Star Tribune editorial: Teach for America faces new Minnesota obstacle

In a move that reversed several years of practice, the Minnesota Board of Teaching recently denied a group licensing waiver for the Teach for America (TFA) educator training program.

Some board members questioned the practice of granting blanket waivers for a particular program and said that all teaching candidates should individually go through the process for a temporary license.

In some ways, the board seemed intent on rearguing the validity of alternative teacher licensure, a concept that was approved by the Legislature in 2011.

Yet the major change between last year, when the waiver was approved, and this year is the composition of the board. A majority of current board members were appointed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Members of the previous boards that approved the waiver were appointed by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The waiver decision is the second recent setback for TFA.

Dayton recently vetoed a $1.5 million funding request for the organization, which gives recent college graduates a path to earn alternative certification to teach.

Not surprisingly, the seemingly all-powerful Education Minnesota teachers union opposed both the funding request and the group waiver. And, once again, Education Minnesota and its lobbyists succeeded in sustaining the status quo.

At the very least, the Board of Teaching could have signaled earlier in the year that it was changing direction, so that TFA would have had more time to make adjustments. Because of the waiver decision, some TFA corps members may not have the licensure they need to teach in time for the start of the school year. TFA has 72 program participants teaching in the metro area, and had hoped to add 43 this fall.

Lost in the politics, of course, are the kids most in need of the best possible teachers and new ways of addressing continuing problems.

Despite having relatively highly ranked schools, Minnesota continues to have some of the highest learning disparities in the nation. And research confirms that teacher and instructional quality is critical in addressing that problem.

Earlier this week, the National Council on Teacher Quality offered a scathing review of traditional colleges of education. It said the programs fail to adequately prepare aspiring teachers, produce three times the graduates needed and don’t have high enough admissions standards. Based on assessments of more than 1,000 programs, the report concluded that the schools “have become an industry of mediocrity, churning out first-year teachers with classroom management skills and content knowledge inadequate to thrive in classrooms” with an ever-increasing diversity of ethnic and socioeconomic students. The authors urged leaders at teacher training programs to rethink admission criteria and what skills educators need to be taught.

The council suggests following the lead of states like Delaware, which requires a 3.0 GPA or demonstration of mastery on a standardized test to get into a teaching program. TFA already has similar criteria for admission.

Of the 43 TFA graduates the organization hoped to place in Twin Cities-area schools this fall, 31 already have job offers — most of them with charter schools or the Minneapolis School District.

Without the group waiver for TFA, each of those teaching candidates and their districts must apply individually for temporary limited licenses while the candidates complete their teacher training through a TFA partnership with Hamline University. All of the teacher candidates are currently in intensive TFA training this summer.

To its credit, the Minnesota Department of Education testified twice before the board in favor of the variance. And MDE officials say they will work with TFA to get its candidates through the process this summer in time for them to teach this fall.

TFA certainly isn’t a silver bullet that will magically transform teacher quality alone. With its small number of participants, it will never replace traditional schools of education. Still, the program has the support of many superintendents and principals who have hired its graduates — often for hard-to-fill positions in troubled schools. That fact alone makes the political obstacles that the group keeps facing seem especially petty.

This editorial originally appeared in the June 20, 2013 print edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.