Joe Nathan Column: Encouraging news for Minnesota schools

Joe Nathan Column — Here’s happy news as Minnesotans prepare for a new school year. Both the Minnesota State Board of Teaching and Education Minnesota, the state’s teacher union, responded thoughtfully to the recent controversy about Teach for America.

At a time when there is widespread rancor about how to improve public schools, these were encouraging responses.

First, the Minnesota Board of Teaching responded positively to parents and principals. These people urged the board to approve a number of Teach for America participants to work in district and charter schools this coming year. More than 100 people packed a hearing room to explain why.

Krystal Centeno, a Spanish-speaking parent from Hiawatha Academies in Minneapolis told the board, via a translator, “I hope you will listen to our principal. Teachers at Hiawatha help our students succeed. “

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Eli Kramer, executive director of Hiawatha Academies, explained that he and his leadership team hired traditionally trained and Teach for America participants. In describing the TFA participants, Kramer explained, “They are both college graduates with very strong academic records of their own. They have a demonstrably strong mindset that all children can learn if given the right opportunities. They exude passion for this work, showing that they want to be part of a team that does whatever it takes to close the opportunity gaps that exist in our city.”

John Bellingham, chair of the Board of Teaching, voted with the majority, which accepted the waiver requests from Kramer and other school leaders. Bellingham has taught in Faribault for more than 30 years, mostly as a sixth-grade teacher. He has won awards for his work. At the end of the meeting, Bellingham clearly and fairly announced, “We expect to see very few waiver requests next year. You should submit an ’Alternative Route to Teaching Application.’ “

Crystal Brakke, Minnesota TFA director, replied that she heard and would be following up.

There was a second, recent important development: an announcement from Education Minnesota. The statewide teacher union said it wanted to “lead the state in honest conversations on what it will take to recruit, train and support high-quality teachers to serve Minnesota’s students… These conversations will include voices from communities of color, faith leaders, teacher preparation programs, business owners and other major stakeholders.” Education Minnesota wants recommendations developed by April 2014.

In one of her first public statements, newly elected Education Minnesota President Denise Specht commented, “…for too long groups have been working in silos on improving teacher quality and recruiting more people of color into the profession to better reflect the state’s increasingly diverse student population… Now is the time for Minnesotans to work together to assure that we have consistent, high-quality, professional teaching standards so we can meet the needs of all students – regardless of where they live or their socioeconomic status.”  I think Specht is right.

It’s too early to know what will be recommended, but this seems like an important statement of openness from Education Minnesota. In a “tweet,” Brakke of TFA praised the Education Minnesota announcement.

Kramer of Hiawatha described part of what excellent educators do:  “Teaching is incredibly complex and challenging… becoming a great teacher takes time. (Great teachers) build relationships with scholars and families, manage a classroom, plan great unit(s) with great lessons… drive rigorous instruction, and use data to figure out what students have learned and therefore what to do next.”

Joe Nathan, was a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator who directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome,

  • Arnold F. Fege

    Hi Joe,

    I do have a lot of reaction, some of it positive and some less optimistic. The positive is that there needs to be a détente between the major stakeholders about teacher preparation, recruitment, retention and accountability. In addition, it is about how to build a teaching profession, and how professions build strong service structures. That is a discussion that needs to be had.

    The negative side is that it is idiotic to have a federal law that says that teachers are highly qualified BEFORE they even step foot into a classroom. No one in any profession is highly qualified their first number of years, including you and I, and the 2011 OCR data demonstrates that there is an increase in the number of inexperienced teaching in our most difficult schools I thought California Teacher Credentialing recently came up with a very good solution–that for first, second and third year alt certs, the school school has to have evidence of a supervising teacher, a mentoring process, continuous evaluation, and professional development. The goal here is that if you are ELL, special education, or low income, you deserve to have a fully prepared teacher the first day of school.

    And lastly, this should not be a battle about schools of education, alt certs (one of favorite alt cert program is Troops to Teachers BTW), TFA, New Teachers, principals. We all need to change to meet the needs of kids and families. But how to develop a policy and practice framework that provides incentives where our master teachers will want to teach children in the gap schools. I now cite the example of the Asiana 777 that crashed in San Francisco–the pilot in training with only 43 hours behind wheel should not have been the pilot of record, but rather learning from the prepared pilots in the cockpit until they demonstrate professionaly that they can maneuver a safe landing. Our kids need safe landings as well, their planes cannot land safely without experienced and prepared pilots in the classroom, and they need more than two years in the pit to assure that our kids won’t crash. Our current system, as it always seems to be for poor and kids of color, is half measures– but not a civil rights answer. However, it need not be that way.


  • Julie Febres

    I hope that educators today realize the importance of both experience and keeping current. There is no magic formula for learning, and the classrooms of today are larger and more diverse than ever. Becoming a good teacher is as important as becoming a good doctor. Not all persons who apply to medical school are ready to deal with real human beings, not just look through a microscope. The committee of doctors who interview prospective candidates for med school must consider more than grades. Some doctors prefer research to seeing patients. Some teachers love to learn but may not be able to teach.
    In selecting and hiring teachers basic criteria should be a starting point; but teachers need mentors, practice teaching, interest in their subjects and incentives for furthering their own education and mastery of what they expect to teach, and so much more.
    There should be no end to discussion of how to improve education. Teachers with experience should be given ample opportunities to meet with new teachers and share information.
    The July 29, 2013 issue of Time Magazine has a stunning article on the bilingual brain, and an equally exciting title of an article on treating cancer without chemotherapy. The bilingual article is extremely positive and detailed showing how the child who hears a 2nd language early can expect lifelong learning benefits – even perhaps the avoidance of dementia. The cancer article draws the attention of anyone who has suffered the effects of chemo, and yet it ends on a serious note saying that surgery and chemo “won’t disappear anytime soon…”
    Publications gain readers by sensationalizing or drawing attention to their topics.
    Teachers may be prepared to teach by people who eagerly emphasize certain methods or ideas. In keeping education a profession, however, there needs to be room to grow, open discussion and also eagerness to bring educators and parents together to plan for the best learning for their children. State education leaders must be honest about the needs and goals of schools as well as the testing and progress of current students and student populations.
    We cannot afford to keep hashing over school issues without viewing the current students and trying to teach them to learn as well as we can. We cannot accept one ideology as the answer
    to all education, It is valuable to have our status quo challenged at times, and often great discoveries have been made for mankind when great minds felt most discouraged. “Vive la difference!” as the French say.

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