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Associated Press, Published January 15 2011

Minnesota teachers union suggests reforms

ST. PAUL – Smaller classes and more parental engagement are two keys to shrinking the racial academic achievement gap among Minnesota students, according to Minnesota’s influential teachers union, which also presented earlier this week its recommendations for evaluating teachers and easing the path for others to enter the profession.

The presentation by Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher was heavy on concepts but often short on details. It didn’t address how the changes suggested by the union of 70,000 teachers would be paid for.

Some of the suggestions were similar to the union’s past proposals, but the political landscape is much different this year. In the past, union allies in the DFL were able to carry its proposals in the Legislature but Republicans now control both the House and Senate.

“We are willing to work with anybody,” Dooher said.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, chairwoman of the House Education Reform Committee and a former English teacher, said the priorities of the union and her committee are the same. “I am delighted that those are the three issues that he’s keyed in on,” she said of Dooher.

However, she said the Republicans on the committee may have significant differences when it comes to the details. For example, she was more willing to make it easier for the young college graduates who come through the Teach for America program to get into the state’s classrooms.

Erickson said the graduates of the program, who are more likely to be racial minorities than graduates of the state’s teaching colleges, could be particularly suited to helping the students on the wrong side of the state’s racial achievement gap.

“I think those alternative pathways are going to offer a more relevant, meaningful approach to the needs of the students, be they ethnic or academic,” she said. “If that is what it takes to turn around the achievement gap in Minneapolis, I say let’s do it.”

For years, wealthy white students have outperformed minority students on standardized tests in Minnesota, often dramatically. Reducing that gap has been a priority for the state’s educators for almost as long.

Dooher recommended tackling the problem by starting with 32 struggling schools, which would be identified by the Minnesota Department of Education. In those schools, class sizes would shrink, parents would be encouraged to become more engaged, and additional services, including medical screenings, would be provided.

The union would also like to see schools reach out to young children. Dooher wants the Education Department to assess the effectiveness of early childhood learning programs in the all the state’s districts and improve them where needed. He also suggested all-day, every-day kindergarten in all schools.

Art Rolnick, a fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and an expert on early-childhood education, said only parts of the union plan would significantly reduce the achievement gap.

He said research showed getting students healthy and ready to learn before they arrived at the schoolhouse door was key. “If all these kids start ready for school and the parents are engaged, we have a lot of evidence to show these kids will succeed in school,” he said.

Waiting until kindergarten was too late to get the best return on the investment, Rolnick said. “I would not put the money in all-day kindergarten,” he said, adding “The big gains aren’t going to be made in reducing class sizes.”

Dooher repeated the union’s position on providing alternative pathways to the classroom, which have been a priority of both Republicans and President Barack Obama. The union generally supports making it easier for mid-career professionals to get into classrooms to share their experience.

However, he repeated the union’s opposition to allowing young college graduates to go through an abbreviated training program, such as Teach for America, and get in front of a class. “We want to make sure people in our classrooms are not experimenting on our children,” Dooher said.

Teach for America now has a small presence in Minnesota, mostly in the Twin Cities, according its website. Its graduates obtain temporary teaching certificates, primarily through a partnership with Hamline University in St. Paul.

The union would limit alternative licensing candidates to those teaching in their college major, passing various certification tests both in content and teaching ability and completing a 200-hour training program. It would also require them to be supervised for at least the first 90 days in class.

The union also called for all teachers to receive performance evaluations at least annually. Those reviews would include both subjective evaluations from administrators and other teachers and student performance, including on standardized tests.

Veteran teachers in Minnesota often go years between formal reviews, which Dooher attributed to a lack of resources. He said it can’t continue.

“There is simply no room for ineffective teachers in our classrooms,” he said.

Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said Education Minnesota has joined with teachers unions around the country in embracing policies they once opposed, including programs that link teacher pay to student performance.

Obama’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant competition last year and the electoral victories of Republicans in November have spurred the trend, she said.

“When you see that the train is leaving the station, it’s a good time to jump on board,” Jacobs said of the unions.


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