Joe Nathan Column: Seeking common ground may help improve schools

Joe Nathan Column – Can the Minnesota Business Partnership, which focuses on making the best possible use of existing funds, and Parents United, which urges that more money be spent on Minnesota’s public schools, find things they agree on? Can the African American Leadership Forum, which represents more than a thousand Minnesotans, many deeply concerned about public schools, agree with what the Minnesota Association of School Administrators is suggesting? An intriguing new effort is hoping the answer to these questions is “yes.”

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

I give former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser and former St. Paul Council of Churches Executive Director Grant Abbott considerable credit. Over the next few weeks, they are convening a variety of groups for public conversations that will be taped and available for viewing online.

Their goal is to improve Minnesota’s public schools, with a focus on reducing the achievement gap. First, they want to find several things these groups agree on. Then they hope to work with the organizations to focus on agreements in ways that make a real, positive difference for Minnesota students.

Fraser started the Achievement Gap Committee in 2007. He wanted to provide a forum for people to share their research, concerns, strategies and success in reducing the achievement gap. Over the years, teacher union presidents, university professors, district and charter educators, and a wide range of others described what they were doing.

Despite their efforts, Minnesota has one of the nation’s largest gaps in high school graduation rates among students of different races. Abbott and Fraser wanted to do more.

So late last year, they began inviting a variety of groups to make brief, 15-minute presentations on a panel – with people they sometimes agreed with and sometimes disagreed with.

Full disclosure: They asked me to be part of a panel that included Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools; Maureen Ramirez, policy and research director with Growth and Justice; and Chris Stewart, executive director of the African American Leadership Forum. The meeting, the first of three, was on Jan. 21.

From left, Mary Cecconi, Joe Nathan, Maureen Ramirez and Chris Stewart (Photo courtesy of John Risken)

From left, Mary Cecconi, Joe Nathan, Maureen Ramirez and Chris Stewart (Photo courtesy of John Risken)

Some of the talking points were:

• Cecconi presented graphs illustrating her view that Minnesota should spend more money on K-12 education. She does not think more money is the total answer, but she definitely thinks it is part of what’s needed. More information is available at

• Ramirez explained that Growth and Justice has prepared reports showing key areas of what it describes as “strategic investment,” such as more high-quality early childhood education programs.

• Stewart described what his organization believes are five key gaps, including the “preparation gap” and the “belief” gap.

• I pointed to research about the value of strong early childhood programs for students from low-income families and of students taking dual-credit courses, the progress Minnesota has made and the need to do more.

Over the next month, the committee will convene two more meetings to hear from other groups and then seek points of agreement.

Cynics quote retired football coach Lou Holtz: “When all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.”

Give Fraser and Abbott credit for taking on tough but important issues. They may not succeed. But they may.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome,

  • Tom Watkins

    Failure cannot be an option. Our collective future depends on success in educating more and more of our children to a higher level to collaborate and compete on the world stage.

  • Tom King

    Never give up looking for common ground.

    It’s uncommonly difficult to find these days, but it’s there…points of concordance that enable more efforts toward common goals and, perhaps, more goals being achieved.

    After 70 years in the classroom, on one side of the desk or the other, I am convinced that the most effective way to improve schools is to improve the learning of each student. Everything else is secondary.

    We need to invite each student into assuming greater responsibility for the planning, doing and demonstrations of what they need to learn.

    Yes, parents help, so do teachers, and mentors and the village, too. But, until we can get the commitment of each student to become a learner, the success we seek will not be found.

  • #chicagosox Arnold F. Fege

    Joe Nathan hit on the real “choice”–we can all go our own way, or recognize that we are all in this together, and breaking down the fault lines of disgreement and work to find the common ground is at the core of our public schools. Democracy is not a spectator sport, but this is nothing new for Minnesota. You have always been a state that places high value on community and collaboration, and understand that there are certain large and important things that can ONLY be done when we work together. Speaking as a parent advocate, and a former teacher and principal, poor parents and the community have very rarely been asked in decision making as equal stakeholders–the power structure usually acts for them, rather then with them. Genuine and authentic collaboration can be a game changer, where all parties win–especially our children, and where big things that transcend our roles can happen. Go for it, Minnesota.

  • Datrica Chukwu

    Excellent peace Joe, but no one is speaking about the lack of preparedness of classroom teachers or the educators who bounce from one urban school to the next just so they can have their student loans paid off. Mindset plays an essential role in student achievement.


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