Why the University of Minnesota is dropping Teach for America

Minnesota needs more math and science teachers, and Teach for America isn't delivering.

Minnesota needs more math and science teachers, and Teach for America isn't delivering. US Coast Guard Academy

The University of Minnesota partnered with Teach for America in 2014 in hopes of graduating 40 prospective teachers each year to meet the state’s needs for middle and high school math and science instructors.

It turned out to be a tall order.

Teach for America is a nonprofit that recruits seniors from the nation’s top colleges – none of whom actually majored in education – to fill the faculties of public and charter schools most in need. Enrollees submit to an intensive weeks-long boot camp, followed by two years of actual classroom teaching. During the Great Recession, Teach for America became a typical destination for bright students who found themselves overqualified and underemployed in their first career choices.

In 2014, the program sent 37 students to the U of M’s College of Education and Human Development. Only 31 finished, and to date 22 are still working as teachers. The 2015 class began with 30 students and retained 23. In 2016, only 18 students remain out of an initial class of 21.

The attrition is partially due to the high stress of running a classroom alone while working toward teacher licensure and taking coursework at night, says Steve Baker of the U’s College of Education. Teach for America selects what it believes are quality candidates – the U doesn’t get any say in that – but the students still have to meet stringent standards established by the state Board of Teaching in order to become licensed in Minnesota.

Graduates are undoubtedly worthy teachers who are likely to remain in education for a long time, Baker says. But not many candidates enrolled by Teach for America have come from math and science backgrounds, as promised.

In 2014, the U received five in science and four in math. In 2015 and 2016, there weren’t enough students for math to even offer that discipline.

“They’re not filling some of the high need areas that we had set forth in our memorandum agreement,” Baker says. “We had very few corps members come in and graduate and get their licensure in those areas. Very, very few. We didn’t know that going in.”

Controversies following Teach for America programs elsewhere in the nation have hinged on the organization’s ideological assumption that most any college graduate can teach, and that inner city schools would be grateful to have them.

The classic Teach for America training is only five weeks long (the U's version was eight weeks). Afterward, many students are deployed to some of the nation’s most challenging city schools and expected to help kids thrive. Nevermind that those districts are the battleground of powerful teachers unions constantly fighting districts over cuts and layoffs. Throw Teach for America members into a mix of veteran teachers hurting for work, and people wonder why they aren’t going to rural communities with dwindling numbers of young professionals.

Debra Dillon, associate dean of the College of Education, confirmed that all of the U’s graduates have stayed in metro area schools. She says it’s Teach for America’s responsibility to arrange placement.

“There definitely is a need to prepare teachers in rural areas,” she says, noting that the U offers a separate post-baccalaureate program to prepare teachers for rural schools.

Baker says that just because the U is dropping Teach for America doesn’t mean that the university isn’t trying to figure out other ways to get good teachers into local schools. But the key to doing that, he says, is to listen to the districts first about what their specific needs are: STEM, bilingual, cross-cultural, and special education teachers.

To that end, the U has created the Minneapolis Residency Program in partnership with Minneapolis Public Schools to cultivate their own talent.