Teach for America wants some kind of partnership with the University of Minnesota, but right now there are more questions than answers. What kind of partnership do they want? Is TFA planning to leave Hamline? Why would the U of M consider a partnership? What does Hamline think of its current TFA partnership?
According to Jean Quam, dean of the U of M’s College of Education, TFA first approached her four years ago, hoping to convince her department to host TFA’s five-week summer training institute. Currently, there is no TFA five-week training located in Minnesota. At that time, the College of Education turned down their request. Now, the request is back, and Quam is seriously considering implementing a TFA training program at the university. What has changed?
In a recent information session, Quam said that the University of Minnesota is considering hosting TFA’s training program, but only under certain conditions. While the typical TFA approach is to first recruit promising college graduates, train them in a five-week summer program, and then put them in a public or charter school classroom for two years, Quam says the U of M would insist on a longer training program, possibly up to eight weeks. She also said that the U of M would retain choice over which TFA recruits to work with, and would emphasize a commitment to public education and the teaching profession as a whole for these recruits.
This approach would differ from both the typical TFA training model and the University of Minnesota’s current programs for training future teachers. As Quam and Associate Dean of Education Ken Bartlett describe it, the University of Minnesota currently offers a path to licensure through a traditional masters’ program, and a new post-baccalaureate program called the Teacher Education Redesign Initiative (TERI).
The TERI model is still embedded in a master’s degree in education program, and it puts those seeking licensure in a one-year student teacher residency with a local public school. A benefit of this, according to Quam and Bartlett, is that relationships are formed among the student teacher, the classroom teacher, and the children they work with.
TFA-Twin Cities’ Executive Director Crystal Brakke is less definite about what kind of partnership TFA is seeking with the University of Minnesota. In an email interview, Brakke said, “TFA is in a very preliminary conversation with the U about the idea of a potential partnership and areas for possible collaboration should TFA become an alternative certification program in Minnesota (which we currently are not.)” In states such as Michigan and Washington, TFA works closely with the state universities via TFA-specific teacher certification programs that often include recruits pursuing graduate degrees while they are working as classroom teachers.
The possible agreement with the U of M would differ from the one that TFA-Twin Cities has had with Hamline University in St. Paul, where Brakke says TFA is considered an “experimental program in their School of Education.”
The short-term certification and classroom placement before beginning MA coursework would be the reverse of the TERI model, where students first spend a year in the classroom with a certified teacher and earn a master’s degree in education before becoming full-fledged classroom teachers.
Brakke says that a goal of TFA is to continually improve how their recruits are trained before heading into the classroom and how they are supported once they get there. She maintains that TFA wants to partner with institutions like the U of M as a way to “…think creatively about ongoing professional development… that will be aligned to what we’re learning teachers most need….”
This may be even more necessary given what Brakke describes as TFA’s current presence in Minnesota. According to her, TFA recruits are being hired for “open, hard-to-fill positions in high-needs schools (in Minneapolis Public Schools and 10 charter schools, as of now) for this fall.” The placement of TFA recruits in such “high needs” schools is the crux of what some teachers, union members, and others object to most about a potential TFA/University of Minnesota partnership.
One Minneapolis public school teacher, Pia Payne-Shannon, questions the effectiveness, as well as the fairness, of putting the teachers with the least amount of training in front of the neediest students. Payne-Shannon recently taught alongside a TFA recruit in an ESL classroom, and said this recruit reported feeling unprepared and overwhelmed.
Payne-Shannon’s concern is that placing such people in the most difficult teaching circumstances does nothing to help close what she calls the “Opportunity Gap,” with “low income students of color” missing out on the most qualified instruction available. She questions whether wealthier parents would accept TFA corps members in their students’ classrooms.
According to Dean Quam, the University of Minnesota is a research institution, and a possible justification for hosting TFA would be to provide a closer look at what works and what does not in teacher preparation programs. Quam also said that TFA has been in Minnesota for four years now, and the U of M could help it become a stronger entity through its College of Education.
A decision about a partnership with TFA is expected in a week or two.
Minnesota Teach For America has had two other significant setbacks recently. In May Governor Dayton vetoed $1.5 million in funding requested for TFA, saying that TFA already has lots of money and that, “No competitive grant program was established, no other applications were solicited, and no objective review was made by an independent panel of experts” before the legislature approved the TFA request. On June 14, the Minnesota Board of Teachers voted not to grant temporary teaching licenses to TFA recruits as a group, but rather to require that each new TFA recruit apply for certification individually.