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.