore. But make no mistake about it — I absolutely LOVE being with kids (middle school kids, by the way) all day, I really do want to go back at some point. Taking a look at this issue could make it easier and more viable for people in my position to do just that!

  5. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 04/27/2009 - 11:55 am.

    This is a great idea that would enable schools to hire talented people to teach in our schools. This would create a larger talent pool from which to select teachers.

    As career changes, both forced and through choice, face baby boomers, there is great opportunity for students to learn from professionals who have varied life and career experience. Existing teachers might benefit from new peers who bring alternative skills into the school environment.

    As for Mr. Timmerman, there are probably many people in the general citizenry who could step in as health professionals in some form or fashion. These people may be aware of alternative medicine practices or may be able to motivate lifestyle changes. As with teachers, we would want the selection process to be smart and provide appropriate supervision.

  6. Submitted by Julie Blaha on 04/27/2009 - 12:01 pm.

    This proposal flies in the face of overwhelming research showing that students with the greatest need do best with teachers with the greatest experience. In fact, a key component of the achievement gap is that students of color are served by disproportionately new teachers in the United States.

    If we want to end teacher shortages let’s work on what causes them: unmanageable workloads and uncompetitive compensation.

  7. Submitted by Richard Faust on 04/27/2009 - 12:45 pm.

    Why stop at uncertified teachers? How about doctors? or lawyers?. . .The new interim superintendent for St. Paul, who will takeover in July does not possess any teaching or administrative licenses in this state or any other. . .Why leave education to the educators, that makes too much sense. . .

  8. Submitted by Eric Glenne on 04/27/2009 - 01:00 pm.

    But Ms. Blaha, what do you propose to do with the students right now who have no teacher at all? Tell them to simply wait while we hammer out the workload and compensation issues? This proposal seems to be aimed at filling the holes, not eradicating the entire system of teacher preparation.

    Thank you, though, for raising the issue of what makes teachers want to stay. That is vital, vital, vital.

    I for one would love to hear from some parents who home-school their children. I’m guessing quite a few of them don’t have teaching experience and yet home schooling seems to produce very good results. (Yes, I understand there is a real and significant issue of economic inequality here. Many of the greater-need students cannot be home-schooled.) I just feel home-school parent/teachers are examples of how people without the formal credentials can be very good teachers indeed.

  9. Submitted by Edward Pluimer on 04/27/2009 - 01:08 pm.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124061253951954349.html#mod=djemEditorialPage

    A piece on the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page should be interesting reading for those people with views on the proposals before the MN legislature. The WSJ piece directs its attention to the lauded Teach for America program.

  10. Submitted by Howard Miller on 04/27/2009 - 01:30 pm.

    And how many people are clamouring for the opportunity to make a below-average professional wage by joining the ranks of teachers?

    A small handful? Dozens perhaps? Even a hundred?

    It is an on-going myth that great teacher prospects are being banned from the business by rigid licensing requirements.

    It is an on-going myth that subject matter expertise translates into class-room effectiveness in that subject. Knowing something of learning and development, regulations, human relations specific to teaching minors … these skills matter too, and licensing helps ensure people possess those skills.

    You want better teachers? Make teaching as econmically attractive as medicine, law, pro sports, business finance. We won’t lack for amazing teachers.

  11. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/27/2009 - 02:20 pm.

    “You want better teachers? Make teaching as econmically attractive as medicine, law, pro sports, business finance. We won’t lack for amazing teachers.”

    I couldn’t agree more, Howard.

    The best surgeons in the world are compensated very nicely for their skill and dedication, as are the best lawyers, athletes and businessmen and women.

    Of course for each of those professions, the scale of compensation is as wide and varied as the skill, effort and record of success of the professionals commanding them.

    As a sole measure though, length of time in the profession has absolutely no effect in their compenstaion.

    It’s high time we start treating teachers like the professionals they are. When we are free to pay someone with a advanced degree in mathematics, physics or the sciences what they would command in the private sector “they will come”.

    The same is true for those with degrees in English, Phy Ed., and Social Studies.

    Of course that is exactly what the teachers union and their supporters are so worried about when discussion about allowing professionals from private industry into the classrooms comes up and why they will fight tooth and nail to defeat any such attempt.

    When enough people realize that the NEA, AFT and their affiliates are in the trade labor union business, and that academic success will always take a back seat to the unions’ best interests, real pressure will be brought to bear to force the wholesale restructuring of the public education system that is necessary before any real improvements can be realized.

  12. Submitted by Joel Reiter on 04/27/2009 - 04:41 pm.

    I don’t think Teach Minnesota is doing their constituents any favors by comparing teachers with doctors. Premed tend to be the brightest and hardest working students in college, and they don’t get into medicine without knowing their subjects. Teachers, not so much.

    The current requirements for a teaching license are all about limiting the pool of potential teachers. Many, many young people who might otherwise consider a career in teaching avoid it because they know a worthless education degree will disqualify them for many other types of work. And conversely, teachers who come to hate their profession are trapped in it because of their degree.

    Possible requirements for teacher certification include knowledge of subject, gift of teaching, and teacher training. I think most people would rank the current criteria last among those three.

  13. Submitted by Julie Blaha on 04/27/2009 - 05:38 pm.

    Mr. Glenne – I would share your concern if there were significant holes in filling positions, but when so many districts are cutting teachers (my district for istance, Anoka Hennepin, just cut almost 200 teachers for next year and will make similar cuts the year after) that is not a significant issue.

    Mr. Reiter – I disagree that training is the least important component in effective instruction. Teaching is not some mysterious talent that can’t be learned – there are concrete, specific things that successful teachers do that you can learn ahead of taking over your first classroom.

    Also, a large component of good training is practicing in the classroom – I spent hours of time working with students even before student teaching. I’ve had teaching candidates in their very first field experience and those in their final student teaching and the differences in their performance is huge.

    There are few professions that put brand new employees in a position with the exact same responsibilities as a 30 year veteran – but teaching is one of them. As a result, this is not the kind of position where you can come in without practicing ahead of time.

  14. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 04/27/2009 - 07:14 pm.

    Practicing ahead of time, learning some basics of child/human development and the psychology of learning – these are important for new teachers. However, and I know this will offend some of you, far too much is made of the education courses now keeping schools of education entrenched in colleges and universities. Legislatures across the country have been complicit in cementing their control. Half the courses offered provide a comfy sinecure without contributing materially to teacher success. We need a new approach, and good teachers will be delighted to help fashion one.

  15. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/27/2009 - 08:44 pm.

    “We need a new approach, and good teachers will be delighted to help fashion one.”

    Hear her!

  16. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/28/2009 - 08:55 am.

    Education MN is not primarily about education; it is about control.

  17. Submitted by William Pappas on 05/03/2009 - 10:14 pm.

    Only in Minnesota can we debate the idea that reducing teacher requirements will produce better teachers. Only in Minnesota do we feel teacher quality is problematic when in fact we have quite likely the best teacher pool in the country. There is nothing wrong with having stringent requirements and I would be less confident if our school instructors did not have a teacher’s certificate. Only in Minnesota do we deny that paying teachers more will result in an increase of better qualified applicants. If an individual wants to teach they need to have enough drive and desire to obtain a teacher’s certificate. That in itself ensures better quality.
    Once again the real drive behind these education proposals is political. As long as they dilute the power of Education Minnesota they will be supported by the privatizers.

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