Why Minnesota teachers union opposes Teach for America

  • Article by: TOM DOOHER
  • Updated: June 5, 2013 - 8:15 PM

If $1.5 million is available for education, there are better ways to spend it.

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2011 photo: A Teach for America teacher.

Photo: Andy King, Associated Press

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No one knows the value of education dollars in the state budget like Minnesota’s classroom teachers. Because of chronic underfunding, we are the men and women who clip coupons and dip into our own pockets for everything from crayons to copier paper for our students.

We seek out new professional development on our own dimes. We contribute to the growing number of school-based food shelves that meet the needs of the 40 percent of Minnesota children who qualify for subsidized lunches but who might go hungry at home.

So it’s really not surprising that career educators would oppose a $1.5 million earmark for Teach For America — opposition noted in a June 1 editorial (“A setback for education reform”).

If the Legislature wanted to spend another $1.5 million on schools and students, there were far greater needs than TFA.

For more than 20 years, TFA has placed recent graduates of elite universities into challenging public schools. They get five weeks of training and some on-the-job mentoring. Local districts pay the TFA organization a “finder’s fee,” then the districts pay the TFA “corps members” at the same rate as other new teachers, including those who are fully licensed.

TFA teachers don’t meet Minnesota teaching standards. The organization has operated here under a series of special waivers from the Minnesota Board of Teaching. However, the latest waiver application was denied in May, so it’s unclear if the organization will be able to place a new TFA class this fall.

TFA teachers are paid the same as fully credentialed teachers, but they don’t produce the same results. According a review of the national research on TFA by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, “studies indicate that the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.”

National statistics also show that 80 percent of TFA corps members leave the classroom within three years. The constant churn has its costs, in recruiting and training new teachers and the lost academic gains associated with putting an inexperienced teacher in the classroom. On the other hand, it mitigates teacher shortages in some states. However, Minnesota doesn’t have a widespread teacher shortage.

Nonetheless, a few influential members of the Minnesota Legislature inserted a $1.5 million earmark into the higher-education bill. The Star Tribune quoted a TFA official as saying that the earmark would permit TFA to recruit, train and support 50 additional teachers. If those figures are correct, that’s $30,000 per short-term teacher. For comparison, $30,000 would cover the tuition and fees for three years at a university in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system or two years in the slightly more expensive University of Minnesota system.

Gov. Mark Dayton wisely used his line-item veto to remove the earmark from the higher-education bill. Our members had encouraged him to do so. They were not alone. The teacher-quality experts at the Minnesota Association of Colleges for Teacher Education also called for the governor’s veto.

This issue was not whether spending the $1.5 million was a threat to unions, as the editorial suggested. Instead, it was a question of whether it made sense to give special treatment to the 20-year-old experiment of putting enthusiastic but barely trained rookies into challenging classrooms. Based on the independent research, on observing the program up close in our schools and on knowing the needs of the students we work with every day, we concluded that the earmark was inappropriate.

Instead, we support the governor’s call for new ideas for teaching.

Minnesota should encourage more young people to choose teaching as a career, particularly people of color and people willing to dedicate their lives, not just a few years, to working in the classroom and closing the achievement gap.

The 70,000 educators of Education Minnesota look forward to bringing our ideas to the Department of Education, the governor, legislators or whoever else is willing to keep our schools moving forward for the good of our state.

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Tom Dooher is president of Education Minnesota.

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