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If a university enrolls and charges students to study in degree programs to become teachers or learn about education, is it odd for the same institution to partner with an organization that helps people avoid just that kind of education? That's the question being posed by graduate students from the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development.

In a scathing statement, grad students assailed Teach for America, saying that a potential partnership between the teacher trainee program and the university “offers unearned legitimacy to a significantly flawed and powerful force in education.” While Teach for America is popular with many policy-makers, many education schools have long doubted its rigor and have noted that most of its participants work only for a short time in public education.

Last week, Jean Quam, dean of the College of Education and Human Development, said in a statement that the university had “in depth” discussions about the possibility of a teacher training partnership with Teach for America after being approached by the organization, and the college expects to make a decision “in the coming weeks.”

Part of the college’s “key mission” is to ensure “that Minnesota’s P-12 students have the best-prepared classroom instructors, regardless of their path to licensure,” Quam said in the statement.

Upon hearing this news, 10 graduate students attempted to halt the potential partnership by writing the “No TFA at the U” statement, which already has more than 150 signatures from other university students, alumni and Minnesota teachers.

“I think that many of us who wrote this statement think that people who teach in schools should be rooted and have long-term stakes in those communities,” said Erin Dyke, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Culture and Teaching program who helped write the statement. And “however well-meaning” TFA corps members may be, the majority of them do not tend to stick around in their schools for more than two years, Dyke said. The TFA program also contributes to a “myth of meritocracy,” Dyke said. TFA assumes that all low-income students need to succeed is “a good role model from an elite school,” while “gliding over the complexities” of the structural problems in American education, she said.

Teach for America places recent college graduates (the majority of whom do not have an education degree) in low-income schools throughout the country, where they commit to teach for two years. TFA corps members attend a five-week training program before they begin teaching.    

The organization has been on a losing streak in Minnesota these past few weeks. First, in late May, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed $1.5 million in funding for Teach for America programs in the state, explaining that he did not understand why the program would need a state grant since TFA's revenues far exceeded its expenses in 2011. TFA suffered its second setback in June when the Minnesota Board of Teaching voted to deny the program a group license variance, which it had been granted for the past four years.

TFA partners with graduate education programs at various universities where TFA participants can sometimes earn a full teaching license while simultaneously teaching in a K-12 school.

In 2011, the Minnesota legislature passed a law, which would allow the Minnesota Board of Teaching to approve alternative licensure programs. Anyone wishing to become an alternatively licensed teacher would have to enroll in one of those programs. Institutions in Minnesota, such as Hamline University, offer “experimental programs” through partnerships with TFA, said Crystal Brakke, executive director of TFA-Twin Cities. But there have been no such “alternative programs” created in Minnesota as a result of the 2011 alternative licensure law, Brakke said.

“Under the law, higher education institutions and education-related nonprofits would be allowed to create their own programs,” explained a Minnesota Public Radio article.

TFA has had a number of conversations with many different universities in the state about partnering to create an alternative program, said Brakke. The University of Minnesota is just one in the mix. Even if Quam decides she wants to follow through with the partnership, Teach for America would need to affirm that the University of Minnesota is the institution it wants to partner with, Brakke said.

In her statement, Quam did not say what the partnership between the University of Minnesota and TFA would entail if it were to come to fruition. Quam was not available to respond to Inside Higher Ed for comment. Dyke said she also was unsure of any specific details about the partnership, but she and the other graduate students who wrote the “No TFA at the U” statement want to “take a stance” against relations the college may have with TFA before it is too late.  

University of Minnesota spokesman Steven Henneberry stressed that the university has only had preliminary discussions with TFA, and College of Education and Human Development is consulting with faculty and administrators within and outside of the university.

“It’s important to note that CEHD is considering the possibilities, advantages and complexities of offering both TFA and traditional teacher education programs,” Quam’s statement said.

In their statement, Dyke and her graduate colleagues attest that “TFA works against our visions of education.” But Brakke said this is an “oversimplified argument.” She said Teach for America’s partnership with Hamline University, for example, has been “very positive.”

“We’re all at our best when we work together and don’t create false divides between all of the different ways that people choose to enter the field of education these days,” Brakke said.

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