Minnesota schools could soon get an infusion of new young teachers who reach the classroom without attending the state's traditional teaching colleges as part of an alternative licensing proposal moving through the Legislature.
Backers say the idea, already in place in most states, offers a chance for Minnesota to finally make progress on a stubborn achievement gap that has separated white and minority students.
Besides letting organizations other than Minnesota colleges or universities issue teaching licenses, the proposal before lawmakers would halve the required student teaching time, to about five weeks.
Unlike in some states, Minnesota's legislation isn't aimed at bringing mid-career professionals into the classroom. Instead, it's much more likely to boost programs such as Teach for America, a national program that puts a select group of fresh college graduates through a crash teaching course and then places them in impoverished schools. The legislation would make it easier for such programs to operate here.
The program emphasizes racial diversity.
"The reality is that in the state of Minnesota right now we have a horrible achievement gap, but there are schools that are getting great results," said Rep. Patrick Garofalo, the Farmington Republican who sponsored the House bill. "When you talk to those people who run those schools, when you talk to those people who are winning and literally saving kid's lives, they say this works."
Critics fear that some children could fare poorly under inexperienced teachers, a concern expressed by Gov. Mark Dayton last week in a letter urging changes in the legislation. The state teachers union is also urging more restrictions than in the current legislation.
“We're giving kids who need the best teachers in the country, rookies -- who are only going to stay two years. By the time they learn their trade, they will leave.”Arthur Levine, Teachers College at Columbia U.
Dayton, a Democrat, wrote that the alternative programs should partner with teaching colleges and universities. He also said the bill didn't do enough to ensure that high school teachers who win such alternative licenses have enough background in their subjects.
"The simple fact is that teachers can't teach what they don't know," Dayton wrote.
Supporters say enthusiastic teachers like Erin Gavin will do fine. Gavin, 23, is in her final year of a two-year tour with Teach for America at a low-performing Brooklyn Park school where more than three-quarters of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches. One recent weekday, Gavin didn't appear to lack any tricks for leading her seventh-grade class through a writing exercise.
The class of mostly black girls struggled and drifted off topic, but Gavin kept bringing them back with a quiet word or, at several points, a sort of clapping call-and-response game.
"I walked into that classroom on the first day (last year) feeling as though I had been rigorously trained and had a really unprecedented support network ready to help me and my students succeed," she said after class.
Garofalo said the changes could encourage programs similar to Teach for America to move into the state. Any new licensing program would need the approval of the state Board of Teaching.
All Minnesota teachers would still need a bachelor's degree and would have to pass tests in basic academic skills and in their area of expertise. The U.S. Department of Education also backs the concept.
In January, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told business leaders in Minneapolis, "We need to open this up and get great talent, wherever that talent may come from."
The lack of alternative pathways cost Minnesota points in last year's federal Race to the Top grant competition worth millions of dollars.
Teach for America has about 90 teachers in Brooklyn Center, Minneapolis public schools and metro-area charter schools out of about 68,000 traditionally trained teachers in the state.
People in the Teach for America program get waivers from the state Board of Teaching and continue to take classes through Hamline University in St. Paul.
Daniel Sellers, executive director of Teach for America Twin Cities, said it's a cumbersome process.
If the bills became law, he said, it would provide a stable regulatory foundation on which his group could expand. Minnesota is one of the few states that don't have such policies.
According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 42 states have licensing programs outside colleges and universities. Their requirements vary. But there are doubters.
"The research foundation is very weak," said Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University. "At the moment, we don't know if university-based teacher education programs or alternative providers are stronger."
He applauded Teach for America for attracting bright young adults who normally wouldn't consider teaching, but said he was concerned those people stay in teaching for an average of two years.
He said a five-week training program isn't enough to prepare them for the disadvantaged students the group serves.
"We're giving kids who need the best teachers in the country, rookies who are only going to stay two years. And by the time they learn their trade, they will be leaving," Levine said. "That is not a good thing to do."
Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, supports an alternative licensing plan with more restrictions, more supervision and a requirement that the new teachers only teach in their college major - a condition missing from the plan approved by the Legislature.
"Our students deserve better," said union President Tom Dooher.
Nonetheless, Brooklyn Center Superintendent Keith Lester is sold on Teach for America teachers for his secondary school, which is in a federally funded turnaround program for the nation's lowest performing schools. He has hired four of them.
"They are such perfectionists and they work so hard," he said.
Gavin said she might be among the two-thirds of Teach for America teachers stay in education - which includes teaching, school administration and policy work. "It has been far more rewarding than I anticipated," she said.
Online: Teach for America, Twin Cities: http://bit.ly/fPqBkJ
The text of SF40, Alternative Teacher Licensure: http://bit.ly/fzmubg
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)