Improvements needed, but Minnesota school reform efforts don’t deserve a D

Joe Nathan Column – We have things to work on, but Minnesota’s school improvement efforts do not deserve a “D.”

That’s my reaction to a new national report by StudentsFirst (SF) on improving education that gives Minnesota a “D” for our education laws and policies.

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

StudentsFirst is a new organization founded by former Washington D.C. Superintendent of Schools Michelle Rhee.   Rhee is committed to closing achievement gaps and helping all students be more successful. She’s blunt, controversial and I think sometimes wrong.  The overall report, and the section on Minnesota can be found at http://reportcard.studentsfirst.org/

The report acknowledges that in math, Minnesota fourth graders rank third, and Minnesota eighth graders rank second in the country on the well-respected National Assessment of Education Progress.  (Minnesota’s fourth graders rank 21st in reading on this test, while eighth graders rank ninth on that test).  The report does not include recently released data showing that more than 25 states have a higher high school graduation rate than we do, and that Minnesota has among the nation’s largest graduation gaps.  We have things to be proud of, and things to work on.

But many of the report’s assertions are, to put it mildly, questionable.  For example, Minnesota, home of Post Secondary Options, open enrollment, charter public schools, and options created by local districts, received a “D-“ for efforts to “Empower Parents.”   SF insists that Minnesota

• “Must grade its schools on an A-F letter system based on student achievement data.”

• “Require parental consent if a student is placed with an ineffective teacher.”
• “Give parents the authority to petition local school districts to turn around failing schools,” and

• “Create a publicly financed scholarship program for low-income students in chronically failing public schools to attend private schools.”

Many parents have asked me how to compare schools. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) does provide helpful data on its web page. For example, school rankings include trends in test scores, how much the school has closed achievement gaps for its students, graduation rates and other information. It’s also possible to compare schools, using this data. But information about schools could be more comprehensive and easier to find.  (Full disclosure – MDE gives our organization funds to help share information about Dual High School/College Credit courses).

Bottom line, I don’t think we need an “A-F” grading system.  And while there is not space to discuss them, I don’t think either the parent petition or voucher ideas will help solve many problems.

Future columns will discuss other sections of the report urging greater attention to teacher and principal evaluation, and more flexibility for districts.

While disagreeing with many of SF’s recommendations, I think it hired a wise woman, former DFL State Sen. Kathy Saltzman, as its state director. Saltzman worked with former state Sen. Gen Olson to help improve reading instruction.  And she helped make thoughtful improvements in charter school accountability.  I hope that Saltzman will be able to focus on things that will help students and schools.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, is director of the Center for School Change in St. Paul.  Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org

 
  • Arnold F. Fege

    Joe, I couldn’t agree with you more. I am not quite clear who appointed the deposed DC superintedent of schools Michelle Rhee the assessment empress of the nation, but the A-F grading system is no more useful for state outcomes as they are for evaluating students. Data is critical to closing achievement gaps, but lazy data misinforms, both ways. I would have expected a much more mature, discrete, indepth and granular measure from Rhee, especially after what we have learned as a nation about deep data in the last 10 years. Rhee needs to focus more on constructive leadership then on building her celebrity. No one takes a backseat to Joe Nathan as a major civil rights advocate and he very nicely lays out the problems with a grading system that is so yesterday and inadequately recognizes progress, and well as a journey yet to taken.

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