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Failure to act brings poor results for students

REUTERS/Jim Young
We need to make sure that every student has great teachers and school leaders.

StudentsFirst recently released its 2014 State Policy Report Card [PDF]. Rather than rank states based on current student-achievement levels, the report card evaluates whether states have the right policy environments in place to best raise academic levels from where they are today.

Considering the comfort and prosperity of many Minnesotans, our “D” grade may be a surprise. It is tempting to say that our education system is just fine.

But that is profoundly not the case.

While many of our citizens benefit from prosperity, communities of color are left behind. As Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh recently described, racial disparities between whites and nonwhites are larger in Minnesota than in many of our country’s urban centers. While only 6 percent of white people in her region live in poverty, 25 percent of people of color do.

System doesn’t serve all equally

And why is that? A big reason is an education system that doesn’t serve all students equally. While 46 percent of white eighth-graders — a disturbingly low number in itself — scored proficient on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 20 percent of Hispanic students and 16 percent of African-American students did.

Kathy Saltzman

Education is key to the economic success of all citizens. And given these kinds of numbers, shouldn’t we be doing whatever it takes to improve our education system and address laws that are preventing all kids — regardless of their race — from getting the best education possible?

That might shake up the status quo, but it’s time we have the courage to consider policies that can lead this generation of kids out of poverty. And the State Policy Report Card provides a roadmap for this effort.

It is encouraging that Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature recently acknowledged Minnesota’s educational shortcomings by investing heavily in high-impact programs like all-day kindergarten and early-childhood education scholarships. But increased funding isn’t enough. We need to pair this investment with smart policies that ensure our education system is focused on what really matters: Minnesota’s students. There are several parts to this.

Teacher quality

We need to make sure that every student has great teachers and school leaders. In fact, research shows that teacher quality is the No. 1 in-school factor affecting student achievement. That’s why we believe educators deserve the opportunity to be evaluated annually and receive meaningful feedback to help them improve. And that will only happen if our lawmakers create a better evaluation system for our teachers. Districts should be empowered to use evaluations to make staffing decisions that are based on teacher effectiveness, rather than seniority, which would help keep our best teachers in the classroom.

We should also strengthen the accountability measures for public charter schools in the state. It’s true that Minnesota has a strong charter-school environment, but the commissioner of education must only review charter school authorizers once every five years. We believe five years is too long to wait; after all, a whole generation of kids goes through school in this time. Instead, we suggest authorizers should be reviewed annually, just as educators and students are.

Require transparent A-F report cards

If we truly want to empower parents, we should also require a clear and transparent A-F school report card system for schools, based on multiple factors that measure school success. Letter grades provide easy-to-understand information about school performance that would allow parents to make informed decisions about the education of their kids.

These common sense changes would help ensure that all of Minnesota’s students are set up for success in life.

So rather than take the easy way out and dismiss the results of the State Policy Report Card, let’s have a discussion on how we can continue to innovate and improve education. Kids in Washington, D.C.; Tennessee; Indiana and elsewhere have all seen impressive gains in their academic achievement after implementing student-centered education policies.

These same gains are possible for Minnesota’s kids, if we only have the courage to support them.

Kathy Saltzman is the Minnesota state director of StudentsFirst. She is a former state senator who represented Washington County.

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If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 02/05/2014 - 09:36 am.

    If “Students First” Had ANY Idea

    How to actually improve education in Minnesota (or anywhere), they might be useful.

    Instead of being useful, however, “Students First,” and those with similar ideologically-based (rather than fact and research-based) “ideas” i.e. because of their consistent, anti-funding, anti-teacher, anti-public school bias, are a large part of the PROBLEM with public education in the US, today.

    As a corporate front organization/shill for those whose primary purpose is making public education cheaper by wiping out the bargaining power of teacher’s professional organizations,…

    and seriously underfunding public schools,…

    while providing “vouchers” to those they deem deserving to attend privatized charter schools run by profit mongers and those with other dubious motivations.

    Their primary way of muddying the water to hide their real agenda is continuous “concern trolling” (if not outright attacks) aimed at the public education with the aim of convincing the general public that it makes sense to punish the current school system, by dismantling it while, at the same time, hoping to profit handsomely from creating an alternative system which the vast majority of students will never attend,

    It has long been clear what the problems of public education are (primarily massive underfunding coupled with students suffering the results of poverty and dysfunctional families – both of which have been markedly increased by the economic policies favored by these same “conservatives”).

    What “Students First” seeks to do is blame the victims of “conservative” political, anti-education posturing (facts, after, all, having a “liberal bias”), while seeking to distract an all-too-gullible public from the reality that what the schools need MOST, especially in the inner city, is and increase in funding.

    In the end “Students First” is a perfect Frank Luntz style, doublespeak name for an organization that cares nothing for “students,” but only cares for pursuing its own dysfunctional ideology and profit mongering. If they were honest when it comes to their concern for the average student they would more accurately name themselves “Students Last, Students Least, Students are Just Useful Pawns in our Efforts to Pursue our Agenda.”

    And, gee, thanks, MinnPost for further helping to muddy the waters by printing Ms. Saltzman’s piece of propagandistic misinformation. Based on this, I suspect we’ll soon enjoy pieces on the glories of smoking or how a bit of radioactive, briny, methane-infused fracking waste mixed in with your drinking water is really good for you.

  2. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 02/05/2014 - 01:50 pm.

    Students First

    Thank you, Greg.

  3. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 02/05/2014 - 04:33 pm.

    This piece doesn’t meet the standards that I’ve come to expect of Minnpost, at least most of the time. At a very minimum the author might have been asked to address the detailed account of her group’s “report card” and its flaws in logic and accountability.

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