UMN-TFA partnership can reinvigorate education in Minnesota

This past September, the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development and Teach for America announced a proposed partnership that offers an alternative path to a state teaching license. The program would admit at least 40 recruits annually and streamline the process to become a certified teacher. From the moment of its conception, the plan has encountered stiff resistance from licensed teachers and some University students who hope to become certified themselves.

For those who aren’t familiar with the organization, TFA recruits college graduates to teach in low-income, underperforming schools across the United States for a two-year minimum commitment. It provides a niche for those not originally set on a teaching career upon entering college, but eager to improve grade school education in our country.

For the TFA alumni eager to continue working as educators, the CEHD partnership offers a simplified path to certification with less bureaucratic red tape. This can put well-performing college graduates into our nation’s classrooms sooner.

Naturally, University of Minnesota students currently pursuing traditional postgraduate education degrees or teaching certification are upset. They may feel that others will be allowed to rush through important parts of the process and will lack the requisite “experience” for becoming a teacher. Licensed educators in Minnesota also feel threatened. If some are allowed to bypass or speed past certain requirements, there could be fewer positions available in the future. Worse yet, their own jobs may be threatened by a younger generation of teachers.

Should we be surprised to see such heavy hostility? Of course not. They have an economic stake in this, pure and simple. That must not, on the other hand, prevent qualified, passionate alumni of the TFA program from becoming educators, too.

We need to examine the use of the word “experience.” What does it mean? How do you obtain it? Does it really demand spending more than a year with an instructor in a room studying the behavior of children as though they are mysterious creatures? The answer is no.

This may surprise you, but each and every one of us is a teacher. We all have some amount of experience. You gain it when you tell someone how to fix a car, ride a bike or explain a difficult homework problem to a friend. Remember that inspiring professor who got you passionate about something? Look at their curriculum vitae. You’ll notice they likely don’t have a teaching license. What qualifies them is their body of knowledge and a degree. They didn’t need to obtain “experience” through a licensing program to be a great instructor.

Don’t forget the bad professors you had, either. They are the ones who cared less or simply couldn’t communicate well. Great teachers engage in self-criticism and constantly tweak their technique.Years of certification courses won’t change that.

When you hear licensed educators arguing about a lack of “experience,” they are simply concerned about losing their entrenched positions. They are buttressed by a license that on its own says nothing about their abilities — only that they passed the requirements.

Is it no surprise that our country’s children scored below the international average at reading and math? We need new educators with fresh perspectives on teaching. The UMN-TFA program can help, but it needs approval by the Minnesota Board of Teaching.

Unfortunately, five of the board’s 11 members — all appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton — have leadership positions with Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union. After Dayton vetoed $1.5 million of funding proposed for TFA, can we expect the Board of Teaching to spur innovation in our school system? Probably not.