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The 8 biggest education stories of 2015

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In terms of education, 2015 was a year of transition. Transition in both Minneapolis, where the school district has been conducting a contentious superintendent search, and St. Paul, where an ugly school board race surfaced division, transition within many Twin Cities education advocacy organizations, transition in this very blog. There was a lot of waiting to see where chips would fall.

Looming over it all: Uncertainty about what the policy playing field would look like at the year’s close. Would Congress break its gridlock and pass a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act? Would a new law spell the end of the era of accountability? Where would the “levers” for change be located in a post-No Child Left Behind world?

Forthwith, an 8-part review of the year in education:

1. The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act
On Dec. 10, President Barack Obama signed a new guiding education law into place. ESSA, as it was shorthanded even before passage, was widely heralded as a really good compromise. Republicans and teacher unions got a rollback of the feds’ role in education while civil rights organizations and accountability proponents got a continued mandate for assessment data. Accountability is now the purview of the states, which is good news or bad depending on where you live and what you want it to look like. In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius are mighty proud of the accountability system they created in recent years. Leaders in schools with high numbers of kids of color and data geeks aren’t so sure. Expect a fast and furious legislative session with all the hot buttons — teacher evaluations, charter school autonomy, what kind of tests will be given — on the table and ripe for rollback.

2. Dayton’s push for universal preschool
It seems so long ago that Dayton called for a special session over the Legislature’s failure to fund universal preschool for 4-year-olds. The early childhood community, long promised that a budget surplus would be directed to a scholarship program for impoverished kids ages birth to 5, howled. The only major player in education that supported the idea was Education Minnesota, which, because the preschool in question would be school-based, would have gained an extra grade of classrooms to be helmed by unionized teachers. Expect this one to come back, but look for signals Dayton may be more open to considering a two-pronged approach. 

3. #BlackLivesMatter
Lots of people go into teaching or become active in education to change lives. Outrage over continued societal inequities and violence against people of color swept schools over the last year. Students walked out, died in and got themselves arrested on freeways. Their teachers cheered. Principals attended to the emotional well-being of students from neighborhoods where the unrest was front and center. Now that the school-to-prison pipeline has been thrown into stark relief, expect discussion to continue. Also expect many of those protesting peacefully now to begin feuding in the new year over whose agenda is the true equity agenda.

4. Madaline Edison
Despondent about the scope of the challenges in education, four years ago kindergarten and first grade teacher Edison began asking educators to join forces to think about how to raise their voices in policy discussions. She found no shortage of kindred spirits and in 2013, the Minnesota chapter of Educators4Excellence was born with 300 members. This year, the group boasts more than 1,000 members. Minnesota E4E teachers Holly Kragthorpe and Ben MacKenzie were at the U.S. Capitol talking about ESSA. And Kragthorpe was at the state Capitol talking about holding teacher preparation programs accountable. Many more E4E members blogged and tweeted and generally shared their lived experiences and hopes for their students. And you know what? They got heard.

5. St. Paul blows up
How to cram this contretemps into a paragraph or two? Tensions over Superintendent Valeria Silva’s strategies for erasing racial inequities boiled over, providing a focal point around which the St. Paul Federation of Teachers organized parents to elect a new school board majority. In the process, smart, committed and well-intended people tore into each other. What about 2016? Election day has come and gone and the controversy and associated invective have not abated. With teacher contract negotiations ongoing, don’t expect that to change any time soon.

6. The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina
This goes on the list because education advocates and policymakers throughout the country spent a good swath of 2015 focused on New Orleans, where a mostly charter school district rebirth was propelled in part by the flood. Depending on their vantage, ideologues declared the experiment a success or failure. Researchers mostly agreed things are better, but not great. Amid the white noise, school leaders and the families populating the classrooms are attempting to figure out how to give people of color more power in the process of pushing for accelerated progress.

7.  In 2015, students of color became the majority in U.S. schools
For anyone who cares about kids, justice or even just the economy, head in sand is no longer an option.

8. Conspiracy theories that sundered lifelong friendships, torpedoed plans and careers and rattled around the Internets
Minneapolis Public Schools was wracked by news that a “little book” about Lazy Lucy, who could not be motivated to clear her hut in Africa, had been purchased. No amount of context or community engagement soothed the grassroots rage the chapter sparked. Almost exactly the same thing can be said about efforts to debunk the rumor that MPS was disbanding special ed services for fragile autistic students or the one about teacher-led efforts to convince families to opt out of standardized tests. Expect continued disdain for long explanations on each of these fronts.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/30/2015 - 10:29 am.

    Countdown – Top 8 list?

    Who has ever heard of a “top 8 list?” You are underachieving or setting low expectations. A least have a top 10 list.

    Two suggestions…

    #9 – MPLS and St. Paul test scores continue to meet low expectations.

    New statewide standardized test results show that Minnesota students made no overall improvement in math, reading or science this year, despite pledges from many state and local school leaders to improve test scores.

    In reading, nearly 60 percent of students mastered state standards, compared with 59 percent in 2014. In math, 60 percent of students met math standards, down from nearly 62 percent in 2014. There was also little progress in closing the state’s persistent achievement gap between white and minority students. White students continued to outperform students of color by more than 20 percentage points on average.

    “We believe the number of children reading below grade level is shocking and should require immediate action,” Rybak said. “No one should look at these numbers and feel good.” (Star Tribune)

    #10 – St. Paul teacher attacked – teachers threaten strike because of safety concerns and the need for a raise.

    Denise Rodriguez, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, says the union has filed a petition for state mediation, the first step towards going on strike. The union is asking for a number of changes to make classrooms and halls safer after a significant uptick in violent episodes across the district this year. (Pioneer Press)

  2. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/30/2015 - 09:41 pm.

    What ?

    Not even a mentioning of the civil rights lawsuit against the MDE is egregious.

  3. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 12/30/2015 - 10:21 pm.

    I’m Confused

    How can the resignation of Bernadeia Johnson and the botched search for a new Minneapolis superintendent not make this list?

  4. Submitted by John Appelen on 01/03/2016 - 09:41 pm.


    Good summary. I keep hoping that the adults will start putting the needs of the unlucky kids before the wants of the adults some time in 2016.

    Be it the public employees and their Liberal supporters who demand tenure based compensation and job security. Instead of compensation and job security that is based on the level of challenge of the position and performance.

    Or the Conservatives who strive to put unqualified local folks in charge of developing the measures of success based around their personal biases.

  5. Submitted by Sonja Dunlap on 01/04/2016 - 12:45 am.

    Where’s the objectivity?

    Hawkins’ reformist views really show in her “8 biggest education stories” article.
    Educators 4excellence? whose views do they really represent?
    Things are better in New Orleans after Katrina?
    The union DID NOT organize parents to support new school board members in St. Paul.
    The accountability proponents and civil rights groups get good data via mandated tests? When many students don’t even read through the test questions?

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/04/2016 - 08:41 am.

      Status Quo

      Does this mean you are a proponent for the status quo? The one where the highest paid and supposedly most qualified Teachers in Mpls get to choose to avoid the schools with the most challenged families / students?

      I have never figured out why Teachers are against tests, grading and consequences when they use these to determine how well a student is performing on a regular basis. 🙂

      • Submitted by Sonja Dunlap on 01/05/2016 - 01:58 am.

        You doubt that teachers who make the most money are better teachers? Why? Teachers are paid more for experience and schooling much like in other professions. Yet the idea persists that “young energetic” new teachers are often better. Would you prefer a doctor or lawyer who was experienced and educated or one who was young, fresh out of med school and eager to operate or freshly out of law school ready to represent you in court? You are devaluing what teachers do with that attitude.

        As for avoiding the roughest schools, if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately some of these rough schools can be very difficult places to be. Teachers are often given little autonomy, must do extra paperwork of little value and are not supported in helping the students. What’s the draw? Some teachers are even concerned for their safety in some schools. Would you want to work there? If such a school needs more experienced teachers, they need to offer incentives for them to be interested in adding the extra stress to their lives.

        Finally, I will clear up for you the puzzle of why so many teachers are against your type of “accountability”. Students are not widgets. So much of good teaching is very difficult to quantify. Teachers aren’t against some sort of measure of effectiveness. They are against incorrect measures created by people with little to no education background being used to measure their teaching. That business model IS NOT ACCURATE. Would you like to have your work graded by an inaccurate measure and used to judge your effectiveness? What if your arguments against this inaccurate measure were dismissed as you not wanting any accountability?
        Unfortunately all of this wastes time, money and hurts students as well. Does that clear things up for you John?

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/05/2016 - 08:31 am.


          My background is engineering, so yes I understand that education and experience are factors in being more capable and productive. However they do not ensure better performance / effectiveness. This is why the income level of engineers varies greatly even though they have similar degrees and experience.

          I do not think that a 5 year energetic Teacher is better than a 25 year Teacher, however I think they can be at times. Whereas Tenure, Job Preference, Steps, Lanes, etc all give preference to older Teachers whether they deserve it or not. Sorry, for the good of the students compensation and job security should be based on the actual performance with the children / parents and the challenge level of the position, not degrees and years served.

          I agree whole heartedly that the politically correct “keep them in the classroom” crowd is allowing our schools and classrooms to become too disruptive. Administrators and School Boards should ensure only children that want to learn and are capable of behaving are in the classrooms. It is unfair to the other students and the Teachers to do anything less.

          The measures as prioritized by society are pretty simple in this case. Are the children in our schools able to read, write, do math and science when they graduate? Do you think the students deserve less? Do you think the tax payers deserve less?

          And with MAP type testing it is possible to determine if students are making more or less yearly progress by similar classroom. (ie 6 classrooms in the same school)

          Now I agree that questionable Parents are 80% of the achievement gap problem, however that problem is real hard to fix. Whereas the school system dysfunction 20% is much easier to address if the Unions and their supporters start putting the student’s needs before the older Teacher’s wants.

          • Submitted by Sonja Dunlap on 01/06/2016 - 01:09 am.

            Can students read, write, do math and science? What do you think we work on every day? Most are learning as much as possible if they have any motivation. Their interest in showing how much depends upon what’s in it for them. Testing that has no impact on their grades, ability to graduate or get into college just aren’t worth the sustained effort to them. Many don’t try. That invalidates their scores. At least try to judge their teachers or schools based on ACT scores. Those they are motivated to try on. Better yet go into the classrooms and observe to get a feel for what’s going on.
            John you repeatedly make snarky comments about teachers and unions not putting the poor kids first. Did you have a mean teacher when you were a kid? Did he or she have tenure? Union protection? Do you now worry about legions of “bad teachers” getting paid for shoddy work? Untouchable due to seniority and tenure? Do you worry that the union knows they’re bad but (kid haters that they are) cover up for those horrible teachers anyway? Breathe easy John. Taking away all of teacher’s job protections and tenure to root out the few mediocre ones would throw the baby out with the bath water. Really excellent teachers already are leaving the profession all the time. They are driven out by the stress, the exhaustion, the frustration. There are so many people like you that have a lack of understanding of what is really going on but think that the solutions must be so simple. They think that good teaching is so simple to measure and thus reward or punish. They are also so quick to suspect, criticize and attack the people who are juggling the multiple roles that most teachers are forced to take on, especially in urban schools. Teacher, mother, father, social worker, babysitter, life-coach, supporter. Bad teachers hardly ever make it long enough to get tenure. If they do any competent principal can fire them. I’ve seen it happen numerous times. Stop obsessing about them. Try another track.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/06/2016 - 08:30 am.

              Bad System

              I don’t see bad teachers, I see a bad system that the Union, some Teachers and their Politicians seek to protect. A system that is based on years, degrees, steps, lanes, tenure, employment contracts, etc instead of based on personal performance, accountability and the students.

              This a system where an excellent Teacher in one classroom can make half of what a mediocre Teacher makes in the next classroom just because of their years / degrees.

              This is a system that promotes the lowest paid employees working in the most challenging positions, and the highest paid employees taking the easiest positions.

              This a system that does not have parents/students do class / teacher satisfaction surveys to ensure the best Teachers and the worst Teachers are trained/removed.

              I actually have enjoyed working with 96% of the Teachers my daughters have had over the past 2 decades. The other 4% should probably be in a different profession.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/07/2016 - 04:59 pm.


              Just one more thought based on this concept.


              If my 4% number is correct and there are 70,000 Ed MN professionals in MN. That means there are about 2,800 poor Teachers in MN. Now that middle school or high school Teacher could negatively impact 6 classes of students per day. Let’s say 25 kids per class X 2800… Or 70,000 students could be learning less than they deserve. It is an interesting concept…

              • Submitted by Sonja Dunlap on 01/09/2016 - 01:26 am.

                One more try

                It is most likely futile on my part because you seem to be unable to take in new information even from someone actually doing the job that you as an engineer know little about. The link that you attached illustrates your thinking. Certainly this bell curve that may be useful in a business environment can be applied to teaching. So we must find all of these “protected” bad teachers, this 4%, and fire them! I guess that we don’t need to worry about bad engineers, except for those who designed a bridge or two. I did tell you that most bad teachers are taken care of by the students themselves much like bad actors, comedians, or singers eventually lose their audience. Any remaining can be dealt with by principals, tenure or not.
                I also told you that your plan of rating teachers by test scores is inaccurate. I’ll include a link from the American Statistical Association which may open your eyes. Good teaching is difficult to quantify. If you want what is best for kids, work to give teachers what they need instead of pushing for a witch hunt. I’ll also include a NY Times article showing how surprising the results of one of the teacher rating scheme was.




                • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/09/2016 - 08:08 am.

                  I agree that it is unlikely that we will find common ground. I am looking at the system as a whole, and you are focused on high stakes testing. Your response addresses none of the systemic failures I noted in “Bad System”. And those are just a few.

                  By the way, I agree wholeheartedly that tests should only be one component of the Teacher’s rating due to the issues you raise regarding causality, accuracy, noise in the data, etc. I would add 360 degree feedback results. (ie Principal, Peers, Students/Parents)

                  As for bad engineers, for the most part engineers are not unionized or operating under an employment contract, tenure, steps, lanes etc. Our compensation and job security is based totally on our own individual merits and the value we provide the company, supervisors and customers. It is not a perfect system,however it is the best one I have found.

                  By the way, I found the NYT article fascinating. It sounds like further work is needed to consistently define what it is to be “good to great teacher”. Then if we really want to improve the performance of the system for the good of the children, that base expectation level would likely need to be raised over time.

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