Every student deserves a chance to succeed

Published 8:20 am Thursday, June 3, 2010

I have participated in numerous Capitol press conferences. None has been more impressive than when supporters of alternative teacher licensure advanced the measure in the waning days of the 2010 session.

The coalition was as broad as I’ve witnessed. Represented were students from a cross-section of ethnic backgrounds; Democrats, Republicans and Independents; parents, students and school administrators; state senators and representatives. They all encouraged state policy-makers to give our struggling kids some help. They all shared the passion and mission to ensure that every Minnesota student deserves a chance to succeed.

Who “won” in the end? The truth is no one, but the leaders of Education Minnesota must think they did. The statewide teachers’ union spent a boatload of money on ads to prevent the best and brightest individuals from sharing their expertise with Minnesota kids. And it succeeded.

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Nearly every supporter of alternative licensure knows a success story. My experience is that of my niece who recently celebrated her first year of teaching third grade in Tulsa, Okla. Her preparation for the classroom was as a graduate of Teach for America — an alternative licensure program recognized nationwide for its rigorous training and its academic results for narrowing the achievement gap among advantaged and disadvantaged students.

Her story is likely similar to many that our teachers face day in and day out.

“Almost 180 days later, I stand before you, exhausted and proud,” she said during an evening of celebration. “We made it through our first year of being classroom leaders, teachers, social workers, mentors, coaches and cheerleaders. While this may mark a nearing hallway point in our formal commitment, what it really marks is our formal introduction into a lifelong movement.”

As all teachers do, my niece experienced ups and downs during the course of the year. She related her “off track” days with Troy, a student who experienced a death in his family that ultimately led to the family leaving its home for personal safety reasons and his dropping out of school.

Troy inspired her “on track” days, too. Despite his personal problems, Troy achieved. In less than two months, he increased his reading speed by 23 words per minute. He started the year on first-grade math level and left her class at a 70-percent mastery of all third-grade math objectives. He attended tutoring for three months and even called her one evening to find out how he did on his spelling test. He knew he had gotten his first “A” in spelling for the year.

The progress of Troy and her other students also represented my niece’s many “within reach” days — the many days between perceived successes and failures. Her students progressed because “our daily commitment to every student is where we slowly but surely pushed our students toward the significant progress they’ve made.”

Minnesota is missing key opportunities to place more of these high-caliber candidates in the classrooms. At present, the highest-performing teaching programs for undeserved students — programs like Teach for America that have shown remarkable success in other parts of the country — have no permanent status in Minnesota.

Contrary to the claims of Education Minnesota, alternative licensure neither takes away jobs from current teachers nor shortchanges teacher training. The additional options simply enhance the pool of quality candidates and will bolster the collective efforts of the rank-and-file teaching corps.

The failure to pass alternative pathways for teacher licensure — one of the Minnesota Chamber’s key initiatives for this year — represented both the best and worst in crafting public policy.

I’ve never been prouder as part of a coalition that had nothing but the best intentions for Minnesota’s future. In the end, however, the special interests of a single group took precedence when DFL leadership blocked this measure that had bipartisan support. DFL leadership thwarted efforts for the proposal to even be debated and voted on the Senate floor — although it had advanced through key House and Senate committees.

The issue is too important to let die. We’ll be back next year, along with the hundreds of other supporters, determined to ensure that every Minnesota student has a chance to succeed.

David Olson is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.