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Education leaders laud Dayton's 7-point plan

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton

He may not have shown them the money, but Gov. Mark Dayton got high marks from school district leaders and policymakers for the seven-point education plan [PDF] he released Friday. In particular, educators praised the emphasis the governor placed on early-childhood education and kindergarten readiness as a means to closing the achievement gap.

Brooklyn Center Superintendent Keith Lester called the plan “spot on.”

“It’s all really about early-childhood education, about early literacy,” he said. “And that’s absolutely critical. We spend an awful lot of time trying to fix things in the middle.”

“I’m very encouraged that this is how he sees education,” agreed Jim Koppel, director of the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota. “I hope a core part of many of his reforms is that they be child- and 0-5 focused.”

The achievement gap is best addressed at birth, said Jeff Olson, superintendent in St. Peter and chairman of the board of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. “You know what they say, you learn to read and then you read to learn,” he said. “Having some additional funding and focus would mean we could work to get even more of our students ready for kindergarten, and then ready to read. Once they’re reading, they’re more likely to achieve at grade level.”

“I like the idea that it’s being put forth on a statewide stage,” Olson added.

Funding questions left unanswered for now
Dayton reiterated his campaign-trail pledge to increase K-12 funding, but refused to answer questions about where, in the face of a $6.2 billion deficit, he’ll find the money. Details will have to wait until he releases his proposed budget Feb. 15, he said.

Early-childhood-education advocates have long complained that preschool and kindergarten readiness get short shrift because Minnesota primarily has addressed pre-K as a welfare issue. Preschoolers would be better served if it were formally incorporated into the state’s education apparatus, many insisted.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and GOP lawmakers frequently told early-ed advocates they wanted evidence that high-quality programming delivered results. Yet despite efforts by the business community — and, most notably, Art Rolnick, former senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank — funding suffered drastic cuts over the last eight years.

Dayton will place Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius in charge of early-childhood initiatives, revive the Statewide Early Childhood Advisory Council and re-establish the Children’s Cabinet. He will also target all-day kindergarten and seek to create into a comprehensive pre-K-12 system in the state.

The governor also called for pre K-3 literacy standards, more training for early-childhood educators and clearly defined school-readiness standards.

Cash needed to make significant headway
With a background of focusing on the achievement gap, Cassellius is probably the right woman for the job, Lester opined. But her boss will need to come up with some cash if she is to make significant headway.

Keith Lester
Keith Lester

“I think we have a leader there who is capable and hard-working,” he said. “But to go to early childhood and all-day K is going to cost money. You need twice as many teachers or educational assistants and more classrooms.”

Lester cited his own district’s attempt to close its gap by focusing on preschoolers. It’s absolutely the right approach, he is convinced, but he has had to scrounge for funding over the years.

On that score, Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson praised Dayton’s decision to establish a Governor’s Commission on Better School Funding and in particular word that the panel will involve financial analyst Tom Melcher, director of the Education Department’s Program Finance Division.

“I can’t think of anyone more respected by the superintendents and the Legislature,” said Carlson. “He comes in with options, always. This time, he’ll be invited to the policy table.”

In Carlson’s experience, Melcher is adept at pinpointing places where there’s budgetary flexibility or room for simplification.  “To have sat in the seat where he has sat for so many years, he knows where we haven’t done everything we could,” the superintendent said.

Governor seeks structural changes
Dayton conceded Friday that the funding commission would not be able to make fiscal magic during the two months between now and when he would like to hear its first ideas. But education finance has been plagued with inequities and inefficiencies for a long time, he said, and structural changes are long overdue.

Dayton also drew praise for plans to reduce the number of standardized assessments students take and make sure that the tests administered measure individual student growth, to create alternative pathways to teacher licensure that maintain teacher quality and to establish a statewide teacher performance evaluation and development system.

“I think it’s critical to get a handle on tests,” said Carlson. “You can talk accountability all you want, but there are too many tests.”

Educators have long been frustrated with the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. Because they do not yield useful data about individual students, most schools also administer a second, “value-added” test. As a result, teachers spend too much time preparing students for tests at the expense of arts, physical education and other experiences that are crucial to children’s development.

Administrators are anxious to hear how Dayton proposes to increase funding, but noted that many of the initiatives the governor announced are long overdue, long-term undertakings. Even if fiscal realities remain grim, the plan still has tremendous value, they agreed.

Did you hear that, Gov. Dayton? Sounds like your first solid A. 

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Comments (5)

To me, the salient quotes from this article"

1) Olson: "The achievement gap is best addressed at birth".

2) Koppel: “I hope a core part of many of his reforms is that they be child- and 0-5 focused.”

3) "The governor also called for pre K-3 literacy standards."

A lot was said about the money, but I think a bigger issue is access. No mention was made of how government educators are going to get access to all of these babies to train and test them.

It's so welcome to hear our governor back education in general and early childhood education in particular. Art Rolnick and the business community have seen the financial benefits--not to mention the benefits to the children and their families in many other ways. Entire groups of kids are being thrown under the bus for lack of good early education, esp. for those kids who come from disadvantaged homes--financially and in many other ways.

Nothing is going going to change as long as u have lazy parents who don't read to their children.

We will create all this extensive bureaucracy to close the "achievement gap" and the results will be so marginal that it will make no difference.

Tie financial assistance for young mothers on their efforts towards their children and not the free ride it is today and u will see far greater results than any state program ever.

St. Paul is a leader in developing a "Children's Zone," built on the Harlem children's project, It is 250 square blocks, called "Promise neighborhood, a community wide project that supports children to get an education. It is funded in part by the Wilder foundation and other partners, including the city of St. Paul. This project encompasses neighborhood resources to help children overcome barriers to getting an education. That includes coming from a home where the parents are not able to help children do homework, for example, or be able to support their children's educational efforts. Poverty, illness, immigrants from other countries who do not speak English, hungry children and parents' their own failure to get an education are huge barriers. The Promise neighborhood project is doing its best to help kids get through these disadvantages.
There are a lot of exciting things going on in the St. Paul public schools. Instead of criticizing the schools, teachers, children and their families, why don't you volunteer an hour or so a week to tutor or whatever needs to be done.

Ginny,

I think your volunteering is wonderful and i would love to do something like that. However that does not answer the question as to how effective state dollars have been.

St. Paul spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on Dear Meria/Maria, you know that wunderkid of diversity/love the children. She was a National Geograhpic photographer and I think assistant to the assistant at DC schools. Anyone with any common sense would know that she was using the school district and would bail.

So what happened. Millions of dollars spent on salary for her, her chief of staff, her assistants to the Chair...what did St. Paul get. Big fat zero.

Same story in Minneapolis. Carol "I love the children" Johnson. What were the results. Big fat Zero.

Money will not solve the problem. Schools in these cities are run by highly politicized school boards and used by a large number of parents who could not care less about their kids education. A perfect combination for a money pit of a disaster.