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Constitution + contract + leadership = quality education

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?

Peter Hutchinson
Peter Hutchinson
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 fourthgrader 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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Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 02/11/2020 - 09:47 am.

    The current system of Public Schools is not working, please make a change. Adults fighting over who is to blame does not help the children. Believe it or not there are still folks claiming the “system” is working just fine, with that mindset, nothing will change.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/11/2020 - 09:56 am.

    Hey – Let us invest in education for the kids – all the kids!

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/11/2020 - 10:43 am.

      We have never spent more on education than we do now and it’s not working. This isn’t a money problem. It’s a teachers union/school curriculum problem. So much time is wasted on political correctness instead of teaching the basics. That’s why private schools, charter schools and home schooling are all outperforming public schools.

      Education is not a right. To claim so would mean people could literally hold teachers at gunpoint and force them to educate their kids because its their “right”.

      Time to end the PC stuff and let admins and teachers punish disruptive students (including expulsion for the worst offenders) and end this common core nonsense as well. Also, stop wasting money on new tablets and computers when textbooks and a pencil work just as well.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/11/2020 - 09:56 am.

    Corporate education reformers + Wal-mart money + high stakes testing = war on public teachers.

    This amendment doesn’t guarantee anything. It just uses largely discredited test scores as a way to circumvent local school board control and contractual protections. Its just another way to chase good teachers away from the profession.

  4. Submitted by Terry Frawley on 02/11/2020 - 10:09 am.

    Scientists have determined that the first five years of life most often determine how we proceed through life. The scientists have stated high-quality daycare is the answer.

    At two years, scientists can predict third-grade reading scores (U of M, Harvard).
    When a child shows up for school, and their vocabulary is 1/3 of classmates, we have lost that child. Starting at six months, Executive Functions (behavior) begin to develop. Behavior controls are at the heart of many parents’ frustration with schools.

    Special interests are driving Pre-Kindergarten; it simply does not line up with research, and longitudinal results from states that implemented it for any length of time show no difference in the Achievement Gap. To throw salt on the wound, while it is of no value, special interests pushing for Universal Pre-Kindergarten when 84 school districts graduate over 96% of eligible students. It is clearly not a ‘universal problem.’

    We have known for some time that daycare is the solution
    What I find interesting is Education Minnesota’s white paper on the issue. When giving reasons that the Scholarship model won’t work, they cite that poorly written policy is the number one reason for its failure. The number two reason is the targeted market is transitory. I wonder if it is a poorly written policy that the market views ½ day pre-k during the school year is of little value when you have little money to supplement the scholarship?

    Now look at legislation, the Minnesota legislature has funded Pre-Kindergarten for $7,500 per child for 1/2-day, school year program. They funded scholarships for year-round, full-day daycare for $7,500. The impoverished families don’t have the volume of lobbyists as the teachers’ unions. If they did they would explain that is not enough.

    Minnesota currently spends $400M on early childhood programs and $600M on underachieving students. According to the Legislative Audit report in April 2018 and A StarTribune article June 1, 2019, these programs are not being monitored for effectiveness.
    The most important statistic is Kindergarten Readiness. These would at least give a starting point for schools to understand whether the problem is in their building or homes. Minnesota Department of Education has spent MILLIONS to gather these statistics for years.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 02/11/2020 - 10:42 am.

      Good points, but again, research also shows that for those preschool gains to hold, you need to involve parents/caregivers. Teachers alone can’t be held responsible for all children learning. Kids speak through behaviors. Mental health supports are needed and that includes helping parents parent kids and learning how to support their children and parent with those challenging behaviors. We have spent millions(if not more) with little results on these issues only to have more families move out of districts and more endless blaming. You can’t keep taxing the middle class who can’t afford their own daycare and expect they are not going to push back–universal programs that are evidenced based and that involve parents.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/11/2020 - 10:52 am.

      Daycare isn’t the solution …parents need to teach their kids. Enough wasting money on programs that aren’t working. People are getting rich off the taxpayer and education outcomes are falling.

      Public education in America is an abject failure for several reasons. Political correctness is one…stop trying to make every school diverse, let parents decide where their kids go to school. And stop coddling bad kids…let schools punish bad behavior up to and including permanent expulsion. Secondly, get rid of the teachers union. Bad teachers aren’t being removed from the system because of tenure and the union. Only the best teachers should get any sort of tenure. Third, cut way back on admin staff. Most aren’t needed esp If you have discipline in school like we used to.

      The best move would be to free up kids to go to private, charter and even home schools. Make it easier for a parent to teach other people’s kids (they cant in MN currently unless they are in a co op).

      • Submitted by Terry Frawley on 02/11/2020 - 12:11 pm.

        Bob Barnes,
        First, it’s not the kids’ fault when born into poverty. We can’t punish the children. We still need to feed them and help them. When for whatever the reason we need to help the children.
        Minnesota is already spending $400M on early childhood and $600M on children that need additional assistance in schools.
        Let’s figure out what works because right now both the DHS and MDE need to be an overhaul.
        We could continue spending that $1B and get the same results. Or we could check out research by Dr. Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald (US Federal Reserve). They have determined that for every dollar invested in impoverished children will return from $7 to $16,

        • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/11/2020 - 01:24 pm.

          First off, IF we eliminated big govt and went back to a truly free market capitalism system there would be almost no poor people. Govt stealing via inflation and debt and cronyism/corporatism/regulatory capture is what makes people poor. So fix that first and you won’t need to feed or pay for anyone in the first place.

          Also these claims that dollars invested return some multiple of dollars is simply an exercise in fantasy. They always ignore the fact you can’t predict the future also what would the outcome have been in a free market system and leaving the dollars in the hands of those who earn it.

          • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 02/11/2020 - 02:40 pm.

            “First off, IF we eliminated big govt and went back to a truly free market capitalism system there would be almost no poor people.”

            Citation please.

            • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/11/2020 - 03:22 pm.

              We’ve spent well over 20 trillion on welfare programs since 1965 and poverty is as bad or worse now than it was back then. It’s simple math….govt deficit spending is theft from the people by devaluing the currency. The only people able to keep up with that kind of purchasing power destruction are the top 1% or less. The money supply has been increasing by about 6% annually for decades which is the real inflation number. Deflation is a natural tendency so people should be getting richer over time even without pay raises because their dollars buy more goods and services due to deflation.

              Here is just one story, there are many you can find that show the trends and spending. https://www.heritage.org/poverty-and-inequality/report/the-war-poverty-after-50-years

              • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 02/11/2020 - 04:51 pm.

                Bob,
                You really didn’t answer the question. You said if we “went back to a truly free market capitalism system there would be almost no poor people.”

                When was this time and place where we had a truly free market system and had almost no poor people?

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/11/2020 - 04:10 pm.

              Just look back through history. There was no poverty in, say, the 19th century before big government started meddling with the marketplace.

            • Submitted by Matt Haas on 02/11/2020 - 05:54 pm.

              Come now, the voices in his head don’t have NAMES.

      • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 02/11/2020 - 02:45 pm.

        “The best move would be to free up kids to go to private, charter and even home schools.”

        Please explain how SpEd students IDEA rights will be protected when they must move to these schools.

        • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/11/2020 - 03:24 pm.

          The parents will deal with that. Schools can make accommodations and we have lots of charities as well. Not to mention home schooling.

          • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 02/11/2020 - 04:55 pm.

            Bob, again you didn’t really answer the question. What does “the parents will deal with that mean”? This is a pretty vague answer.

            Can you point to a scenario where where a myriad of children with SpEd needs were adequately “dealt” with by their parents alone?

            • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/17/2020 - 07:44 pm.

              Yes, when ‘I was a kid back in the 50’s the majority of those SpEd stayed on the farm or in the home, (they sure weren’t in the Public or Catholic school system) if not there, off to an institution. Ironically the only reason you knew if kids were SpEd, you would see them in church on Sunday, but not in school, otherwise we probably wouldn’t even know they existed. .

      • Submitted by scott gibson on 02/11/2020 - 10:40 pm.

        I know a lot of parents who teach other people’s kids. They are called teachers. Schools are trying many innovative ways to personalize the learning of kids and make them accountable for their own educational path. Students ARE being given choices by interest and ability, not age. You should explore some of the projects already happening before you trot out your same ‘villains’.

        And, by the way, no one is stopping any parent from teaching their own kids at home or sending them to private school. Those parents are just not freed from their obligation to help pay for public schools. I have no kids of my own and I don’t whine that some of my taxes are going to pay for something I don’t use. It’s the same as other aspects of societal infrastructure.

        You’ve stated your distaste for basically all aspects of government. Rugged individualism is less viable in a country with 300+ million and a world with 7+ billion. We need to cooperate to get ahead and good governments help to facilitate that.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/11/2020 - 11:12 am.

      I’ll give you the early years claim, but not the daycare bit, even though you have cited the impressive authority of “the scientists.”

      • Submitted by Terry Frawley on 02/11/2020 - 11:59 am.

        Dr. Megan Gunnar, Department Chair, Director of the Institute, Regents Professor, Distinguished McKnight University Professor, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota.

        Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D.(https://developingchild.harvard.edu/)

        I can do this for another 40 or 50 times. Sorry I will be more open going forward.
        It would be nice if our legislators looked these people up.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/11/2020 - 01:21 pm.

    The notion that our courts are capable of running our schools is amazingly naive.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 02/11/2020 - 02:13 pm.

    The .kindergarten hoax thrown at parents and tax payers in the 60’s, claimed the extra year of school would level all students by 3rd-4th grade, did not happen. Now they (public school advocates) are claiming Pre-K is the answer. All children can read with proper teaching, repetition and time. Passing a child to 2nd grade who cannot perform 1st grade functions starts the failing process. That is the problem! Our Public Schools are failing the children, parents and community, please change it.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/11/2020 - 03:28 pm.

      Not only that but the idea that all 8 year olds learn at the same rate is absurd. Classes should be designed by skill level not grade level…ie Montessori style.

      Parents also need to make sure their kids are doing the homework and involved in their kids’ education.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/11/2020 - 03:13 pm.

    The comment’s are always as interesting as the article! “The current system is not working”, “kindergarten hoax{ Not sure what that all means? Seems we have a reasonably successful work force right know, low unemployment etc. etc. Is it working for everyone, probably not, are there kids, adults that have no intention of having it work for them, probably. Could it work better, probably. Kind of like a lot of things, (they didn’t stop trying to make cars, computers, banking, human relations etc better 50 years ago) progress is incremental in nature. Just don’t think there are any silver bullets. Teachers can teach, but kids got to want to learn as well. Many city schools have a lot more to deal with than just teaching; culture, racial, religious, social, interaction, language, etc. Rural & suburban areas not so much they tend to be a lot more. lets call it culturally and socially sanitized in nature (read less diversified), but suspect that also hinders them when business’s are looking to locate, expand etc. folks need to be culturally, socially and many times linguistically diverse to conduct business in today’s environment. How much of our life revolves around electronic devices/communication today, why wouldn’t we want to educate our kids about that technology accordingly?.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 02/11/2020 - 07:45 pm.

      Dennis, Less than 50% of students coming out of the 2 biggest districts in our State are not proficient in math or reading. How is that a working system? Overall college preparedness is down across our state and the country. We have 7 million jobs that need filling with competent workers. The system is failing the children.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/16/2020 - 11:34 am.

        Joe, you are the guy that has been backing Trump 110% claiming this is the “best economy ever”, now you are saying the best economy ever is failing our kids! Which is it, best ever of failing? Or is this typical Trump rhetoric, both ways and its everyone else’s fault when I can’t have it that way.
        PS: Perhaps you ought to re-read my comment. In case you are wondering, the U of M system (not to mention all the other colleges, tech schools etc) still graduate, doctors, dentists engineers, business leaders teachers, programmers, auto mechanics etc every year, are those graduates failures?

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