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

By Joe Nathan

Guest Columnist

NathanJoeWe 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 on improving education that gives Minnesota a D for our education laws and policies.
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 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. StudentsFirst 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 does provide helpful data on its webpage. 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 Senator 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 Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org

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