For graduating seniors like Wynter Hopson, it’s usually nerve-racking to start looking for a job.
But this year, she and her classmates have the added burden of explaining why their highly regarded teaching program at the University of Minnesota Duluth has been penalized by the Minnesota Board of Teaching for violating state standards.
In April, the board put UMD on “conditional status” and ordered it to stop enrolling new students in more than 20 teacher-training programs.
University officials insist that it’s entirely a paperwork problem, not a reflection of any concerns about the quality of the education itself.
But students have complained that the “glitch,” as officials originally called it, has thrown a wrench into their efforts to get the one thing they need to start their careers: a teaching license.
In January, a number of new graduates discovered that they were not eligible for full teaching licenses because their program, in elementary and special education, had lost its approval by the Board of Teaching.
Over the next few months, as university officials scrambled to fix the problems, they discovered that the concerns didn’t end there and that they affected almost all of the programs in the Education Department.
Hopson, 23, who graduates Saturday, said the uncertainty already cost her one teaching job offer. With no assurances about if, or when, she would get a license, she ended up taking a lower-paying job as a teaching assistant. “I would hope that I would be teaching,” said Hopson, of Pequot Lakes, Minn. Instead, she said, “I hug kindergartners. It’s baby-sitting.”
Andrea Schokker, UMD’s executive vice chancellor, acknowledges that the problems have rattled students. But she says that, as of now, all graduates are eligible for full licenses and that the university is working with the board to resolve all of the remaining concerns.
“Right now, the only impact to students in the program or graduates in the program, quite frankly, is the anxiety,” she said.
Problems got worse
The first sign of trouble, according to Schokker, surfaced last October, when the new dean of education, Jill Pinkney Pastrana, met with the Board of Teaching. “There was nothing on the radar for us,” Schokker said. But “when she came back she had an emergency meeting.”
The dean, who started in 2013, discovered that one of the department’s signature programs — elementary and special education — had failed to submit the paperwork for approval, which meant that it was in violation of state law. The board gave the university until December 2014 to straighten it out.
Schokker said the school met that deadline, but soon learned that the problems were just beginning. In January, school officials discovered that the December graduates were having trouble getting their teaching licenses.
One of them, Elizabeth Pfieffer of Lakeville, had a job lined up in Northfield, where she had been student teaching. She said she had applied early, hoping to have her license when school started Jan. 12. By Jan. 6, she was on the phone with UMD, trying to find out what was holding things up.
“She said there was a glitch,” said Pfieffer, 22. “Nobody knew what was happening.”
Her classmates started sharing similar stories on Facebook and e-mails.
In the end, she learned that the best she could do was to apply for a temporary license, until the problems were ironed out. As a result, she couldn’t start her job until February.
Pfieffer notes that she “loved UMD” and that she feels she got a great education. At the same time, she said, she was lucky that her school district stood by her despite what she calls “this whole debacle.”
“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “I paid a lot of money to go to that school and to come out with a license and not just a fancy degree to put on my wall.”
AG gets involved
She was one of several students who filed complaints with Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson.
Swanson said she wrote to both UMD and the teaching board in March, urging them to work out their problems without penalizing students. “They shouldn’t be harmed as a result of something that was no fault of their own,” she said.
Erin Doan, executive director of the Board of Teaching, called it an “extremely unusual” situation. She said it’s the board’s job to ensure that teaching programs meet state standards and that UMD had failed to keep its information up to date, especially when it made changes to the curriculum. “While it sounds like hair-splitting … it is a fairly significant issue,” Doan said.
Eventually, UMD discovered that it had filed inaccurate reports on more than 20 of its education programs, according to Schokker. At that point, she said, the university notified the board, and those programs were closed to new students pending a formal review.
Schokker said that students can still take all of the needed classes but that they won’t be formally admitted to those programs until the board gives its approval.
In the meantime, she said, she has launched an investigation to find out what went wrong, and who’s responsible.
“There’s definitely fault to go around,” she said.
Fiona O’Halloran-Johnson, 24, who also graduates Saturday, said she’s worried that the episode has cast a cloud over the whole program just as she begins her job search. “I know that I am ready to walk into a classroom,” she said. “My concern is that once I get this license, I will not be hirable because the UMD name is no longer trusted.”
Schokker, though, says there’s no sign of backlash.
“We have a very good reputation,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff that we messed up here, but in the end, it’s important that our students aren’t thinking that our degree doesn’t count or that they can’t be licensed. They are going to be fully licensed.”