Even after Pawlenty, teacher reform to remain a hot topicby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The argument over the way Minnesota's teachers are licensed and evaluated was a hot topic in the last legislative session, and the issue promises to be just as contentious in the coming year.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty pushed to change the standards for teacher's licensure and move toward a merit-based evaluation system. Though the proposals fell under heavy opposition from the state's teachers union, the ideas retain enough bipartisan interest that they're likely to carry into next year.
The teacher licensure measures would've affected two groups of people -- new college graduates who don't have a traditional education degree but still want to teach through programs like Teach for America and mid-career professionals who want teach but without taking years to get an education degree.
Union president Tom Dooher said his group was open to the mid-career licensure, but he wasn't ready to support the language that would've helped Teach for America.
"In general, we don't believe that their program is rigorous enough to get them into a classroom to be successful," Dooher said.
Dooher also points to research that suggests Teach for America teachers aren't as effective as traditionally-licensed teachers.
The proposal would have required 200 hours of instruction time for non-traditional candidates before they could teach. Dooher said that's not enough, especially considering that budding cosmetologists need 1,500 hours before they getting a license.
Dooher also said the proposal needed a guarantee that the candidates would have supervisors in the classroom with them.
"If something goes drastically wrong, the supervising teacher can step in, correct it right on the spot, and not have the students suffer because of your inexperience," he said.
Teach for America Executive Director Daniel Sellers said Dooher is wrong. He said his program does rigorously prepare teachers by putting candidates into Chicago public schools during the summer before they start in a Minnesota classroom. And he said they do the same drill as traditional student teachers.
"You are slowly handed the reins of the classroom, where you get to take over more and more of student management and the instruction period - their teachers do that, our teachers do that," Sellers said. "So this idea that there's a massive discrepancy in hours, I just think that's a falsity."
Teach for America teachers currently get yearly waivers that allow them to teach in Minnesota -- this year's legislation would have streamlined that process.
State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, was a key supporter of the Teach for America language this session. He says the union blew an opportunity by so fiercely opposing the effort, which he said swayed just enough of his fellow DFLers to narrowly sink the legislation.
"It's a bit of a missed opportunity," he said. "This year, we got much farther with this bill and I would hope next session we can get over the top on it."
HOW SHOULD TEACHERS BE EVALUATED?
The other issue that didn't pass this spring would have changed the way teachers are evaluated in Minnesota. Education Minnesota again opposed those efforts at the Capitol, but Dooher said reform is needed.
"The current teacher evaluation system in Minnesota needs changing," Dooher said. "It's inconsistent and it's different from place to place and not necessarily based on research."
Dooher said some of a teacher's evaluation should be tied to how well students perform, but the question is how much? One proposal suggested 35 percent, but Dooher said there's no research to suggest that's the right amount. He said other factors -- like whether children eat breakfast -- also determine how well they do in class.
Supporters point to Colorado, Louisiana, and New York -- states that have changed their evaluation systems this year to more incorporate test scores. They found a way, supporters contend, so why can't Minnesota? State Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said he has no plans to give up the fight.
"The teachers' union is fighting gravity, and their campaign cash can only hold on to that power for so long," he said." It's a successful strategy in the short term -- in the long term, they're doomed to fail."
Union leaders don't apologize for using their political sway to sink this year's measures, saying no legislation ended up being better than bad legislation.
Money was behind the big push for these proposals this year. Supporters said the changes would bolster Minnesota's second bid for federal 'Race to the Top' funding.
The Obama administration has indicated teacher licensure and evaluation are among the president's key education issues, and the push for change will continue.
- All Things Considered, 06/07/2010, 3:50 p.m.