Making a quality education a constitutional right may be necessary. Making it a contractual obligation, as at least one district has done, may be a practical requirement. Making it a reality will require leadership willing to change things to make things better.
While it may seem like a blinding flash of the obvious that our state’s Constitution ought to assure that every student gets a quality education, the fact is that it does not. The proposal to amend the Minnesota Constitution from Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari and former Supreme Court Justice Alan Page could fix that.
Sure there are risks. D.J. Tice at the Star Tribune is worried about politicizing the courts while the state teachers union is worried about vouchers. The answer to both, of course, is for our public schools to actually deliver the quality our children deserve. Ironically, the tools to do so exist right now in the Minneapolis Teachers Contract. The problem in using those tools is not constitutional, legal or contractual – it is human.
Our state’s Constitution promises a system of public schools that is “general and uniform” as well as “thorough and efficient” as a means to secure the “intelligence of the people.” The intent, no doubt, is that these schools provide a good education to all students – but it does not actually say that. The Constitution focuses on the schools, not what comes out of them. And what is coming out of them is not good enough.
In the last several months we have gotten data from four different sources on the quality of the education coming out of our schools.
The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments tell us how well our schools are doing in delivering Minnesota’s curriculum to our students. It is Minnesota specific. The latest MCAs report told us that only a bit more than half of our students are mastering the curriculum, and our students are not getting better – in fact many scores are falling. Learning gaps based on race/ ethnicity and income are big and we are not closing them.
The ACT is an assessment taken by high school students before they graduate. It assesses whether students are ready for college or a career in math, English, writing and science. The latest ACT results told us that the vast majority of our graduates (about 60%) are NOT rated as college- or career-ready – and we are not getting better – and there are huge disparities in the results based on race or ethnicity.
The third data source is the National Assessment of Educational progress. The NAEP is a national assessment of how states are doing in preparing their students. NAEP assesses what a sample of students in fourth and eighth grades know and are able to do in reading, math and science. The latest NAEP results told us that about 20% of white students across the state are not even at a “basic” level in reading, and that it is far worse among students of color with 40%-60% below “basic.”
Finally, Kashkari’s colleagues at the Federal Reserve summarized the data they reviewed on education in Minnesota and put it this way:
Even as graduation rates overall have increased in recent years, college readiness indicators have declined. This demonstrates that Minnesota is graduating an increasing proportion of students who are unprepared for college.
What is stunning about these results is that they are so bad for so many students, and that they have persisted for so long. Our schools are not delivering quality to students of all kinds in all places. And in spite of our good intentions and protestations to the contrary, we are not making things better.
Kashkari and Page looked at these results and concluded, rightly, that we need an action forcing mechanism. And they have developed one. They propose to amend the Minnesota Constitution so it says plainly:
All children have a fundamental right to a quality public education that fully prepares them with the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society, as measured against uniform achievement standards set forth by the state. It is a paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right.
In short, a quality education is a right and quality should be measured against uniform standards.
Page made it even clearer: “This proposal will hold the state accountable to ensuring all children are getting the education they deserve.”
The amendment may or may not pass. I hope it does. Regardless, we all should be asking how can we make it work? How can we make it real?
Surprisingly we can look to the contract between the Minneapolis Public Schools and its teachers for the tools to make quality a reality. Many assume that such contracts are only about protecting teachers — from accountability for what happens to kids (a view commonly held by Republicans, some parents and many in the business community) or from the arbitrary actions of autocratic administrators (a view commonly held by Democrats, some parents, and union members). How you view the contract will depend on the lens through which you view it. What is surprising about this contract is how it confounds both of these notions. Consider these provisions:
The entire first chapter is a joint declaration by the teachers, the school board and administration the schools exist “to ensure that all students learn” and that “our purpose will be to make the changes necessary to make success a reality.” It goes on to say that “Student achievement is our primary focus” and that “Teachers are accountable for the growth and progress of all students.” It could not be any clearer. The contract goes on to lay out the elements critical for success: school based decision-making, flexibility and innovation, professional development, accountability for quality and performance, data, family and community involvement, diversity, and collaborative working relationships. It is a powerful beginning on the path to quality education for all students.
To put that pledge to quality student outcomes into practice, the contract includes a commitment to specific standards that apply to all parts of the district. Standards for Effective Instruction, Standards for Effective Schools, Standards for Effective District Support for Schools, Standards for Student Performance and Standards for Family Involvement. These standards exist to provide direction as well as a basis for accountability.
Accountability is based on a continuum. Those achieving success are to be rewarded. Those needing to improve are to be supported and are expected to accept and use it to achieve. For those refusing support or who are unwilling or unable to improve there is to be intervention. If all of those efforts fail to lead to quality results, provisions exist to terminate and start over. Specifically, failing schools can be re-started with new direction, leadership, and/or new staff. Similarly, failing staff can be terminated, even if they have tenure.
In the years that I was superintendent, with Louise Sundin leading the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Ann Kaari as chair of the school board, we put these provisions in place and we used them. For what I think is one of the only times in state history, we closed a non-performing school and restarted it. Likewise, we engaged our teachers and administrators in the contract’s Professional Development Process that focused on teachers getting peer support and feedback to improve their effectiveness. In a five-year period, 300 teachers were recommended by their peers for intensive support and 70 of them ultimately either resigned or were terminated. Together, we made these provisions come to life and give meaning to our joint commitment to quality education.
All of these provisions exist today. All have been shown to be effective tools for delivering quality education to all students. They are embedded in the Minneapolis Teachers Contract because Sundin wisely told me that if we put them there, they would stay. She was right. They are still there and should be the real basis for the district’s next strategic plan (as opposed to only rearranging attendance boundaries) or the governor’s next legislative initiative. But whether they are used or not will be up to people – to teachers, administrators, school boards, union leaders, parents and community leaders. Whether it is a constitution, law or contract it will be up to people to make quality learning a reality. A fourth–grader once told me, “A leader is someone who goes out and changes things to make things better.” She was right.
Peter Hutchinson is a former superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools.
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