University of Minnesota moving along with Teach For America deal, while grad students say their objections aren't being considered

No decision has been made on the proposed partnership between the University of Minnesota and Teach for America, but some graduate students said they believe an unofficial agreement has already been decided.

Nine graduate students met with College of Education and Human Development Dean Jean Quam and five members of the college’s administration July 11 to discuss the proposed partnership after penning a petition to CEHD expressing their opposition.

As of July 14, nearly 300 people had signed the petition, according to a press release from the graduate students.

According to the press release, Quam declined to make a decision by Friday on the partnership, as requested by the students, but said the college is “well into negotiations with TFA.”

In a July 15 email statement, Quam said “it’s important to note that CEHD continues to consider the possibilities, advantages and complexities of offering both TFA and traditional teacher education programs.”

Erin Dyke, a graduate student who co-wrote the collective statement against the partnership, said graduate students asked petition signers to call Quam’s office before the requested Friday deadline.

“They did basically tell us that they were in negotiations, so that made us think that [CEHD] has unofficially decided that they would partner and that they’re negotiating the terms at this point,” Dyke said. “That was our perception of the way that the dean was talking.”

The proposed partnership talks began after Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a $1.5 million TFA earmark in the state budget in May.

While Dayton was nullifying the TFA earmark, TFA was negotiating with CEHD to design an alternative licensing program, taking advantage of a 2011 state law that allows the hiring and placement of teachers who haven’t completed all of the usual state certification tests and requirements.

“The legislation has really allowed us to think deeply — since it’s been passed — about what we would really want our program to look like and what this new law would provide,” said TFA Twin Cities Executive Director Crystal Brakke.

She said conversations between TFA and the University have “centered on the mutual goal of best preparing teachers for the schools that most need them.”

One issue that’s been contested between TFA and the graduate students is the five-week training program that TFA volunteers go through before entering the classroom.

The students’ petition said the session isn’t enough time to adequately prepare teachers.

Kevin Dorn, a University graduate student and alum of TFA in St. Louis, said that even though the five-week session is short, “the institute itself is very intensive.”

“Holistically I’ll say for TFA as an organization, you have to go back to thinking about what their goal is in any given region,” he said. “They came to Minnesota because Minnesota still has one of the worst achievement gaps in the country.”

Brakke agreed, saying it’s important to note the five-week session is just one part of the training volunteers undergo.

In addition to concerns about the training program, the press release from graduate students said “the partnership would contribute to the increasing privatization and exploitation of public schools in communities most affected by racism and state violence.”

Brakke said she disagrees with that statement, adding that TFA volunteers are “deeply committed to addressing those same issues of racism and equal opportunities for students.”

As tensions rise, it’s becoming more difficult for the two opposing sides to communicate their concerns, as well as what they have in common, Brakke said.

“I know that the graduate students at the University and at CEHD share so many of the same goals that I have, and so I would really love to be able to find a way to bridge some of the divides, real or perceived,” she said. “We’re all here for the same reasons.”

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