The 6 education stories to watch in 2017

When it comes to education issues, the term “community engagement” gets tossed around a lot — and rightfully so. In order for local policy makers and educators to make greater strides toward closing the achievement gap they need to hear from those who are too often left out of these conversations. Parents, students and community members are best positioned to bring attention to inequities that exist within the current education system, whether it be disparities in disciplinary actions or in who is encouraged to enroll in dual-enrollment courses for college credit.

While state and district education leaders have facilitated lots of opportunities for community input this past year, it’s still very much an insider’s game. It’s easy to get lost in the jargon, overwhelmed by the politics, or simply lost in the process as things slog along. So, in the interest of keeping everyone up to speed — policy wonks and concerned parents alike — here’s a list of things to keep tabs on as they continue to evolve in 2017.

1. The fate of ESSA

In an effort to be proactive, the Minnesota Department of Education had been on track to submit a draft version of its new federally mandated accountability plan, the Every Student Succeeds Act, by March. Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, along with staff, had conducted a fairly extensive series of meetings in an attempt to capture input from a diverse group of people. But education advocates who’d been pushing for an extended deadline to give minority groups more time to digest the new law and offer input may be pleased to hear they now have until September 2017 to do so. The feds pushed back the timeline, giving states more time to solicit community feedback and submit a draft plan. If ESSA survives once President-elect Donald Trump takes office, states will be expected to begin identifying low-performing schools for supports and improvements during the 2018-19 school year.

2. Momentum around school choice

Trump’s pick for U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has put the longstanding school-choice debate front and center in the national education conversation. How this will impact Minnesotans, however, remains to be seen. It seems unlikely that DeVos’ preferred brand of school choice — one that involves funneling taxpayer money to private religious schools through the use of vouchers and lax accountability measures for charter schools — will find much traction locally. Minnesota, however, has historically been a leader on a number of choice-related education initiatives, including chartering and the adoption of PSEO programs. Stay tuned to see which brand of school choice gains popularity. Here, the resegregation of urban schools — and the educational disparities this shift reinforces — has left some calling for more intentional efforts to integrate public schools. Many charter advocates are pushing back on this sentiment, defending charters that are successfully serving minority students through a culturally affirming learning environment.

3. Teacher shortage and licensure

Schools across the state are struggling to find licensed teachers, especially in the areas of special education, math and science. In order to address these shortages, lawmakers have recognized the need to fix the state’s “broken” teacher licensure system, which is currently managed by the state Department of Education and the state Board of Teaching. The debacle has put both departments under intense public scrutiny this past year; after legislative direction on how to streamline the teacher licensure system, it’s unlikely anyone will be allowed to kick the can any further down the road. On a related note, schools are struggling to recruit and retain teachers of color to teach a student body that’s becoming more and more diverse. Expect programs like the Minneapolis Residency Program, which offers non-licensed educators an alternative pathway to licensure, to continue to grow in popularity. And Minnesota’s still not off the hook for its extreme shortage of student support staff, which includes one of the poorest student-to-school counselor ratios in the nation.

4. Suspension as a default or a last resort?

Following a wave of student-on-teacher assaults that spilled into 2016, student discipline and school safety concerns got lots of attention during the last legislative session. A number of legislators proposed bills detailing how disciplinary measures like suspension and expulsion should be used. In general, Republican officials seem to favor a zero-tolerance policy, while their DFL counterparts have voiced a preference for a more nuanced protocol that involves behavior interventions and supports. Over the summer, a number of task forces convened to tackle this issue, which also encompasses confronting the racial disparities captured in discipline data. It will be interesting to see what recommendations come out of the various task forces convened by the state Legislature, Ramsey County and various school districts; and how much sway any of these recommendations actually have in shaping policy in a GOP-dominated Legislature.

5. New supes in the Twin Cities

The new superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools district, Ed Graff, has enjoyed a lengthy honeymoon period since taking the reins in July. A proponent of things like social-emotional learning and having honest conversations about the inequities that currently exist within the district, he’s been well-received so far. But once he digs in and begins challenging the status quo — a necessary part of  addressing the inequities that contribute to the stubborn achievement gap — he’s likely to encounter some criticism. It will be interesting to see how he gets along with the newly elected board members — who are bound to shift board dynamics — and how he handles conflicts that play out publicly. In St. Paul, the search for a new permanent superintendent will continue through the remainder of the school year, with lots of opportunities for community input along the way. The district is at a critical juncture in terms of how it chooses to move forward with much of the equity work former superintendent Valeria Silva began before being ousted by the new board majority at the start of the year.  

6. Expansion of early ed

This year Gov. Mark Dayton secured $25 million to expand voluntary prekindergarten options across the state. The funds were distributed among 74 school districts and charter schools, targeting those serving a high number of low-income students. While the projected use of these funds is often framed in the number of pre-K seats it could create — 3,302 seats this time around — some of these funds actually went toward improving the quality of existing programs. Looking forward, Dayton has his sights set on further expanding his universal pre-K program in 2017. While there’s strong bipartisan support for early education, not everyone agrees on how, exactly, to go about supporting it. He’ll continue to face lots of push back from legislators and early learning advocates who contend these funds should be allocated as targeted scholarships that can reach the most impoverished families.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 12/27/2016 - 08:14 am.

    How about a simple test of how many 18 year old

    young folks are grade 12 level in reading, writing and math after 13 years of public schools? If you have spent 13 years in public schools and can’t read, write or do math, you have been cheated on your investment! The first step in problem solving is identifying the problem, that seems to be an issue for many who back public schools blindly.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/28/2016 - 08:27 am.

      Failing the simple test

      If the first step in problem-solving is identifying the problem, I’d say your identification skills need tweaking.

      Education is self-directed. All that any school – of whatever type – or any teacher – of whatever type – can do is offer their knowledge and expertise to the child sitting in front of them. We all hope that both the school and the teacher are pleasant and engaging, but whether one or both of them are or not, accepting the offer of skills and/or knowledge that’s presented is the child’s responsibility.

      If an 18-year-old cannot read or write, or perform the four basic mathematical operations (add, subtract, multiply, divide) at what is deemed a 12th-grade level, they have been cheated of their investment of time and effort only if the opportunity to learn those things has consistently been denied to them. If they’ve attended 13 years of K-12 “education” without learning those basic skills, it’s not the school that has cheated them, nor the teachers.

      They’ve cheated themselves. Well, themselves and their parents, who doubtless had higher hopes for their offspring, and for the tax dollars they’ve invested in their child’s education.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 12/28/2016 - 01:22 pm.

        Ray, the schools send the kids from grade to grade

        to keep up with idiotic rules and mandates coming from Education Dept in DC. No Child Left Behind is a terrible piece of legislation. Teachers are more worried about standards than teaching children. Unless you have a learning disability you can learn to read, write and do math…. That is what the teachers should be focused on K-9 after that you can branch out… That ain’t happening… That is why America is 35 in the world as far as education. Used to be number 1,… Keep blaming everything but not fixing the problem and we will be 55th… When something is broken you fix it, not make excuses for it!!

        • Submitted by Jeffrey McIntyre on 12/31/2016 - 10:53 am.

          On the average

          While the US, “on the average”, is ranked 35th in the world, many individual states do better than many European countries. Mn outscored Finland on the TIMSS (8th Grade math), as did Massachusetts. The major problem is that we don’t have one method of schooling in the US…we have 51. The incoming Sec. of Education thinks the solution is vouchers so kids can attend private schools (ie. religion based learning)…hopefully she will look around an see what is working well in public education

      • Submitted by Robert Owen on 12/30/2016 - 11:31 am.

        They’ve cheated themselves

        Ray, your comment is sounding dangerously Republican-like in terms of personal responsibility.

  2. Submitted by Howard Miller on 12/27/2016 - 10:02 am.

    Targeted free tuition

    Senator Sanders proposed we make public colleges tuition-free for students attending those schools, noting that students have run up more than 1 Trillion in debt for attending college.

    Given that teacher salaries are near the bottom ranked on income for college majors (elementary education ranked near bottom, and special ed was ranked dead last among 336 majors; ),
    the ability of an education graduate to repay college loans is as low as it gets.

    We should consider raising salaries for teachers, especially in scarce areas of expertise, and for working in the most challenging educational environments.

    We should also use public resources to pay tuition at public universities for education majors who agree to serve in public schools in the state beyond graduation for a period of years. No student – what ever skin tone – can ignore that teaching simply doesn’t provide much income, and starting salaries are too low compared to just about every other option they have.

  3. Submitted by Howard Miller on 12/27/2016 - 10:11 am.

    oops …..

    in previous post i may have suggested special ed was bottom-ranked in salary. That dubious distinction goes to early childhood education.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/27/2016 - 12:58 pm.

    The deck chairs are rearranged

    1. ESSA: The law’s name is oxymoronic, since “every” student has almost NEVER succeeded. Many, most, the vast majority, or even “almost all” have succeeded in some circumstances and areas, but “every” is something of a chimera, and establishes a standard at the very beginning that will prove impossible to meet. Allow me to add that “identifying low-performing schools” is similarly oxymoronic, since schools do not perform. Students perform, or not, and the focus ought to be on students who aren’t doing well, and especially, on students who ARE doing well – how are they different from those whose performance lags behind? What can we learn from them?

    2. School Choice: The wealthy have always had school choice, and will continue to have it no matter what you, I, or Ms. DeVos says or does. While she makes noises in Washington, it’s important to point out that arguing over school choice is, as I’ve suggested, mostly a matter of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. For most students, the school they attend will be determined by where they live, in combination with the financial resources available to their families. Where they live will largely be determined by local, county and state policies centered on residential zoning. The actual fix for exclusionary zoning – the type that has historically and routinely been practiced here and in most metro areas of the country – is a different approach to zoning. Given the vested interests involved, that’s unlikely to happen, and the less troublesome fix is busing. White and more affluent parents of all races have proved hostile to exposing their children to other children not of their economic and/or social class for decades, despite plenty of evidence that it provides educational and social benefits to both children being bused and those receiving them. We’ve been a society that segregates by race and income for a long, long time, and Ms. DeVos seems likely to provide other rationales for (further) resegregation.

    3. Teacher shortage and licensure: As a society, we don’t value K-12 teaching as a profession, and pay scales reflect that. What legislators and school boards mostly seem to want are school faculties made up of Ph.D’s in their field, and those superbly-qualified people being willing to work 60-hour weeks for the pay of the school janitor. Pay is not the only issue, of course, but it’s a major one. Math and science teachers are hard to get – this is so obvious that it’s painful to have to remind people of it – because, in a tech-happy culture, math and science graduates can make far more money in less-demanding professions and circumstances that don’t require them to either perform miracles on a daily basis or interact with the public. You can pay people more, or lower standards, and if Ms. Hinrich’s description is accurate, the state appears to have adopted the latter approach for some, while simultaneously making it nearly impossible for out-of-state teachers who are fully qualified to get a license to teach here. It seems like “Catch-22” brought to life.

    4. Suspension: I admit to mixed feelings, but am generally not a fan of suspension as a disciplinary method or policy. The only kind of discipline that actually works over the long term is self-discipline, which is sometimes lacking in a few children – who can easily make an entire school miserable. “Zero tolerance” usually results in cases that make headlines for their foolishness, while too much accommodation to individual differences creates educational chaos, and in worst-case scenarios can make for criminal behavior. I can’t help but agree with Ms. Hinrichs that it will be “interesting” to see what recommendations arise from the various task forces, and whether those recommendations have any influence on a partisan legislature. No classroom or school can function without proper decorum, for which discipline, ideally, self-discipline, is a necessary precursor.

    5. Superintendents: I admit that my impression of the multiple superintendents under whom I worked over the course of 30 years was that they had no idea what went on in their district’s classrooms. Most of them, often of necessity, were “big-picture” and/or finance people. Some provided a certain amount of motivation and leadership, others were merely placeholders until someone better came along, and some used my district as a rung in their much-more-important, and fairly obvious, career ladder. The latter were the worst, and I’ve no idea what either St. Paul or Minneapolis is getting in their new executives. Superintendents make a difference only if/when they get buy-in from school staffs – teachers and principals. I don’t know if that will happen in either of the Twin Cities.

    6. Early Education: Taxpayers get the most bang for their school-tax dollar by spending it on children who are just starting their lives. Preschool ought to be a no-brainer, and there ought to be more emphasis – though not an exclusive focus – on racially-concentrated areas of poverty (RCAP) and, perhaps, areas in and around the Twin Cities with large numbers of recent immigrants. This is a policy area where, as a state, we ought to make a concerted effort to live up to ESSA, the badly-named law in #1 above, with the caveat, once again, that schools don’t perform, or fail to. It’s the children who do that.

  5. Submitted by John Appelen on 12/30/2016 - 02:14 pm.

    Another Area

    I think another important area to watch is hopefully the end of Teacher Tenure, Steps, Lanes, etc and the other work rules that protect and over pay questionable personnel based only on their time served and degrees achieved. These also limit the pay and job security of younger Teachers who may be more effective, energetic, etc.

    Let’s change the Public Education system so that the Teachers who successfully take on the most challenging student bodies, full of the kids who need them the most, receive the highest wages and job security !!!

  6. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 01/03/2017 - 11:23 am.


    Schools reflect society, they do not lead society.
    More Americans live in poverty each year and about one-fourth of students in the USA go to school hungry with many being homeless. Also, many do not live with two parents, or any parents, so it is not logical to talk about involvement of parents in education in many cases. Under those conditions, many students are rightfully interested in survival, not academic subjects.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/03/2017 - 01:19 pm.


      What are your ideas for promoting responsible parenting?

      Please remember that the percentage of single Parent households grew rapidly since the war on poverty and the ready availability of welfare began in the mid-60’s. So it is unlikely that just handing out more money is not the answer.


  7. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 01/06/2017 - 07:10 pm.

    Good list and a couple of additions

    Good list, Erin. Here’s a few I’d add:

    Hoping MnPost will pay more attention to the lack of progress in completion rates for 2 Mn public colleges – the vast majority have less than 50% of their students completing programs in 3 years.

    1. Early childhood education: Compromise seems possible to expand programs focusing on low-income families and young people.
    2. Learning from and expanding use of the learning and teaching approaches at the state’s most effective public schools — district or charter. A special focus should be on schools that are reducing or eliminating achievement gaps among students from low- and middle-income families, and those that help many more students with special needs succeed.
    3. Deepening existing partnerships and forming new arrangements that build on schools sharing space with other organizations.
    4. Tapping into the energy, insights and creativity that many teachers have to promote the teacher-led school idea as an option for families and educators, as demonstrated at this site: Also, building on students’ creativity to help them study, solve or reduce problems as they develop strong academic skills, as shown at these two sites: and
    5. Improving and expanding dual high school/college credit arrangements allowing high school students to earn college credit. This will be part of a larger conversation about how to most effectively expand school choice options for students and families.
    6. Increasing safety for young women on college campuses. A national study in 2015, located at this website:, found that almost 25 percent of University of Minnesota female undergraduates reported being the victim of some form of sexual assault. Those results can be viewed here:
    7. Increasing graduation and completion rates on Minnesota State (formerly called MnSCU) campuses. Minnesota Office of Higher Education/U.S. Department of Education statistics show less than half of students at four-year colleges graduate in six years. See more details here:
    The three-year completion rate at Minnesota’s two-year public colleges varies, but in most institutions it is less than 50 percent. See details here:

    Building on success, and honoring progress will have more students succeed, and allow us to make the best possible use of our taxes.

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