A diversity gap exists among Minnesota teachers, and Twin Cities public schools have consistently looked to the University of Minnesota for help.
More than 96 percent of the teachers in Minnesota were Caucasian, while 74 percent of the student population shared that ethnicity, according to a 2012 Minnesota Department of Education study.
At the same time, the amount of minority students in Minnesota is
projected to increase by more than 60 percent in the next decade.
Students need to be exposed to teachers of different ethnicities, said Richard Wassen, director of educator licensing at MDE.
“That is one of the purposes behind integration,” he said. “All students benefit from having exposure to diversity and different cultures.”
Teachers of color also provide real-life examples to minority students for future careers, including teaching, according to a Center for American Progress report on teacher diversity.
The University has improved the diversity of students studying to be teachers, said Misty Sato, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction.
Sato said 13 percent of students studying to be teachers at the University are of color, up from 9 percent a few years ago.
“We are higher than the state average, which is 3.5 percent [teachers of color], but that’s not nearly enough teachers to meet the expectations of our school partners,” she said.
The University is faced with unique pressures in filling teacher population gaps in the state, said Spanish studies junior Shawna Zielinski. She plans to become an English as a second language teacher after getting her teacher’s license.
“Because we are the biggest state school, you might say we have more of an obligation and resources,” she said, “but I think a lot [of pressure] is put on the University.”
The reasons behind the teacher diversity gap are varied and complicated, Wassen said.
One of the biggest barriers is the numerous tests students must pass before they’re licensed as teachers, he said, because the tests are costly and may have cultural biases.
“We have to fine-tune our system,” he said. “There is no research that suggests the tests measure who will make a better teacher.”
Another barrier, Wassen said, is the high cost of education and student teaching, worsened by low teacher salaries.
“The research suggests that the most important way to support teacher diversity is to create more equitable pathways,” he said.
Common suggestions for creating those pathways are scholarship increases and tuition forgiveness for teachers, according to the MDE study.
Alternative teaching licensing programs are another way to ease financial pathways for teachers, but it’s been more than two years since Minnesota legislators passed the law allowing for alternative teacher licensing in the state, and no one has proposed a program to the Board of Teaching.
Alternative licensing allows people to teach sooner by allowing organizations to design a teacher-training program for people with an undergraduate degree but without a master’s or passing all the licensing tests.
After completing an approved 200-hour program, participants get a temporary teaching license and begin teaching in Minnesota schools while finishing their education and earning a salary.
At the University, developing an alternative licensing program isn’t a top priority because it already has at least 22 different teaching licensure programs, Sato said.
But she said if the University did consider creating one of the programs, the primary motivation would likely be to increase diversity.
“There’s national data that show certain types of alternative licensure programs can attract and retain more people of color in a licensure program and fill that gap in the teaching population,” she said.
The most common method for earning a teaching license at the University is completing a one-year master’s teaching program after receiving a four-year bachelor’s degree.
But the quick nature of the alternative teaching licensing can turn some off.
“There are great benefits for the recent college grad,” Zielinksi said, “but I would argue that it tends to not be good overall for the schools they are placed in because they tend to be less prepared as teachers and less qualified.”
Sato said the reputation of a program could be impacted if it offered alternative teacher certification.
“There [are] some real philosophical differences that people hold about what it means to become a teacher,” she said, “and how much preparation you need before you should be allowed to be the sole teacher of record with students.”
“And right now at the University, we’ve held the value that it is important to be fully prepared before you can be the teacher of record.”
Teach for America
State law doesn’t limit alternative teacher licensing to institutes of higher education.
One program that currently offers an alternative pathway to temporary teaching is Teach for America, which recruits students from colleges and universities nationwide.
TFA could be the first to utilize the new state law, with plans to submit a formal proposal to the Board of Teaching to become a certified alternative teaching licenser, said spokeswoman Kaitlin Gastrock.
In 2012, a quarter of TFA teachers who began teaching in Minnesota identified as minorities, Gastrock said.
TFA members in Minnesota can teach with a conditional certification after going through summer pre-service training.
Studies in three other states have found TFA members to be effective teachers, Gastrock said.
“Teach for America is well-positioned to meet the high bar set forth by the Board of Teaching that requires a robust admission and selection process …” she said. “We think this a tremendous opportunity to continue to strengthen and expand the pipeline of talented teachers in the region.”