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Will the Legislature permit local boards to change schooling?

The gaps in achievement are real and will not be addressed by tinkering. We’ve been doing that forever.

Minnesota House
Minnesota House
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

In Minnesota our current P-12 education system serves some students very well while missing many others. This model worked in the 20th century, but it misses the mark by a long shot in the 21st century when education for all is crucial. In a Federal Reserve report, Rob Grunewald and Anusha Nath stated that Minnesota has some of the largest achievement gaps by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status in the nation. Yet we continue to use the same schooling model that fails to provide sufficient outcomes.

Brian Erlandson
Brian Erlandson
This is amplified by those students moving into postsecondary schooling that poorly mismatches their education to workforce value. Furthermore, many students pay a discongruous cost for postsecondary education when their basic skills to be successful are absent. How is change to be embraced in education without acknowledging that what has taken place has not worked for so many? The needs of our youth are changing as rapidly as the change seen in our world. Yet school remains constant.

How to move to a 21st-century model

In January the Legislature needs to examine the outdated 20th century system based on seat time, periods, classes, credits, grades, days per year, common standards for every student, outdated assessment models and more. Policymakers should move from trying to enforce the same for all and empower local boards toward a personalized competency-based system for each student with an accountability system that evaluates with meaning and purpose.

Lucy Payne
Lucy Payne
Our academic standards should evolve from small bites of rote memorization to those of critical thinking, analysis and inquiry. We have high schools replicating postsecondary institutions at a higher cost. This is not an efficient use of the tax dollar.

Tinkering won’t cut it

Crises spawn rapid innovation, invention and change. The global pandemic happening in real time is showing that our schools are capable of rapid change — yet the system itself remains constant. We need to stop pursuing small incremental improvement and focus on creating deep meaningful change to better prepare all students for the 21st century. The gaps in achievement are real and will not be addressed by tinkering. We’ve been doing that forever.

With bureaucracies like education, change only occurs when the opportunity and motivation to change is permitted and paired with those willing to do so. We must remove the old input-based model and transition to a competency model personalized for each student. The Legislature must be willing to permit redesign and empower local boards to do so; more important, local boards must then grab this opportunity.

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Supports have been undervalued

The pandemic has demonstrated that some of the essential benefits of our system are personalized relationships, mental health supports and social-emotional connections. We have undervalued the worth of these supports and what they provide to students and families. Students deserve active engagement in an education providing value to their future and our economy.

Patrick Walsh
Patrick Walsh
Many education leaders suggest they will not go back to the 20th century model when the pandemic passes. During this crisis, some barriers to learning and innovation have been temporarily removed. We need to address which barriers should be dismantled and for which students. It isn’t the same for all. Trust local boards to do so.

What if:

  • we engaged students with their world to address systemic racism, global warming, etc. Students would have a significant role while learning how to improve the community through their views;
  • we developed a profile of a graduate that reflects a more holistic definition of success and personalized that? The economy is often driven by a diverse set of successful people who failed at education;
  • our P-12 and postsecondary system created a sufficient value for our workforce? What are those values? Students could pursue workforce-ready skills that are in demand using the education financing currently provided;
  • we didn’t count credits and give grades but instead evaluated outcomes? Students could demonstrate their learning in multiple ways while allowing them to pursue their passions and purpose.

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Boards need autonomy and flexibility

It is time for the Legislature to remove barriers to educational innovation by conferring autonomy and flexibility to local boards. This will build trust in local decision-making to use current resources that personalizes each student’s direction. Local boards can then rethink their governance by empowering schools/communities to meet agreed-on student outcomes.

Robert Wedl
Robert Wedl
Even though the budget forecast has slightly improved, funding should not only focus on the current model that does not work for everyone. The Legislature needs to empower boards to design 21st-century learning systems. Boards need to ask, if given the flexibility to do so, “What could we create so the needs, aspirations and aptitudes of each student are actually fulfilled?”

Will the Legislature enable that to happen?

Brian Erlandson is the superintendent of MN Transitions Charter School; Lucy Payne is board chair of the Mahtomedi District; Patrick Walsh is the superintendent of the Brooten-Belgrade-Elrosa District; Robert Wedl is a  former Minnesota commissioner of education, in the administration of Gov. Arne Carlson.

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