So far, no one has taken Minnesota up on its offer to make it easier for aspiring teachers to enter the classroom without a teaching degree from a traditional college or university.

The lack of interest in the state's new alternative teacher certification program is a surprise to some, given the groundswell of bipartisan support it got when by Gov. Mark Dayton signed it into law in 2011.

At the time, supporters argued that Minnesota needed to be able to cast a wider net to recruit and train top teaching talent, particularly mid-career professionals who didn't want to invest the time it would take to earn a teaching degree from a traditional college or university. An alternative certification program, they argued, would reinvigorate the state's teaching ranks and provide another weapon in attacking the achievement gap between white and minority students.

Karen Balmer, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Teaching, said the board followed legislators' mandate to establish a program that was flexible yet rigorous enough to produce well-trained teachers.

Still, she's been somewhat surprised that, more than six months after the board released the program's guidelines, no one has applied to provide teacher training.

"That's the question we're asking ourselves now. Did we side on being too restrictive?" Balmer said. "I'm not sure we're going to know the answer until someone takes a crack at it."

Before the law, Minnesota was one of a handful of states that didn't have an alternative certification program. The lack of such programs was cited as one of the reasons why the U.S. Department of Education denied Minnesota's 2010 application for a Race to the Top education grant.

While the idea eventually received support from key legislators and top state education officials, it faced opposition from members of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union, who argued it might lower teacher quality standards.

Under the new law, candidates can obtain training through an organization other than a college or university --including a school district or nonprofit -- provided the training program is approved by the Board of Teaching.

Applicants need at least a bachelor's degree, must pass competency tests and log in 200 hours of classroom preparation time.

Trainer sought

Balmer said the board periodically hears that an organization is interested in being a training provider but, so far, nothing has materialized.

When the law was passed last year, Teach for America, a national program that trains college graduates to work in schools, was often mentioned as a possible alternative provider.

Daniel Sellers, the executive director of Teach for America-Twin Cities, said the group was very interested, but the government shutdown that delayed the board's release of program guidelines prevented them from signing up for the upcoming school year.

The group, he explained, currently has an agreement with Hamline University to help train their members and the timing of the board's release didn't give them much time to consider altering that arrangement.

"If it had happened earlier, it might have changed our conversation," he said.

Sellers described the board's new program guidelines as "very rigorous" but not to the point it would deter the group from signing up in the future.

Nationally, about 80 percent of all teachers get their training from an accredited teaching college, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group.

Unofficial survey data suggest there is an uptick in enrollment for alternative certification programs, particularly those run by school districts that allow candidates to gain on-the job training while pursuing licensing, said Arthur McKee, the Council's managing director for teacher preparation studies.

If the program is strong enough, he said, studies suggest those candidates are just as effective as those who went through a traditional training route.

"You would think that two years of training before you enter the classroom would make you better a teacher, but that's not necessarily what we see in the data," McKee said.

Sellers said Teach for America-Twin Cities hopes to decide within the next six months or so whether it wants to become a certification provider in Minnesota for the 2013-14 school year.

"It certainly sets a high bar," he said. "But the bottom line is we need great teachers."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469