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Bold Teacher Plan Deserves Follow-Through

December 14, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

The Minneapolis-based Bush Foundation recently announced a bold $40 million initiative to recruit, prepare, place and support new teachers in Minnesota and the Dakotas over the next 10 years.

We live in times when the state has a chokehold on education funding that is killing the quality and quantity of our teaching force. A move such as this can be seen as a lifeline. But it also contains many questions.

It's part of the group's goal to add 25,000 new teachers by 2020. The foundation says there are about 50,000 teachers in Minnesota and the Dakotas today and about 25,000 will retire or quit in the next 10 years. In addition, Minnesota has the nation's largest achievement gap between white and minority students, the dropout rate is growing and only 25 percent of students earn a college degree.

On Dec. 3, the foundation announced their plan to not only find and train more teachers, but to attract high-quality students and help retain them once they have their jobs. To do this, they will spend $40 million to be spent with 14 teacher colleges in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Bush Foundation Vice President Susan Heegaard outlined efforts to meet these goals:

  • Recruit a wide range of students into the teaching profession. To do this, they hope to recruit from area high schools, community colleges, minority communities and mid-career professionals. They also will develop a marketing plan to recruit new teachers, especially in high-need subjects such as math, science and technology.
  • Better prepare students for a teaching career. They plan to place more emphasis on experiential, hands-on training and mentoring at the expense of traditional time in college classes.
  • Place new graduates in schools that are supportive of these new teachers.
  • Support these teachers with high-quality mentors and peer support.
  • Finally, the foundation says that all partner institutions will guarantee that graduates will be "highly effective teachers for several years" after graduation.

The 14 institutions working with the Bush Foundation are Augsburg College; Bethel University; Concordia University, St. Paul; Hamline University; Minnesota State University, Mankato; University of Minnesota; Minnesota State University, Moorhead; North Dakota State University; St. Catherine University; St. Cloud State University; University of St. Thomas; University of South Dakota; Valley City State University; Winona State University.

The partners are just now developing the marketing plan. Heegaard said that since the first cohort won't enter the workforce until 2014 so there is some time to develop a thoughtful marketing plan. Current students and recent graduates are now being surveyed on why teaching appeals to them. The marketing plan will be rolled out in the spring with the goal of enrolling the first cohort in fall 2010. Using the survey, colleges can target likely new education recruits. "We can focus on the most gettable and know who's not worth our while to recruit," Heegaard said.

How will this marketing plan overcome such traditional recruiting obstacles as low teacher pay coupled with greater amounts of student debt, low status of teachers in some communities, professional isolation in some rural districts, and, simply put, greener pastures in other professions?  Heegaard said such obstacles exist, but the desire to teach will often make up for these shortcomings.

If the plan is to place new teachers in districts that are supportive of innovation, the opposite must be true: New teachers won't be placed in districts where such an atmosphere is deemed not to exist. Recalcitrant board members, administrators and colleagues are a fact of life in any profession. While all schools should be blessed with progressive leadership, the fact is that some are not. Would this plan deny students in these unfortunate districts the opportunity to work with the best and the brightest new teachers? Heegaard said the colleges have bought in to this program - it would be useless to place new teachers in districts that didn't also buy into the program.

Mentoring of new teachers is extremely important. Without it, teachers feel isolated and are more likely to leave the profession. In Minnesota 2020's report "Growing Gap: Minnesota's Teacher Recruitment & Retention Crises," we found an excellent mentor program between Mankato Area Public Schools and the University of Minnesota, Mankato. The program could be replicated in districts near teacher colleges but would be difficult in rural Minnesota or the Dakotas. The Bush Foundation and its partners are still working out how the mentoring program will shake out.

The guarantee of highly effective teachers is the most troubling aspect of this plan. The foundation defines a highly effective teacher as one who can show that students have gained one year of knowledge in one year's time. How will this be measured and guaranteed? The foundation is working with a Madison, Wis., research group to come up with an appropriate measure but does not have such a measure in place yet, Heegaard said.

How will out-of-school issues such as homelessness, poverty, lack of parental involvement, mental and physical illness or English-speaking status affect this teaching rate? The foundation says other groups are working on getting children ready for the school day; this program will focus on having a highly trained teacher in the classroom ready for the students.

"All students have challenges of one kind or another," Heegaard said. "If you have good teachers and schools and high expectations, students you don't think would do well respond and meet the challenge."

Finally, there is a hint of "been there, done that" to this $40 million plan. Schools are not new, the problems in schools are not new and attempts to right these problems are not new. Will a savvy marketing campaign attract smarter students and overcome the poor pay for new teachers ($27,000 in Minneapolis, $33,000 in Brooklyn Center, state average of $30,000 is 21st in the nation)? Will mentoring really make a difference to teachers in isolated rural areas? Can foundation and university partners really refuse to place a teacher in a district they don't believe is "supportive" to their goals?

Many questions remain, and while the goals of raising the quality and support for teachers are worthy, we won't know if the foundation's plan will work until 2020 and the foundation has spent its $40 million. That means this program could be a rousing success or just a waste of the public's time and the foundation's money.

While the foundation's goals are well intentioned and well managed, it's important that the ultimate stakeholders - the parents and students using the public schools - keep pressure on the people running this program to show results and not give in to the inertia so common to projects of this magnitude.


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