Tom Emmer focuses on wide-ranging education ‘redesign’ in Humphrey Institute session

Repub guv nominee Tom Emmer wants to implement new tests that will measure both student performance and teacher effectiveness and use the results to pay the best teachers more and to get rid of the weak ones. (His actual term for what he would like to see happen to those ineffective teachers was: “counsel that teacher into a career change.”)

On the day after Emmer made big news by releasing the categorical spending limits in the no-new-taxes budget he will propose if he becomes governor, Emmer shifted to an outline of what he says will be one of his top two priorities: education reform. (The other is job creation.)

His education agenda will put him at odds with Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, on many points, and although there was little rhetorical red meat in his presentation today at the U of M’s Humphrey Institute, he did make clear that the union will have several fights on its hands if he wins the election.

During the Q-and-A session at the Humphrey, Emmer acknowledged that “the thousand-pound gorilla in the room” is the fact that the teachers’ union wields great political power — and its leaders are not kindly disposed to his ideas about making it easier to pay some teachers more, fire others and create pathways to the profession for some who have not gone through traditional teacher training.

Here are some of Emmer’s ideas for “redesigning” education:

• Set high standards and create tests to measure students’ mastery, especially in math, science and reading, which are the keys to job growth. Emmer embraces the saying “What gets measured will get done.”

• He wants to publicize results (not clear how this differs from the way current test results are publicized) and use them not only to keep kids on track but to identify underperforming schools and give parents more options to go elsewhere.

• Emmer strongly advocates performance-based pay for teachers, presumably based on the test results of the kids they teach. “The rewards should be real, tangible, and — yes – unequal,” he said.

• Rather than teachers gaining lifetime tenure through seniority, those whose students test poorly over a period of several years would get canned.

• He favors “alternative teacher licensure” making it easier for those with expertise in substantive areas (his example was a “chemist from 3M”) but who did not go through academic training in education to become K-12 classroom teachers. But he also favors tougher tests for teacher licensure.

• Emmer thinks the state imposes too many mandates on schools and teachers. He would like to create a special status for schools that are trying to teacher harder-to-educate students. He calls them  “empowerment zones,” in which the administration would have special freedom to deviate from mandates imposed by the union contract and from PELRA, the state law that protects the rights of public employees, including teachers.

• Emmer called the state’s failure to reduce the performance gap between white and black students “unconscionable.” One idea to address it would be state scholarships to send some kids to state-sanctioned preschools.

Speaking to a U of M audience that included many students, Emmer didn’t shrink from acknowledging that his Tuesday budget plan included a $400 million cut – not a cut in the proposed growth, but an absolute cut from the previous biennial budget – for higher education.

Emmer said that “this new era of fiscal restraint must not mean being reconciled to what we have today.” I gather that was a general recommendation of doing more with less. He specified that the University of Minnesota “absolutely has challenges” to maintain excellence despite shrinking budgets.

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Comments (47)

  1. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 09/15/2010 - 04:47 pm.

    Eric, if Tom’s actual words were “counsel that teacher into a career change” then why did you make up the harsher sounding alternative “get rid of”. Was Tom not showing his “mean” side enough for you?

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/15/2010 - 05:32 pm.

    And of course he’s going to do all this by eliminating the state’s Department of Education, and cutting K-12 funding, as well as the higher ed funding that trains teachers.

    Barnum lives!

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/15/2010 - 05:40 pm.

    David, there are people in every field of work that thrive on challenge; people that believe they are the best at what they do.

    These people expect to be paid commensurate with their abilities, and if their confidence is matched by their performance, they do get paid as they believe they should.

    This is how the space shuttle was built. It’s how diseases are cured. The best and the brightest were attracted to the challenge and the rewards.

    This is a concept that the teachers union folded, spindled and mutilated within the first ten seconds they set foot in a public school.

    It’s time to get them out of the way of our kids success, and out of the way of successful teachers.

  4. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 09/15/2010 - 07:06 pm.

    “Emmer called the state’s failure to reduce the performance gap between white and black students “unconscionable.” One idea to address it would be state scholarships to send some kids to state-sanctioned preschools.”

    This is nothing but pandering, and Tom could have done without it. Unfortunately, the racebaiters would have used it against him so he had to throw money at it to assuage them.

    Unless you mandate that the black kids do not changes schools as frequently as they do, have two parents in the home, and a neighborhood and family in which education is valued, this gap will always remain.

  5. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/15/2010 - 07:23 pm.

    It’s not simply black kids that have problems, Mr. Shah. Frequent school changes, single-parent homes, failing neighborhoods and less-than-ideal family settings are found all across the color lines.

  6. Submitted by scott gibson on 09/15/2010 - 07:36 pm.

    As someone who considers himself a ‘successful’ teacher (whatever that might mean), I think Swiftie doesn’t have a clue. I can’t wait till all those chemists from 3M swoop in to save Minnesota education. They’ll wait until after they’ve made their fortune to deign to help us po’ folks out. The true sad part about Emmer’s proposal is that most of what he advocates is ALREADY in place, but his advocates don’t even recognize it.

    They have been in place for many years. The MCA II tests in math and reading are already well publicized and schools are rated by their results. Those tests will be expanded to other areas very soon. Charter schools already don’t have to meet the requirements that other schools do. With open enrollment parents are free to send their kids to any schools they choose (within enrollment limits). Gee, I would think any hockey player like Emmer would know that. Isn’t that why all those hockey players transfer, so they can attend better schools? There are alternative methods to shorten the time for licensure for prospective science and math teachers.

    The biggest burr in the side of conservatives is tenure. It is not a lifetime guarantee of employment. It merely ensures due process. There certainly isn’t a need for that, is there? No teacher would ever be disciplined, re-assigned, removed, etc. without just cause, would they? Nah, working with everyone’s kids is always smooth sailing.

    I shouldn’t really be worried about all of this drivel. There is no great pool of workers hungrily waiting to teach under the conditions Emmer espouses. Plus, the minute these ‘reforms’ start costing more money than other approaches, the right will abandon them. It’s all about the short-term money costs to them.

    Teaching has never been about making the biggest salary (something some folks in the corporate world would never understand).

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/15/2010 - 07:36 pm.

    And I thought Emmer’s economic plan was clueless.

  8. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/16/2010 - 06:23 am.

    If the above comments be on target, it appears we have NO problems with our public schools, the teachers, and the teachers’ unions except for those darned students and their parents.

    I am SO relieved to hear it.

  9. Submitted by Clare LaFond on 09/16/2010 - 12:16 am.

    It’s not as black-and-white as the previous posts are making it out to be. In my daughter’s high school years she encountered a language teacher who was a known problem but could not be “coached into another career” because of union rules. This teacher would ‘retire’ every time an unfavorable review was pending, and then would apply for the next job opening, which, of course, her seniority would entitle her to have. She rotated through 3 schools that I knew of before she was successfully “coached” out — hopefully permanently. Meanwhile, the school permitted a special independent-study arrangement with an alternate language teacher in order to give my daughter the actual knowledge she needed to pass her tests for her IB diploma. The alternate teacher met with my daughter after hours to help her succeed.

    So, yes – there are bad teachers and union problems; and yes – there are wonderful, dedicated teachers who help to make up for the bad ones.

    What we need are thoughtful leaders who will craft sufficient flexibility into the education system to make individualized decisions when needed. Emmer seems to favor rash simplicity over thoughtfulness.

  10. Submitted by John Eidel on 09/15/2010 - 10:21 pm.

    Great posts, Ray.

  11. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/15/2010 - 10:22 pm.

    Ray, thanks for the posts.

  12. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/15/2010 - 09:49 pm.

    We need “comprehensive education reform” instead of the “trickle down” education system that big education supports.

    Instead of giving more and more money to the largest special interests group in the state, and hope that it trickles down to the kids, let us invest in kids first.

    Only by investing in kids first can our children have the same type of education that Mr. Obama enjoyed and his children currently enjoy.

  13. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/15/2010 - 09:27 pm.

    What we need is less ambivalent experts, but not more dogmatic ones.

  14. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 09/15/2010 - 08:38 pm.

    Emmer an educational innovator, LOL.

    And the usual suspects, Ali and Tom, show up to back him. What a surprise.

    Fortunately Paul and Scott have pretty much debunked the Emmer myths.

    But I have to tell a little story. I was actually a chemist at 3M who came back to the U. I also taught at Carleton and St. Catherine prior to working at 3M. While at Carleton, I went into one of the local high schools – Eisenhower I believe – for three days to “teach.”

    It was extremely difficult and made me decide that I could NEVER teach in a public high school. Those teachers are saints and deserve every penny they are paid…

    There is quite a difference between giving three hours of lecture a week in your specialty at a college or university and having to work n hours a day with thirty kids. Completely different business that needs some serious training to handle well.

  15. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/15/2010 - 08:22 pm.

    Mr. Swift is absolutely correct, at least at the beginning. There ARE people in every field of endeavor that thrive on challenges and believe they are among the best at what they do (“the best,” singular, is one of those athletic-contest-based terms we can dismiss at the outset). Indeed, these people expect to be paid commensurate with their abilities and their knowledge.

    Unfortunately for Mr. Swift and the rest of us, in every field of endeavor, even when their confidence is fully justified by their performance, they will find, more often than not, that they do NOT get paid as they believe they should. It’s at least partly true that the best and brightest are often attracted by challenges, but the rewards from those challenges are, more often than not, intangible.

    My Dad was a test pilot of experimental military aircraft. You won’t FIND any better pilots than that except, maybe, at “Top Gun.” He was paid handsomely for putting his life on the line from time to time in an era when ejection seats were still experimental themselves, and exiting from an aircraft at 500 mph was generally fatal, but while he certainly enjoyed being paid well for risking his life, he didn’t do the job for the money. He loved – loved – to fly. Maybe he’d have become a multi-millionaire when his flying days were done, but he was killed on a test flight on his 35th birthday.

    I worked for the company that built the Mercury and Apollo spacecraft. Few of the engineers who did “blue-sky” research to design and build those machines found themselves to be millionaires when the programs proved successful. Most of the financial reward went to investors who’d done nothing except purchase the right kind of stock in the right company at the right time.

    That’s called “good fortune.”

    I also spent 30 years in a public high school classroom – in another state, so I know nothing of the workings of the Minnesota teacher’s union, and in another era. I was very good at my job, and often – not always, by any means, but often – worked with teenagers that were, to be polite, academically-challenged. I got excellent performance reviews from the people who matter most – my students and their parents – and was regarded as a very tough teacher. I taught history to a young man who became a Rhodes Scholar, and my students regularly sought and received substantial college scholarships for academic achievement.

    Mr. Swift’s blanket teacher-bashing is a cheap shot, egregious insult to thousands of Minnesota professionals by someone who obviously knows nothing of the job that needs to be done.

    Since I was actually a teacher, I can say with certainty that I worked with colleagues who were neither as talented nor as dedicated as I was. They did not in any way hold me back, nor did they – with a literal handful of exceptions – present obstacles to their students. That literal handful of exceptions SHOULD find a different career path, but in most school districts, they don’t acquire tenure until they’ve taught for three years, and sometimes five. That’s ample time for school officials – many of whom have, like Mr. Swift, never taught a class – to decide whether or not a weak teacher has potential, or should be, as Tom Emmer suggested, “encouraged to find a different career path.” If incompetents join the ranks, we should be looking at the people who do the evaluating and hiring. Beyond that, Scott Gibson is on-target: all that tenure does is guarantee due process. It doesn’t guarantee a job. I speak from personal experience in this regard.

    Mr. Swift’s assertion that teachers stand in the way of children’s academic success would be laughable if it were not so pitifully sad and inaccurate. What stands in the way of student success is a culture that values the material over almost everything else, short-term gain over long-term satisfaction, a list of distractions from academic work as long as even Mr. Swift’s right arm that did not exist a generation ago, including, but not limited to, a bevy of electronic devices and services, all of which take time and energy (and money) to use, a glorification of athletics that ought to put adults to shame, but doesn’t (and I was a head coach for 15 seasons), and a culture that increasingly rewards – financially and otherwise – selfishness of precisely the sort that neoconservatives usually worship from the pages of Ayn Rand.

    I had parents tell me – with a straight face – that standards were well and good, but that THEIR child should be exempt from those standards because… well, just because. That attitude has unfortunately gained considerably popularity.

  16. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/15/2010 - 08:34 pm.

    In addition, in response to Mr. Swift’s “know-nothing” teacher-bashing, I should add that Tom Emmer’s prescription for “reform” of education is illustrative of the politician’s approach to learning, a nonpartisan one which is essentially disconnected from the process at almost every level.

    If we’re raising automatons, then “measuring” what they can do has some value, though even in that circumstance, it’s limited value. I have no doubt that Emmer is correct in saying that “What gets measured gets done.” The more important question is whether or not what’s being done, and being measured, in any way reflects what ought to be learned.

    If, however, we’re trying to raise citizens – people who can think critically and deeply about a lot of things, including government, but also science, literature, love, death, work, beauty, and numerous other areas of the human experience – we ought to be willing to admit that not all of those things can be somehow compressed into a numerical score on a machine-scored test. Measuring someone’s ethical sense, I suspect, doesn’t fit handily into that sort of crude mathematical model.

    From my perspective, the REAL thousand-pound gorilla in the room is not the teacher’s union, it’s dismal student achievement. All that even the most talented and dedicated teacher on the planet can do for a class and an individual student is OFFER. I can offer history. A colleague can offer the language. Another colleague can offer mathematics, or biology, or music or art. The topics will vary, but all we can do is offer. The most salient fact in all of this is that the student is free to accept or reject the offer. If the student rejects the offer, I know of no sound educational practice that will somehow force her to change her mind. At what point in the myriad debates and arguments over education that have taken place in the past decade does the student shoulder any substantial degree of responsibility for his/her own education?

    When a student performs miserably on a standardized test that the general public mistakenly believes actually reflects her education accurately, why is there a finger of accusation pointed at the teacher and not the student? We know what the consequences would be to a teacher who shirked responsibility for providing the necessary information. What are the consequences to the student who refuses to learn that information? Perhaps just as important, what are the rewards to a student who DOES learn the information? If we’re going to foolishly base educational policy on standardized test scores, the stakes for teachers in the current political climate are obvious. What stake does a student have in her test score, whether it’s good or bad?

    If you want to find out how well your child is doing in school, the degree to which s/he displays appropriate academic and intellectual and social growth, the nature of the social relationships s/he seems to be establishing, the grasp of written and unwritten rules for human interaction displayed, I have at least one revolutionary suggestion: don’t give them a standardized test.

    Ask their teacher.

  17. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/16/2010 - 09:05 am.

    Thanks, Ray, for your excellent posts.

    Regarding Mr. Emmer, I can only say that he represents a certain type of individual, a few of whom I have known well. Being as clueless as he is (and as clueless ABOUT his cluelessness) he would make a lousy teacher (and the first to blame his students and their parents for those students’ lack of performance, not to mention the first to complain about his lousy pay).

    He would be a difficult boss – the type you had to work around in order to get even the most necessary things done and whose advice you’d have to quietly ignore because it would have disastrous results. As a boss, he’d find a way to blame the people who worked with him or under his supervision when anything went wrong (“kiss up, kick down”).

    He would make a lousy employee – the type who can do a lot of damage in a work situation because he insists on doing everything his own way no matter how mistaken or misguided (if he even bothered to listen to the instructions he was given regarding how things needed to be done in the first place), then blames everyone or everything else when what he’s done messes things up (but with his tendency to kiss up to those above him in the chain of command, he’d probably be able to ingratiate himself to those people sufficiently to get away with this, thereby causing better employees to get fired or, at least, passed over for promotions).

    He has lots of company in every community in Minnesota in those charming individuals who, although they haven’t set foot in a local factory, the kitchen of a local restaurant, the classrooms of a local school, the meeting rooms of the local church or synagogue or mosque, or government office building, nevertheless feel free to loudly regale everyone in the local coffee shops about what’s wrong with the people in all those places and just exactly what they need to do to fix it.

    The difference with Emmer is that, at some point, the local coffee shop wasn’t enough for this ignorant blowhard. He ran for office to allow himself a larger state on which to express the same loud ignorance. Now he wants to run the state government where he can spend an entire gubernatorial term telling everyone in the state how to do their jobs (while, of course, doing what he’s always done: miserably failing at his own).

    We ALL know this guy. Do we really want to put him in charge? Do we really want to put the guy who didn’t bother to do enough homework to discover that much of what he’s proposing is already being done in Minnesota (even after he’s been serving in the State Legislature)? Do we want to put the person who would have been the worst teacher in any school he worked for in charge of setting policy for the schools of the state?

  18. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/16/2010 - 10:26 am.

    Why would we want to put in charge of our state government, especially in charge of state education policy someone who didn’t even do enough homework to discover that much of what he’s proposing is already in place?

  19. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/16/2010 - 10:29 am.

    …And I would be relieved, too, Mr. Iacono, if what you’ve said were entirely true. As Tim Noah suggests in today’s piece on Slate, K-12 education is one of the drivers of the increasingly scary gap between the oligarchs and the rest of us. Technology has outstripped education, as any teacher with a room full of kids with iPods and cell phones can testify.

    Unions can, and do, ossify, just as businesses and other organizations do. I can’t speak for the Minnesota teacher’s union – I’m not a member, and never have been, but since the whole point of a union is protection of its members from capricious decisions by managers, it shouldn’t be surprising that a union will sometimes protect a member who – as Clare points out – likely doesn’t deserve the protection. That’s been known to happen in non-unionized work situations as well, but curiously, we don’t condemn all the people in that particular line of work because a few of them don’t measure up.

    Once again, I’ll point out that tenure doesn’t guarantee a job for life. It only guarantees due process if management determines that someone’s job performance is bad enough that termination seems justified. Too bad, in an “employment at will” state, that this same protection isn’t available for workers everywhere in Minnesota. Maybe more Minnesotans should join unions…

    Even if they don’t, school issues are going to continue. While it’s easy to deflect criticism of the larger culture, and dismiss criticism of criticism (I understand the irony) with phrases like “…those darned students and their parents,” I’d argue, in concert with plenty of others who’ve studied these things professionally, that “culture matters.” Some minority groups have terrible academic records, with a few wonderful exceptions. Other minority groups have exemplary academic records, with a few tragic exceptions. Other populations and ethnic groups fall in various places between the extremes.

    Family attitudes and local culture regarding the value and importance of academic achievement matter a great deal. When parents, relatives, neighbors and other grownups, the social structure of a neighborhood or community, impress upon a child the importance of “doing well in school,” and are able to provide the necessary resources for that to happen in the form of providing access to books, nature and the outdoors, cultural facilities, and opportunities and a place to read and reflect, it’s no surprise that those children do, in fact, perform well academically. Households and communities where those resources and attitudes are lacking, or don’t exist at all, don’t do as well academically. Culture matters.

    The phrase “school failure” is itself a basic mistake of terminology. Schools are merely collections of building materials. It’s not the principal who takes the standardized test, nor is it the teacher – both of them, by the way, with college degrees and licenses from the state. Teachers tend toward the nerd end of the social spectrum for the most part – they usually paid attention in school themselves, and did fairly well on both teacher-prepared and standardized tests. I did pretty well academically in both high school and college, and scored rather well on the Graduate Record Exam. My own performance on standardized tests was quite satisfactory, thank you.

    What’s being labeled currently as “school failure” is not, with the occasional anecdotal exception, a system-wide failure of school principals to manage their buildings, or a district-wide, or even building-wide, failure of teachers to present appropriate materials – facts, concepts, ideas – to their students. It is, uncomfortable as it might be for Mr. Iacono, the failure of students to learn what’s being presented to them. There’s always room for improvement in presentation, and I spent at least 6 weeks every summer I taught going back over lessons and tests from the previous year to see what worked and what didn’t, and trying to devise new, different, hopefully better, ways of presenting the material. None of that negated the necessity – I’ve already argued that it’s the responsibility – of students in my classes to learn what was being presented to them.

    As often happens when things get politicized, we’re going at the problem – and it IS a problem, with frightening consequences for the society – more or less backwards. When local TV news outlets and the ‘Strib devote as much time and space and attention to academic achievement as they currently do to sports, THEN we’ll have made some notable progress toward a society that genuinely values education. Until the responsibility for learning once again falls on the student’s shoulders – as was the case as recently as a generation ago – we can argue about this “school failure” issue ad nauseum, and it won’t change student achievement to any significant degree.

  20. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/16/2010 - 10:42 am.

    I’m not going to go into the details of my ten year relationship with the Saint Paul Public School District other than to say that it included tutoring, grading papers, providing input to the Citizens Advisory Board, and as my fans are quick to point out, I ran for school board and lost.

    All of which occurred *after* I’d pulled my kids out of the public system.

    So no Mr. Schoch, I was never employed as a teacher…my public school experience came voluntarily and without recompense; every day after I finished my “day job”.

    But while volunteering in the classroom and campaigning for school board, I did talk to hundreds of teachers with skill sets running the full spectrum from jaded burn-out to awe inspiring gift to the profession.

    With the latter in mind, I’m compelled to reply to a statement Mr. Schoch made; “All that even the most talented and dedicated teacher on the planet can do for a class and an individual student is OFFER. I can offer history. A colleague can offer the language. Another colleague can offer mathematics, or biology, or music or art.”

    With all due respect, laying out the “offer” of an education, like a hanky for a runny nose, is a concept I never, ever encountered in classrooms of excellence.

    Gifted professional teachers know that engaging the students is the key to academic success. The kids that will “pick up” the “offer” of an education come equipped with the sort of enthusiasm and drive that suggests one could put them in a cardboard box with a stack of books and expect them to emerge fully prepared to pass the ACT without a drop of sweat.

    With all due respect; the teacher that extends an invitation to partake of education to a student is, in my observation, a teacher that will most often cite the predictable lack of interest as an excuse for poor outcomes.

  21. Submitted by Bill Kellett on 09/16/2010 - 11:37 am.

    I cynically believe the problem with education for Tom Emmer is that it just costs too much. Obviously, having a union is not going to enable the lowest wages for teachers. So how can we get the lowest cost education?
    Outsourcing, it’s worked so well for us in so many other areas, why not ship the little darlings off to India.

  22. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/16/2010 - 12:57 pm.


    I agree completely.

  23. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/16/2010 - 03:24 pm.

    It is unavoidable that the teachers in any building in any school system, just as the workers in every factory and office building in the nation, fall into the range of normal human gifts and abilities i.e. somewhere on the normal curve with a few teachers who are so gifted as to be able to teach a classroom full of kids with I.Q.s of 85 or less and every societal disadvantage, bringing those kids up to grade level and beyond, and leaving those kids eager to learn more,…

    with an equal number of teachers who are as bad as the teacher I’ve previously described as excellent,…

    and the vast majority of teachers somewhere in the middle.

    There are two challenges represented by that reality: 1) the gifts displayed by the most gifted teachers are so much a part of their innate personalities, often so unique to that particular teacher, even bordering on quirky, that such gifts are difficult to produce in others no matter how much you try to educate those gifts into them (although you can improve the basic skills and classroom awareness of teachers who have, somehow, missed out on those things)

    2) in education, as in other professions, you get what you pay for. If a hospital wants nothing but the most gifted cardiovascular surgeons, it’s going to have to be willing to pay top dollar. If a technology company wants nothing but the most gifted research and development personnel it’s going to have to pay for them. If a large multinational corporation or Wall Street Bank wants to hire the most gifted CEO, they’re definitely going to be paying a huge salary (at least what they always tell us to justify their amazing compensation packages).

    In the same way, if parents want only the most gifted teachers for their children, they’re going to have to pay top dollar to get those teachers.

    Currently teachers’ salaries are not sufficient to keep the most gifted people in our society from seeking careers with better compensation – careers where they don’t have to listen to politicians complain about their work day in and day out (when was the last time when you heard a politician utter what is essentially true – that the rest of the world is eating our lunch when it comes to scientifically and technologically-based businesses because of the serious shortcomings of all the engineers trained in and working in the US).

    We don’t pay enough to attract the most gifted people to the teaching profession. We paint education with a very dark brush, day in and day out. The predictable results are, we don’t get the best, most gifted people entering the field of education and the enthusiasm and morale among even the best of existing teachers takes a hit every time their profession is attacked in the press (about five times a day during campaign season).

    If we want to change that, we’ll have to do what they do in business. Raise the level of compensation and treat our “employees” with greater respect.

    To pretend that what Mr. Emmer wants to do to teachers would bring positive results ignores how the rest of us would react if our own careers were to become a political football, we were continuously criticized for doing an inadequate job (regardless of our own performance) and threatened with reductions in pay and the loss of our jobs for no other reason than because it might be political popular to victimize us in this way (and because a cadre of anti-union politicians saw this all as a vehicle to wipe out our professional organization).

  24. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/16/2010 - 04:31 pm.

    Of course engagement is both necessary and required for anything of value to happen in any classroom. I thought that was understood. Good teaching is an art, Mr. Swift, and it’s too bad you weren’t given the gift – your acerbity might well have been useful with some kids in some classes, though certainly not for all.

    Good teaching is also – if engagement is what one desires – academic theater, as any good teacher also knows. The audience may be captive, but if you want their attention, and I, and most of my colleagues over 30 years certainly did, you have to put on a good performance every day. That involves preparation, knowledge, the ability to think on your feet, speak at some length extemporaneously, and, lest I forget, it’s of immense value if you genuinely like children, and believe both your subject and what you’re doing are important. An automaton who merely wants to spout facts is never going to be more than mediocre as a teacher, and perhaps not even that.

    With all of that, neither I, nor anyone with whom I ever worked in a school, was successful with every child. I didn’t hand out stacks of worksheets, ever, or limit the homework to “read pages x through xx in your textbook.” I challenged the assumptions of my more liberal students as well as those of my more conservative students – both of them generally parroting what they’d heard from their parents – and did the best I could to make history – a discipline attractive to few teenagers, who’ve generally not lived long enough to have developed any real appreciation for the lives of other humans, and who, because they’re adolescents, are often preoccupied with their OWN feelings and development – engaging for both boys and girls, bright and not so much, literate and not.

    None of that runs counter to the fact that all a teacher can do for a child is offer. A child engaged in class isn’t necessarily a child who will do the necessary homework. A child who is dutiful about homework may not be the most attentive in class. The variations are endless, the offer a daily occurrence, and acceptance less than one hundred percent, even in my very best classes among my very best and most engaged students.

    Nonetheless, thanks to Mr. Swift for adding support to my argument in #21 that culture matters. Kids that show up in class with curiosity and a desire to succeed, willing to accept the teacher’s offer, in other words, generally do very well no matter what methodology a given teacher may happen to use. In a class of 30 – one year I had a section of American Studies of 58 sophomores – not every child is going to be equally motivated, or engaged by the same material, or the same personality. No one is going to engage a 16-year-old every time, all the time.

    Beyond that, of course, is the matter of responsibility. Education is both a societal and an individual responsibility, and it can never be anything but a two-way street. It’s our responsibility as adults, and mine as a teacher and parent, to provide the necessary resources and experiences so that my own children and the ones entrusted to me by others have the best opportunity possible to acquire the knowledge base necessary to good citizenship in a democratic society, as well as to live as happy and fulfilling a life as they can. That’s my offer. Children – just like Mr. Swift -– always have the option of refusing the offer. I know of no educationally sound method of coercing a teenager into learning how to diagram a sentence, outline the causes of the Civil War, or explain the difference between art and craftsmanship, to toss out a few possibilities.

    Culture matters, and – surely some one as “conservative” as Mr. Swift would point this out in other contexts – so does individual responsibility. If I’ve prepared myself academically, thoughtfully prepared a lesson that in my professional judgment will present the concept understandably to my students, engaged them personally via eye contact and some minimal knowledge of their personalities, provided a secure emotional environment where they know it’s safe to ask questions about things they don’t understand, and not asked them to learn or perform a task so far beyond their capabilities that it’s merely frustrating rather than a challenge, the responsibility for returning my engagement, and for learning what I’ve presented to them, Mr. Swift, is theirs.

  25. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/17/2010 - 09:41 am.

    Mr. Schoch:
    While there is much truth in what you say, I trust you are NOT suggesting that your presentations met this standard each and every day, or — if they did — that this was typical of the classroom experience of your students in all their classes. If so, I believe you live in a Platonic ideal world.

    One thing: the students are children; the teacher is the professional adult. The burden of reaching them must remain with the teacher. I cannot accept the subtle transfer of responsibility for successful learning entirely from the one paid to perform that task.

    If someone, or some group (professional educators) accepts the responsibility of bringing our children to a state of mental competence to live in our advanced society, but for years and years shows evidence of mediocre success or worse in performing that task, it seems to me fair to question the competence of that person or group.

    It certainly would not fly in any other group in our society (except perhaps government employees or politicians) to see such performance met with blaming the supposed beneficiaries of the effort.

  26. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/17/2010 - 10:46 am.

    Any good capitalist knows that if you want better teachers you should pay more for them.
    After 40 years of experience as a professor at Minnesota State, Mankato (one of the top two producers of teachers in Minnesota) I can vouch for the fact that the field does not attract top students, particularly at the elementary level.

  27. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/17/2010 - 10:49 am.

    As in most endeavors, success requires collaboration. There’s plenty of research that shows students learn more/better with a good teacher, and my experience and observation was that “good” students – as in, active, engaged, prepared – have the effect of improving a teacher’s classroom performance, as well.

    I never had any qualms about accepting my part of the collaborative bargain necessary for classroom instruction – I welcomed it, in fact – and absolutely agree that, as the adult in the room, more of the burden falls on the teacher’s shoulders than on the students’, but the current political environment places ALL of the burden on the teacher’s shoulders, and – especially when I’m reading/listening to critics of public education – absolves students of their share of that burden.

    I’m not at all sure what Mr. Iacono means by “…I trust you are NOT suggesting that your presentations met this standard each and every day….” If he’s wondering if, indeed, my history lesson every day met the standards I described in my last paragraph in #26, then yes, they DID meet that standard every day – except for extraordinary events beyond my control (e.g., the attempted assassination of President Reagan comes to mind). That’s the whole idea – I present a concept in a way I think will interest the kids and is not beyond their capabilities, having made eye contact and through my own behavior engaged them, and having provided for them an environment in which they feel safe to ask questions to clear up any confusion or misunderstanding.

    As in most endeavors that involve humans, perfection was never achieved, but it was always the goal, and I was a very good teacher, who often made my students into very good students, just as they helped me to become a better instructor. I was not alone, and worked with colleagues in every other academic discipline you’re likely to find in a public school who were, in all but a very few instances, equally dedicated and prepared. An effective classroom requires collaboration, and the student’s part in that collaboration – since it’s the student who presumably needs to be educated – is both necessary and essential. Absolving students of their share of the burden is self-defeating sophistry.

    Just as there are incompetent engineers, bus drivers, waiters, CEOs and assembly-line workers who manage to hang on to their jobs despite demonstrated failure, there are teachers who manage to hang on to their jobs despite demonstrated ineptitude. Nothing that involves, indeed focuses upon, humans and their behavior is likely to come close to perfection. I don’t mind encouraging people with no aptitude for teaching to “choose another career path,” but the expectation I keep coming across from the political right – and sometimes from the left, as well – is that EVERY teacher should be not only a paragon of virtue and intellect, but must somehow perform instructional miracles with every child, every hour, every day, and take a vow of poverty to do so. That’s a standard that no other profession, from medicine to civil engineering to pharmacy, is asked to meet, and, of course, would not be able to meet if it WERE asked.

    To paint an entire profession with incompetence, which seems to be the dominant mode in the current political environment, isn’t unfair, it’s delusional.

  28. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/17/2010 - 11:29 am.

    It seems that the conversation has unintentionally become a referencum on Mr. Schoch’s performance as a teacher, at the expense of the broader point regarding the connection between the GENERAL failure of the teaching profession to achieve adequate results.

    I have no such intent, apart from asserting that, being human, Mr. Schoch’s (as well as mine in over 25 years teaching) did not achieve the high plane he describes each and every day. Such a performance would be beyone human capability. It does appear he was an exceptional teacher.

    And I submit, he WAS exceptional, which is the problem.

  29. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/17/2010 - 12:20 pm.

    //It seems that the conversation has unintentionally become a referencum on Mr. Schoch’s performance as a teacher, at the expense of the broader point regarding the connection between the GENERAL failure of the teaching profession to achieve adequate results.

    Actually the conversation derails because it relies on and unproven assumption, the failure of the teaching profession.

    Conservative make this claim but it’s an ideological claim, not a fact based claim. Surely there problems with the education system but no factual analysis anywhere at any time has pinned those problem one the teaching profession. In fact, the consensus of the research thus far has actually failed to identify reliable predictors in terms of good vs. bad teachers. The problem to the extent that it exists is far to complex to be addressed by these simplistic complaints about unions. The heart of the conservative education agenda has always been an ideological drive to bust unions and weaken labor, this has little to do with educating children. As far as I can see the biggest impediment to rational education policy in the last 30+ years has been the conversion of classrooms form places of learning to cultural battle grounds. The culture war has paralyzed any attempt to develop rational and effective education systems and policies. The war has primarily been driven by the conservative mentality that fails to realize that the function of education is to teach people HOW to think, not WHAT to think. When you look at the conservative attacks on public education since the mid 60s you that they’re driven by an anxiety that children will be taught to think wrong things, i.e. things that conservatives don’t want them to think. Of course this completely misses the point of education. One can assume that while the thoughts of well educated people may not be predictably aligned with any particular ideology, they will nevertheless be well reasoned thoughts. In other words, well educated people may not arrive at the answers you want them to, but they will be the right answers nevertheless.

    The difference between the conservative and the liberal mind (that produce the constitution of the United States by the way) is that the conservative mind want to appeal to authority, the liberal mind wants to rely on human rationality. In short, conservatives don’t trust human intellect and liberals do. This accounts for the difference in attitudes about education. The liberal mind wants train intellects to figure things out and trusts in that possibility. The conservative mind wants to train intellects to memorize the knowlege of previous authorities, hence the culture war to define authority i.e. science or religion, Jefferson or Washington, abstinence only, school prayer, etc.

    Until we drag this underlying conflict out into the light of day and deal with honestly and rationally, the future of our education system will remain dubious.

  30. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/17/2010 - 05:05 pm.

    Thank you, Paul, and I had no intention of somehow turning this into some sort of ego exercise. I thought my experience relevant to the topic at hand, but your point is the essential one. There’s no research of which I’m aware that shows the multiple problems of public education in urban settings should be set at the feet of teachers.

    We have a whole culture dedicated to the anti-intellectual and the anti-academic. We have subcultures actively hostile to the intellectual and academic, not least of them religious fundamentalists. I don’t blame children for being seduced by that broader culture, and blame in that context is pointless, but as I said somewhere else a long time ago, there’s a rather long list of distractions from their job as students that makes it much more difficult for a child today to focus on academic work than was the case decades ago, when I was a K-12 student myself.

    And to repeat, newspaper headlines and TV news stories that I’ve seen are not about the failure of teachers to pass their own exams or meet state licensing standards. The stories about about STUDENTS who fail the statewide tests that political types, especially of the right, have substituted for anything nuanced that might actually reflect intellectual growth.

    My own personal experience as a teacher was precisely as Paul has described it above, in the 2nd sentence of #31 – criticisms of teachers in my district had little or nothing to do with what went on in our classrooms, and basically amounted to union-bashing, even when – as was the case where I taught – the union was something less than a pillar of strength.

  31. Submitted by Lora Jones on 09/17/2010 - 05:59 pm.

    What is more, Mr. Udstrand, that difference in world views is perhaps the main reasons conservatives are often anti-intellectual and anti-education — and part of the reason why our engineers are falling behind those of other countries. Learning requires synthesis — which is not something that can be easily tested, and which is something the conservative mind set in this country deeply mistrusts — else how could someone be pro-life and pro-death penalty at the same time, anti-government and anti-legalization of gay marriage/drugs/whatever at the same time. As Mr. Swift is fond of saying, those of us who live in the reality-based community and who have managed to learn and synthesize and critically think about things, find such mental acrobatics incredible.

  32. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/17/2010 - 09:13 pm.

    I have a problem with a few of the premises being assumed in this thread (as well the larger educational ideologies they belong to).

    The first is that schools are getting considerably worse. When we talk about “failing schools” in the US, we are really talking about schools in demographic areas of low socio-economic status. There’s an excellent site that uses Google maps to show relative test scores in cities across America. Unsurprisingly, educational quality fits poverty rates like a glove. The site is:

    The second assumption I have a problem with is the emphasis on teacher quality. While some teachers are indeed good and others bad, it is a complex issue. For starters, judging performance is not cut and dry. Test scores, while useful on a large scale, are notoriously unreliable as small-scale performance indicators, owing to such things as student motivation on test-day, classroom population variance, and a particular subject’s testability (can you compare a science teacher’s results to an English teacher’s?). To get a better view of the value of a test, you have to look at multiple schools, which for demographic and other reasons only complicate the variables. Performance is also often evaluated by an administrator who has no experience in that subject area, or teaching in general, and often bases his or her evaluation on mere minutes spent in a single classroom. One of the reasons teachers unions are very protective of tenure (and it should more accurately be described as a system of comprehensive due process, as I’ve never heard of a school where tenure over-rides a due process model for termination). This is not even getting into issues of pedagogical disagreement or possible capricious firings.

    Another premise is school a failure to account for school location. This is generally what parents talk about when they say “good schools”. It generally refers to the student population demographic. Two schools, often in the same district, can have very different test scores. The number one predictor of success is parent education, followed by income. But other issues play a role as well, mainly having to do with a family’s ability to promote their child’s academic success. Even with low socio-economic groups, this varies considerably, owing to such things as work schedule, substance abuse or criminality (fathers are often incarcerated), english language skills and simple efficacy in parenting or dealing with school personnel. Charter schools have frequently been able to capitalize on limiting one or more of these factors. Even something as simple as not being equipped to handle students with special needs can free up resources that provide an advantage in other areas.

    All of this goes to the question of teacher quality. Even if we were able to develop a reliable and scalable measure of teacher performance, we would still face the problem that teaching is a very different job in different communities. In disadvantaged populations, getting students from point A to point B is just inherently more difficult than in populations where students are much more prepared. Therefore we cannot expect the same level of results. In most poor schools, majorities of students are grade levels behind in reading ability. How much more difficult does this make the teacher’s job in every subject?

    These are not excuses for failure. They are reasons. It is simply foolish to base models for efficacy upon faulty frameworks. If we want poor children to succeed at the level of their advantaged peers, we as a society need to understand that we need a different model for how to get there. We need to start by targeting each area of disadvantage and developing reasonable policy that takes difference into account what might be required to achieve success. The model for schools in poor neighborhoods should be very different than that of middle class schools.

    Different populations have different needs. I think the main take-away from NCLB, aside from the obvious need for reform, is that a one-size fits all approach doesn’t work. We don’t approach other areas of the public sector this way (foreign policy, transportation, health care), so why should education be any different? Title I funding was a step in the right direction, but it need to go much further if we are ever to properly address the income-achievement gap in America.

  33. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/18/2010 - 07:42 am.

    I would like to thank one and all for a more excellent, wide-ranging discussion on the subject of education than I have read in any other forum.

    Now if we could just get our political candidates to read it (although I’m not sure all of them could comprehend it), we might begin to be hear them propose REAL solutions regarding the very real problems that exist in various places in our educational system.

  34. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/18/2010 - 09:16 am.

    I’d just like to point out that liberal thinking can be plenty daffy at times. Liberals have made a contribution to the current era of anti-intellectualism, but it’s a different flavor than the contribution made by conservative mindsets. Liberals end up being anti-intellectual when the misidentify real intellectuals, whereas conservatives look for authority, liberals look for experts. The anti-vaccine movement is an example of liberal’s buying into misidentified experts. The various pinheads that channel 2 fills the airwaves with during pledge drives are yet more examples of such pseudo-experts/intellectuals that seem to appeal to liberals. I think the conservative contribution is more substantial, and different in character, but they never had the numbers to dominate the discourse the way they have without liberal acquiescence and some participation.

    At the core of it really is a consumerism that American liberals and conservatives buy into. Consumerism distorts intellect because it’s priority is to identify likes and dislikes rather than reliable conclusions and information. Consumers shop for information and information providers they like. This conflicts with integrity because integrity is about finding the right answer whether you like those answers or not. Many liberals bought in to free market small government ideology for instance, but they did it for slightly different reasons. Same thing with school vouchers and charter schools.

  35. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/18/2010 - 11:35 am.

    Sorry, folks, but all the going on and on about how difficult it is and how many variables must be taken into account by teachers sounds a lot to my like self justification for failure by passing blame.

    See again, please, my post #27, and explain to me why those comments are NOT valid.

  36. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/18/2010 - 12:34 pm.

    Well said, Mr. Schulze, and far more attention needs to be paid by the powers-that-be to your second-to-last paragraph. The high school where I spent 25 of my 30 classroom years began as a “middle-class school,” with a sizable proportion of “professional” families (parents were engineers, CPAs, and other comparable fields) sending their children to us. When I retired a generation (25 years) later, the demographic had changed. “Professional” families had moved elsewhere, and the average income of families in the school’s attendance area had dropped substantially. The children from a formerly segregated and impoverished enclave were the toughest nuts to crack, instructionally, and we were often unsuccessful with them, even when other minority students performed well. Some of our instructional techniques were “seat of the pants” experiments because there was little solid research a generation ago to provide direction.

    In every setting, certainly, but in an educational setting, culture matters. Poverty matters. One of the few things Tom Emmer has said that I heartily agree with is that the achievement gap between black and white students here is “unconscionable.” If allowed to persist and grow, it’s a slow-motion catastrophe for not just thousands of children, but for the metro area, the state, and the country. We will not continue as a prosperous state, or even a civilized nation, if substantial numbers of our children enter the adult world as linguistic, scientific, mathematical, ethical and cultural illiterates.

    While the suburbs and rural Minnesota have their own issues, I’ve been told by a reliable source that 43 percent of the babies born in Minneapolis in 2009 were born to Medicaid mothers.

    Forty-three percent.

    It seems hard to dispute that a Medicaid family is an impoverished one, likely having few resources upon which to draw for preschool learning.In five years or so, kindergarten classrooms, probably already overcrowded, will be seeing 10 or 11 of every 25 cute little kids coming from family backgrounds where books are seldom read, where colors, letters, numbers up to 10, polite behavior in a group setting, may not have been widely taught, and where the dominant cultural feature might well be daytime television.

    That last one is pretty frightening all by itself.

    There will be wonderful exceptions to this scenario, but they will be just that – exceptions. The kindergarten and primary grade teachers who have to deal with this will have, I would argue, a back-breaking task on their hands in the current political and economic environment, and that task will remain for succeeding grade level teachers through middle and secondary grades as long as the political and economic environment remains what it is.

    As a related MinnPost story by Cynthia Boyd on Saturday details (“Poor kids in the corporate world: St. Paul program is changing lives”), addressing the problems raised by this can be done, and providing the support network that kids from impoverished backgrounds need to succeed isn’t impossible, but it’s time-consuming and it’s expensive. I don’t see a lot of sentiment on the political horizon for expanding programs like Genesys Works-Twin Cities into the public sector, and even if there were, philosophical issues would eventually have to be addressed.

    But those can wait for another time.

  37. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/18/2010 - 03:05 pm.

    Just after reading the above posts, I opened my issue of Time to find an American Express ad highlighting Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlen Chilren’s zone, who is “getting ten thousand children in the Harlem on the path to college,” who hopes to “replicate the idea in other cities.”

    Perhaps we could learn something from him about how to overcome these obstacles so eloquently described above.

    He does not appear to share the pessimism they reflect. And he certainly is not able to change the environment in which those kids live.

  38. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/18/2010 - 04:28 pm.

    Let’s be clear. I have never felt more positive about education. Pessimistic.. not so much.

    First let’s dispose of the idea that America’s education system needs fixing. A vast majority of schools in most school districts by far produce the kind of reasonably well educated people our society expects and which our work force needs. Our high school system is not as rigorous in its requirements as, say, some in Europe but our system is designed to make that up in college, which it does. We produce acceptable to good high school graduates and very good college graduates. We also have systems of additional training – from community colleges to training schools – that help shape the work force and opportunity.

    The issue then might be that some districts and some schools in those districts range from lousy to godawful. The why’s of that are complex and may be beyond description. They’re certainly beyond any grandstanding of linking “opportunity” to “taxing the rich.”

    As usual, the missing factor in this story is culture. Culture prescribes your values; what you desire, what you fear, what you consider strange or difficult, and what you consider good or normal. More than any statistic or demographic metric, it describes you.

    There will never be a perfect meritocracy, but it is in society’s interests to invest in talent regardless of what income bracket it arises in. The fact that those from lower income subcultures tend not to finish school for a variety of reasons is all the more justification to remove financial concerns from the basket of burdens. It is also a good reason to think “out of the box” about ways in which we might be able to influence or work within target subcultures to make investments in human capital a more realizable goal.

  39. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/18/2010 - 04:43 pm.

    If you don’t have the sense to pick the right parents before you come into this world, you don’t deserve much of anything. Clearly the solution is to make every child the product of rich parents.

  40. Submitted by Eric Andersen on 09/19/2010 - 07:10 am.

    Wow! What a refreshingly intelligent and cogent comments section. Thank you very much Mr. Schoch, Mr. Kapphahn, Mr. Udstrand and Mr. Schulze. I thoroughly enjoyed your posts. Please keep posting. Thanks again.

  41. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/19/2010 - 10:05 am.

    “getting ten thousand children in the Harlem on the path to college,” is not the same as ten thousand children graduated from college. Canada’s project is still a work in progress — encouraging, but not yet proven.
    And of course there is an element of ‘cherry picking’ (self-selection). The children whose families chose to enroll them in the program are not a representative sample of the population. And of course, given the population of Harlem itself, ten thousand may not be an impressive figure.
    Nationally, about 75% of high school graduates go on to some form of higher education — 10,000 may only be the top 10% of Harlem students.
    I’m not putting down Canada’s work — there’s much to commend it — just trying to put it into context.

  42. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/19/2010 - 12:07 pm.

    And some more about the changing demographics of Harlem from Wikipedia (the whole article is worth reading):

    “Recent history

    After four decades of decline, Harlem’s population bottomed out in the 1990 census, at 101,026. It had decreased by 57% from its peak of 237,468 in 1950. Between 1990 and 2006 the neighborhood’s population grew by 16.9%, including new middle-class residents of African-American, European-American, Hispanic and Asian descent.[23]

    After years of false starts, Harlem began to see rapid gentrification in the late 1990s. This was driven by changing federal and city policies, including fierce crime-fighting and a concerted effort to develop the retail corridor on 125th Street. Starting in 1994, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone funneled money into new developments.[38] The number of housing units in Harlem increased 14% between 1990 and 2000.[38] The rate of increase has been much more rapid in recent years. Property values in Central Harlem increased nearly 300% during the 1990s, while the rest of New York City saw only a 12% increase.[38] Even empty shells of buildings in the neighborhood were, as of 2007, routinely selling for nearly $1,000,000 each.[39] Since completing his second term in the White House in 2001, former U.S. President Bill Clinton has maintained his office at 55 West 125th Street.[40]”

  43. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/19/2010 - 12:25 pm.

    //Sorry, folks, but all the going on and on about how difficult it is and how many variables must be taken into account by teachers sounds a lot to my like self justification for failure by passing blame.

    You blame teachers, and then when they defend themselves you accuse them of dodging responsibility by playing the blame game you started- nice. Of course the logical flaw in your blame equation is the assumption that teachers are to blame in the first place, an unproven assumption.

    It’s a pilots job to fly a plane and land the passengers safely at their destination- that’s what pilots get paid to do. I suppose these people who accept no excuses for failure blame the pilots for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001? I note that these harsh critics who accept no excuses were strangely silent on the matter of accountability when the 35W bridge collapsed; wasn’t it ultimately Molnau’s job to make sure stuff like that didn’t happen?

    This focus on teachers is magical thinking in that it assumes that teachers can “succeed” no matter how dysfunctional the environment is. This is handy for magic for Republicans who dismantle public education systems and bust unions, and then blame teachers for the consequences.

    On the other hand, as I look at the comments here I don’t see any teachers or former teachers trying to assign or dodge blame, I see them trying to explain the systems strengths and weaknesses and suggest improvements. This can only be reduced to a blame game by bipolar minds pursuing some other agenda.

    Meanwhile, the exact nature of the “problem” we’re tying to solve has still not been clearly defined, but blame nevertheless has been assigned.

  44. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/20/2010 - 11:19 am.

    Thinking about defining the problem, it is interesting to note the arc of education over time here in the US. I grew up in the public education system of the 70s, graduated High School in 1981.

    One has to remember that the Republicans have always had surprising success generating considerable hysteria over non-existent threats. From fluoride, communists in the State Department, and Medicare were the big non-threats of the 50s and 60s. Many people have forgotten that the real threat of legalized abortion in the 70s was that is was supposed to lead to euthanasia centers all over the country. How many people remember the fact Ronald Reagan’s big hysteria in his campaign against Jimmy Carter was the Panama Canal treaty? Yeah, handing the Canal back to the Panamanians was going to lead to America’s downfall. Now we have all kinds of threats. Our demise is practically ensured if we reverse the dastardly tendency to say: “Happy Holidays” in stead of “Merry Christmas”. Our social fabric will completely unravel if we limit marriage to men and women, and so it goes.

    In education it’s been funny. The first problem was we kicked God out of the schools and then it went downhill from there. But here’s the thing; like I said, I graduated in 81, at the tail end of the liberal period of American education. At the time experimentation was a big deal. We learned “new math”, every district ran things a little different. In St. Louis Park we an open campus, no bells ringing between classes, and modular scheduling. Now I have to point out, St. Louis Park’s public school system of this era has produce an impressive number of influential and famous people, Nobel and Pulitzer prize winner, movie makers, senators, musicians, and authors. Nevertheless, Park’s education system came under fire in the 80s. If you’ll recall, the big complaint in the 70s and 80s was all the experimentation. This is ironic because the charter school movement was supposed to be antidote to public school bureaucracies that were incapable of innovation. In the 80 this big Republican complaint was all the experimentation and innovation, remember the “back to basics” movement? Back to basics erased innovation. Now Park has the same structure as every other High School in Minnesota. Apparently, innovation is only laudable when it’s done for a profit.

    “A Nation Under Risk” was published in the 80s, outlining a crises in science education in the US, and at the time it was used as an excuse for “back to basics” curriculum. Ever since the public school “crises” for Republicans has always been kind of a moving target, basically defined by whatever ideological problem is being promoted at the time. Intellectuals and free thinking were blamed for the generation gap of the 60s and 70s, so back to basics was needed to get kids back on track as mere receptacle’s of received wisdom. Secularism was the next crises, hence the drive to teach religion in schools as if it’s science. And now it’s some vague complaint about government workers and unions not performing as well as the private sector.

    I’m not saying there is no problem, we should certainly strive for the best education system we can. But when the Republican show up for the party you’re going to have to deal with a lot of irrelevant and ideological noise.

  45. Submitted by Susan Wetenkamp-Brandt on 09/20/2010 - 05:37 pm.

    One thing that seems to never be addressed properly in discussions about “school failure” and “poor teachers” is the quality of the measurements that seek to prove that schools are failing and teachers are poor. We seem to assume that schools, teachers, and students can be adequately assessed with multiple-choice, computer-scored tests. We pull out test scores and say, “This teacher is good,” “This school is bad.” But we hardly ever stop to ask if the test is a good test, and even if it is a good test, if the students took it seriously.

    I remember a discussion that took place on MPR a few months ago. There was a group interview of a class of high school students. They were interviewed, among other things, about their opinions about standardized tests. And what they said doesn’t surprise me: a great many students don’t take them seriously, or are tested to death and just *can’t* care anymore. Some said, “I know it reflects badly on my school, but I just don’t care anymore. I’ve taken so many of these stupid tests and what good does it do me? Now I just fill in random circles and turn in the paper.” The tests that mattered to them personally – that determined whether they could get credit for a class or graduate – they cared about. The others, not so much.

    Can we honestly base decisions about hiring and firing teachers, or funding and de-funding schools, on test scores that may, in fact, be meaningless? In aggregate the scores may be useful by showing us trends and patterns, but at the small scare, the classroom scale, they may not mean much of anything.

    I’m not at all saying that there aren’t problems with our education system. I happen to work in the field of Adult Basic Education, which offers adults the chance to make up for the lost educational opportunities of their youth. So I have worked directly with the people the system has failed, and there are far too many of them. (Would you believe that 1 in every 11 diplomas issued in this state is a GED? And at a fraction of the cost to educate a high school student?)

    But I do question whether the tools we are using to find and analyze the problems in education are good tools. I think we can do better than just look at standardized test scores.

    Interestingly, in response to some of what Mr. Schoch has said, adults who are returning to school to get GEDs often see the nuance of shared responsibility for education more than the political pundits who attack the system. More often than not they take responsibility on themselves for not graduating. They will say, “My teachers tried really hard. It’s not their fault. I just didn’t care. I was only interested in hanging out and having a good time. Now, I’ve got my head screwed on straight. I hear what they were trying to tell me. Before, I didn’t listen.” In other cases, yes, they will blame the system – for example if they had an undiagnosed learning disability, or some other real failure by the school to meet their needs. But most say quite forthrightly that their failure to graduate was THEIR failure, not their teachers’. Of course, that’s coming from the ones who have chosen to return to school as adults, who now really want their education and are willing to work for it. So it may be a biased sample.

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