Stuck in the blame game


In a March 9 commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels, Sondra Samuels of the PEACE Foundation and Chanda Baker of Pillsbury United Communities accused Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, of defending a “failed status quo” and obstructing efforts to reduce racial disparities in our schools.

“The reasons for writing the commentary were to get the facts out for the public to see,” Don Samuels told the MSR last week.

The commentary raised several issues deserving further exploration, including responsibility for Minnesota’s failed bid for Race to the Top funds, inequities between urban and suburban schools, and alternative teacher certification.

Samuels primarily blames the state teachers’ union for the state’s Race to the Top application being rejected by the U.S. Education Department, mainly because union leaders opposed the alternative licensing proposal.

“The state teachers’ union had a crucial role” in the application process, Samuels pointed out. “They wrote a letter to the federal government outlining why they opposed [alternative licensing]. We don’t know if that was the ultimate reason or the only reason [that Minnesota was not accepted], but we do know that it was a contributing reason.”

“This is not about the teachers’ union, because 90 percent of local teachers supported the things that were outlined in Race to the Top,” added Sondra Samuels. However, she argued that Education Minnesota – particularly its president, Tom Dooher – “stood in the door and blocked all of the key things that sent a signal that the state was serious about educational reform.”

In his March 16 published counterpoint in the Star Tribune, Dooher said that his union “does not oppose alternative paths to teacher licensing,” but it does oppose the Teach for America program because “it puts people in charge of classrooms after only five weeks of training.”

Dooher last week told the MSR that he shares Council Member Samuels’ frustration over the achievement gap: “I can see that he is very frustrated – we’re as frustrated as he is,” said the union head. “But I think he was taking out his frustrations out on me and on our organization.

“The achievement gap is a complex issue, and we are willing to take our responsibility in what we need to do [to eliminate it],” Dooher admitted.

“But finger-pointing and calling people names is not going to solve the achievement gap.”

“When you are identifying a problem, I guess you can call it finger-pointing,” responded Samuels. “But it needs to be done.”

The MSR decided to begin by inquiring further into the teacher licensing issue and the Teach for America controversy.

The controversy over alternative teacher certification arises in part from the proposal to place several Teach For America members in high-need area schools.

Teach For America (TFA) is a national organization that seeks college graduates who commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools.

The group currently has around 7,300 members teaching in 35 regions across the country.

TFA’s mission is described on its website: “We recruit outstanding recent college graduates from all backgrounds and career interests to commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools. We provide the training and ongoing support necessary to ensure their success as teachers in low-income communities.”

TFA announced last June that it would bring up to 40 top college graduates to teach for each of the next three years in the highest-need traditional and charter public schools in Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center and charter public schools in St. Paul. The plan has been endorsed by Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and the Minneapolis Public Schools, among others.

“They recruit the top graduates from universities across the country, including Historically Black Colleges,” said Minneapolis Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Bernedia Johnson of the program.

Does Teach for America represent a threat to traditional teachers and the teaching profession? Can a summer of intensive training prepare people to teach as well as several years of academic coursework and classroom practice? Can programs like Teach for America bring in more diverse teachers and reduce the achievement gap?

“We don’t think lessening qualifications for those people who teach is the way to go,” argued Dooher.

“The number-one job for [Education Minnesota] is the protection of their members’ interests,” Don Samuels strongly believes.

“Before I signed on to support [Teach For America] here in Minneapolis, I called the Memphis City Schools and asked have they done any evaluations on how successful these teachers are as compared to their other teachers,” reported Johnson. “Without a doubt, they said [TFA] teachers are performing at a high level, and that the principals like having [them] and want to get more in the buildings.”

A retired teacher (who asked not to be identified) told us, “It doesn’t matter what kind of license you have if you are unable to transfer your training to students. Having a license doesn’t make anyone a good teacher.”

Sondra Samuels believes that an alternative licensure program such as Teach for America “is a tool” to help eliminate the achievement gap. “I don’t think it is the panacea, but it’s an important step.”

“There is not a silver bullet or magic answer” to solving the achievement gap, North High School Principal Ellen Stewart pointed out, adding that “a common conversation” is needed about how to approach the current gap. “Nobody can get to that starting point [because] everybody is spending so much time blaming each other that we can’t even agree that there is a problem.

“I think the fear is that people don’t really know how to close the achievement gap, and that’s why they don’t want to move out of the blame game. I am still waiting for us educators, no matter what level, to say there is a problem,” said Stewart.

Schools, community and families are “a three-legged stool” to educating children, said Sondra Samuels. “If any one of those legs is broken, you have a harder time of a child really reaching his or her full potential in life.”

For more information on Teach For America, visit www.teachfora

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to