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OUR OPINION: U of Minnesota’s foresight gives Teach for America a chance

On May 9, the Minnesota Board of Teaching will consider approving Minnesota’s first alternative teacher licensing program.

If the board OK’s the program, then the new program will serve the Twin Cities at first. But the ripples of the vote likely will spread beyond those confines and may reach northwestern Minnesota before long.

Here’s hoping they keep rolling after that, eventually washing up in Bismarck to encourage the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction to give the program a try.

The program is Teach for America. Now in nearly 40 states, Teach for America takes the graduates of some of America’s best colleges, trains them as teachers and puts them into some of the nation’s toughest schools. In recent years, nearly one in five members of Harvard’s graduating class has applied.

And as recently as September, a USA Today story about a U.S. Department of Education study reported the results this way:

“A large-scale, random assignment study by Mathematica Policy Research showed TFA teachers made significant improvements in math classes compared to certified teachers,” according to the story.

“‘They were more effective across the board,’ says Melissa Clark, a senior researcher at Mathematica. The TFA teachers, she says, made gains ‘equivalent to an additional 2.6 months of school for the average student nationwide.’”

But Teach for America also sparks controversy — including in Minnesota, where TFA ran into opposition from the education establishment. That culminated last year in Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto of a $1.5 million grant for the program and a discouraging vote from the Board of Teaching.

To its great credit, the University of Minnesota — itself home to one of Minnesota’s largest teacher-education programs — stepped up to fill the void. The university partnered with Teach for America to strengthen TFA’s training and certification elements.

The new proposal will put TFA recruits under the U’s tutelage for eight weeks rather than five, the typical length of the program’s summer “boot camp” for trainees.

Then the TFA teachers will follow a two-year plan of university-administered coursework and counseling while teaching full-time.

The Board of Teaching should approve this unique program. If that happens and Teach for America follows the pattern it has established in other states, TFA teachers eventually will be dispatched to high-poverty schools throughout the state, including on American Indian reservations.

Rick Melmer has seen it happen. Melmer is a former secretary of education in South Dakota and former dean of the education school at the University of South Dakota.

He has been quoted before on this page, but his thoughts are worth repeating:

“In a rural state like South Dakota, finding high-quality teachers for all our districts is a real challenge,” Melmer wrote in 2011.

“Teach for America has been a terrific answer to that challenge. As a result, we have been able to fill over 50 positions this year in some of the most critical-need areas in South Dakota. Furthermore, we are seeing excellent achievement results in their classrooms.”

South Dakota has gained for years from TFA’s innovative approach. With luck and a favorable decision by the state Board of Teaching, Minnesota will do the same.

After that, attention should turn to North Dakota, one of the few remaining states that lacks a Teach for America presence. Here’s hoping a good experience in Minnesota convinces North Dakota’s education leaders to check out the program themselves.