Super Star U

TFA’s partnership with the University of Minnesota sets Gopher state hearts aflutter 

Lounging for Excellence (1)By Sarah Lahm,
EduShyster Academy

Big news from the Gopher state: the University of Minnesota and Teach for America are one step closer to sealing the deal on their new partnership! It won’t be long before young TFAers can be found strolling the not-necessarily-elite-but-still-impressive grounds of Minnesota’s premier public institution of higher learning: the U of M. A little education reform with that jello shot?

straight 2 the topStar search
Rest assured, doubters. This won’t be just any TFA partnership with a publicly-funded university. Instead, UMinn is rigorizing those who need it most: temporary classroom teachers. The TFA recruits who make it into the U of M program will go through, not one, but two rounds of exclusive *best and brightest* tests. Their first challenge: getting accepted into TFA (score!). But do they have the chops to make it into U of M’s specialized, alternative pathway to the top? Think of the process as akin to *Star Search* for the educrat set: big, flashy, with only the luckiest few making it to the big time.

Rigorizing 101
And making it to the final round is only the beginning of a rigorous process. As part of their rigorizing, the TFA recruits will go through an incredibly strenuous Summer Institute that will double their teaching time—from one hour per day to two, over 8 weeks, not 5—before they are plunked into high poverty, high needs classrooms. Then they will be teaching all day and doing their own rigorous coursework all night, with nary a moment to think.

next stop tfaOnward TFA soldiers
Meanwhile, for those students who kick it old school and still think they’d like to make a career of teaching, U of M will continue to offer its high-quality, one year student teacher residency program. But as one U of M official explained to me, the university recognizes that this program isn’t for everyone—especially those who might only want to dabble in teaching before vaulting towards a *real* job. Onward, TFA soldiers!

Step to the front of the line please
We all know that there is a fiercely urgent need to diversify our teaching force, right? Well here is where our story gets interesting. It turns out that the alternative licensure program for TFA that is coming down the teacher talent pipeline is not the only one that the University of Minnesota will offer. One day, perhaps as soon as next year, they plan to start another alternative licensure pathway, this time for folks who already work in the Minneapolis Public Schools as aides and assistant educators. These people have proven themselves, not in the elusive, moneyed havens of the Ivy League, but rather in the unpredictable and underfunded classrooms of the public school system.

money clipShow us the dough
But there’s a hitch. Billionaires and US education chiefs don’t back this homegrown program. Therefore the TFA alternative certification program will move in and set up shop now (the need is fierce and urgent!) while the U of M/Minneapolis Public Schools partnership will just have to wait until some funding comes through. Sigh. Back of the line, folks: something new and special has come to town!

pink medicineA dose of excellence
How did Minnesota come to be blessed with a dose of TFA in the first place? Well, thanks to a savvy state legislator, who shall remain nameless but not shameless, TFA was brought here in 2009 in order to shake up the stifled air of failure that clung to Minnesota’s public schools like snow to Eagle Mountain. But getting TFA to Minnesota wasn’t enough for this dogged state representative. She was smitten like a kitten with the very principles of TFA, which will never set up shop in her highly successful suburban school district. TFA, she declared, has a *fierce unwillingness to let poverty dictate success,* and so the 2011 Minnesota state law allowing alternative licensure programs to flourish was born.

This legislator also mentioned a deep distaste for teacher tenure laws (eww!), especially LIFO. After a brief conversation, it was easy to see why. This legislator insisted that many TFA folks do stay in teaching after their two years of roughing it, just not in the classroom. In fact, she said, they *end up in administration because they are super stars*! As a great Minnesotan named Prince once said: *I’m not going to stop/‘til I reach the top/’cause baby I’m a star!*

minnesota-welcome-e1332613731772Have you met LEE?
Lurking in the dark shadows of TFA is its mysterious cousin, LEE. Haven’t met LEE? Neither has the Minnesota legislator who claims responsibility for bringing TFA to the Gopher state, nor the U of M program rep who is helping design the *let’s reform TFA* partnership. Well I’m thinking that they should probably get acquainted because where TFA goes, LEE is sure to follow. Being in the classroom for a couple of years is, of course, not enough time to radically alter public education in our country (plus it’s really hard and exhausting; ugh). LEE is where the dangerously smart-like-a-fox TFAers end up, so that they can alter policy and teachers unions until the mere mention of poverty becomes a punishable offense.

As TFA expands its previously small Minnesota presence into a force to be reckoned with, watch for small armies of corps members moving with stealth precision into positions of power in the Minnesota state capitol. When they do, they’ll likely be welcomed in with open arms.

Sarah Lahm once worked as an English teacher and is now busy building a career as a corporate education reform crime fighter. She also has a bunch of kids who attend public schools in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

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  1. My school has been severely hurt by the the TFA Tournament of Turnover.

    Just today we got word that another one is quitting since her 2 years are up. Luckily, our school has not hired any new TFA-ers since she was hired 2 years ago.

    The constant turnover has completely destabilized the campus. And yes, our test scores are tanking. Quelle surprise.

    1. None other than Terri Bonoff, chair of our Higher Ed Committee. She graciously agreed to an interview with me, and happily shared her views on TFA. The quotes are real.

  2. When the DFL took over she was the heir apparent for the Education Committee. Putting her in Higher Ed I am sure they thought what damage could she do. I guess they didn’t know how reprehensible she is.

    1. How big would the gap be if they ran KIPP programs in the sburubs? If somebody proved that a KIPP school in the sburubs raised test scores even more than one in the ‘hood, thus making society even better off, would that be hailed as good news or bad news? I suspect it wouldn’t be hailed at all.We already know the answer to this.As a previous commenter already noted, the DI intervention pretty much ran the board on academic gains for all demographic groups.KIPP is basically a cruder version of DI, but with more marketing savvy and with the financial support from the foundation of the founders of The Gap, as Mathews points out in the book.In Project Follow Through, they did a study disaggregating the results by IQ groups. I guess this wasn’t as unfashionable as it is today.Gersten, R., Becker, W., Heiry, T., & White. (1984). Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 6(2), 109-121. And see as well showing graphs of the results for reading and math. Bear in mind that the progress of the higher IQ children was often sacrificed so that the lower IQ students could be brought up to speed. They were given the best teachers, were given more instructional time when needed, and often the higher performing kids could not be placed in a homogeneous classroom of peers because there weren’t enough of them in the school so they were placed with a lower group.It’s pretty clear that using the more efficient instructional techniques in DI (and KIPP) in the sburubs will serve to widen the gap since the more cognitively able students will be able to run even further ahead.Here is what Zig Engelmann, the ceator of these instruction techniques has about this phenomenon:Surprisingly, I chose the unattractive direction. I pretty well cut ties with the middle-class road and focused on working with at-risk kids. Why? Because they needed effective education, while the middle-class kids would be okay without it. I drew this conclusion one afternoon when Carl Bereiter and I were going over the results of our preschool effort. The at-risk kids gained a lot. The middle-class kids that were in the same group learned a lot more. It seemed pretty evident that if both groups received high quality instruction, the gap between middle-class kids and poverty kids would be even greater than it already was. On the other hand, if the at-risk kids received high quality instruction and the middle-class kids received only the current status-quo instruction, the gap could be narrowed greatly.I’ve tried to be true to the cause of narrowing the gap, but my resolve has decayed somewhat recently. The reason is simply that educators are doing a horrible job with middle-class kids, and school systems are designed to fortify this crappy effort. DI and KIPP will not serve to close the achievement gap. Once suburban parents realize that their children are capable of leaning more using similar programs they will start demanding their use.And none of this is in conflict with Murray’s views which are largely accurate, I believe. His only mistake is not being aware of how little in the K12 curriculum is cognitively demanding and that a good curriculum designer, like Engelmann, can break down almost any concept taught in K-12 so that most children can learn it. Murray also underestimates the effects that low IQ parents have on the language skills of their children. See the first six minutes of for a good explanation of that problem.

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