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The top 7 Minnesota education stories of 2011

‘Tis the season to make lists, check them twice and still find yourself running out for more eggs before the stores close.

Word at MinnPost HQ is that in coming days you’ll be treated to a number of number-packed, year-end wrap-ups. Given Learning Curve’s irritating need to be teacher’s pet, we’re getting started a little early.

And then, following a more substantive Friday story we know you’ll check back for, Your Humble Blogger will be taking some time off to hang with her two favorite students, who have been furloughed by Minneapolis Public Schools.

Without further ado:

The Top Seven Minnesota Education Stories of 2011

The 60-40 Shift: Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty got away with using accounting tricks to balance the budget year after year in part because when you start throwing around terms like unallot and de-linking from the formula most people zone out. But 40 percent is perilously close to half, and seems to be the tipping point at which the citizenry understands, with crystal clarity, how a shift — the withholding of a portion of the state’s funding for schools — adds up to a cut in practice.

2. Bullies, the bullied and bystanders: Elsewhere a steady drumbeat of headlines about suicides among bullied kids finally makes itself heard over rhetorical white noise, albeit at horrific cost. A glaring exception is Minnesota’s largest system, Anoka-Hennepin School District, where the toll is high enough to qualify as a suicide contagion area.

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost/James Nord
Gov. Mark Dayton

3. Mark “Machiavelli” Dayton: I suspect we still don’t know the extent of the crafty concessions our mild-mannered governor built into the quid pro quo he demanded in exchange for the shift. While everyone else at the Capitol during the session’s waning days was cloistered in smoke-filled rooms, Dayton seems to have been actually reading the bills.

4. The GOP’s Overreach: All hail our GOP lawmakers who, on the verge of getting teacher contract reform, alternative licensure and a host of other items they’ve pushed for for years, overreach so spectacularly that two-thirds of voters end up blaming them for the shutdown.

5. Early Ed Consensus? Irrelevant!  

6. Deadlocks and Executive End-Runs: Faced with lawmakers who refused to make law, both Dayton and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan fell back on existing law to issue executive orders that essentially let them get on with business. Here at home, that means the creation of a statewide quality ratings system for early ed programs. At the federal level, it means No Child Left Behind, which Congress just can’t figure out how to reform, may become irrelevant.

7. The Anti-Levy Lobby: Or overreach No. 2: In an unprecedented campaign to get voters to reject the school-district levy requests that will help keep the lights on despite the shift, statehouse GOP leaders insist schools got a windfall this year. Voters, who understand things like 40-kid classes and four-day school weeks, turn out in favor of the referenda in unprecedented ways.

My Personal Favorites of 2011

The Revolution Began in St. Francis:
I spend days on painstaking research — and let me tell you, research on assessment and evaluation metrics is s-e-x-y stuff — and a small fortune on travel to exurbia to profile the educator-beloved, union-created, teacher-evaluation system in bucolic St. Francis, which is actually driving increased achievement, and Osama bin Laden turns up dead the morning the story runs.

This is reporter hell, people. If any of you love me even just a little, read this story for posterity.

You can so fire teachers — and darn fast and humanely: Another myth busted by a progressive union local that sees student welfare as job one and has figured out how to help the unhappy and underperforming find new gigs.

Shutdown Settlement Recap/Handicap: Because you know what’s more fun than reading 148 pages of legislation? Wait — OK, so pretty much anything is more fun than that. But what is fun, in a geeky kind of way, is reading 148 pages of legislation and imagining, down to the insane subdivision that actually lays out that elementary school teachers shall concern themselves with literacy, exactly who threw what into the sausage-maker.

The Top Six Education Stories I Anticipate Reporting in 2012

After years of stalemated contract negotiations, Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, currently engaged in “interests-based” [read: kinder, gentler] talks sing Kumbaya. Parents, policymakers and the MPS administrators who need contract reform fume. 

2. Will No Child Left Behind ever be reformed? This time last year, Republican Rep. John Kline had a plan to control the long-awaited overhaul of the nation’s guiding education reform law, and the political capital to carry it out. Or so he thought until Doppelganger Duncan attacked one flank and the Tea Party the other. 

3. Online education: Good or bad? Conservatives like it because they think it’s cheap, which, done well, it really isn’t. Wall Street likes it because the private variety can deliver eye-popping returns. Reformers want to experiment with it because of its possibility for tailoring instruction to individual students. Educators and learners? Meh.

4. The painful contraction of Minnesota’s charter sector begins. Schools that are likely doomed have been howling, but more than a year after the state passed the nation’s first, toughest charter quality reform act, the rubber is likely to meet the road for persistent underperformers. Expect louder howling.

At the same time, expect more news about the much smaller number of charters that deliver great outcomes and the rush of mainline school administrators who want to know how.

5. Teacher evaluations: The fine print. How do you measure the impact a teacher has on an individual learner in a way that’s meaningful and helpful to both? How do you do so in a way that’s geared both toward rewarding great teachers and learning from them? To — gasp! — making teaching a better profession?

Done right, this could be revolutionary. Done poorly, it could be NCLB redux. Either way, it will be done.

6. The lament of the overstuffed classroom. Once upon a time, it was just kids in the big, bad cities who sat in window wells and hallways and had no idea what a field trip was. Now, it’s lots of middle- and upper-class pupils and it’s hard to think their referenda-willing parents won’t revolt at some level.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/22/2011 - 10:58 am.

    “Online education: Good or bad? Conservatives like it because they think it’s cheap, which, done well, it really isn’t. Wall Street likes it because the private variety can deliver eye-popping returns.”

    Those two items are related. You have to look at unit costs. At $13,000 per student (in Saint Paul, for example), with a 35-student brick and mortar classroom, that’s $455,000 per classroom.

    If you spent that same $455,000 to develop and deliver the same course online (not cheap), you wouldn’t be limited to 35 students and your unit costs would plummet. Now if 350 kids took your course online, your unit cost would be a tenth of the classroom version or $1,300 per.

    That’s just one simple example to make the obvious point.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/22/2011 - 01:25 pm.

    Mr. Tester is correct…

    … as long as all the students are affluent enough to have genuine broadband access so they can stream the content live…

    …as long as evaluation takes a form virtually identical to a face-to-face interview, with written materials to supplement that conversation between teacher and student…

    …as long as the teacher with a student load of 350 doesn’t have to do much in the way of time-consuming evaluation, which pretty much eliminates the previous point… An hour’s evaluation per student is pretty close to 9 weeks at 40 hours per week. Most semesters are now 18 weeks long…

    …as long as that same teacher, with a student load of 350, is willing to do 3 times as much work for the same less-than-median salary…

    …as long as we eliminate interscholastic sports and activities…

    …as long as school administrators are laid off by the dozens, since disciplinary and attendance problems will either be a thing of the past, or issues to be handled by someone who’s basically a clerk.

    …as long as we ignore the socially and economically vital role that in-person, on-site education plays in the social growth and education of students.

    I could go on, but it should be evident that this isn’t quite as simple or inexpensive as Mr. Tester would like to believe.

    I should add that, absent the things listed above, what we’ll have accomplished is the construction of heavily overloaded correspondence courses for the children of the well-to-do. The resultant structure won’t mean a thing to the immigrant kid whose parents are trying to raise a family on $20,000 a year, while she tries to learn enough English to understand the lessons in her classes.

    This suggests to me that online education may be unconstitutional on its face, unless substantial (and very expensive) remedial measures are taken. Otherwise, there’s no “uniformity.”

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/22/2011 - 01:31 pm.

    Good points!

  4. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 12/22/2011 - 01:40 pm.

    Mr. Tester;

    You’ve unwittingly illustrated one of the wrongful assumptions here. A single teacher cannot possibly instruct 350 kids at a time. At reputable online schools, students have just as much interaction with faculty, just via a different interface. Indeed, because instruction is often modified for each student, this type of teaching can actually be more time-intensive.

    The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System recently concluded that online courses were, in fact, more expensive than the traditional type BUT offered enormous advantages for students who had barriers to attending a bricks-and-mortar school, e.g. single parents, shift workers or residents of, say, the Iron Range who need to attend an esoteric class being taught in Mankato.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/22/2011 - 02:37 pm.

    “..this isn’t quite as simple or inexpensive as Mr. Tester would like to believe.”

    Or, it’s not as difficult and expensive as you would like us to believe.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/22/2011 - 02:51 pm.

    Beth, as always, doing a fabulous job with the Education Minnesota rebuttal.

    However, the thoughtful reader is well advised to take negative conclusions about a service provider that come from a direct competitor with a large measure of salt.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/22/2011 - 03:06 pm.

    “The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System recently concluded that online courses were, in fact, more expensive than the traditional type”

    Since I build such courses for the university system I can tell you they’re not.

  8. Submitted by Tom King on 12/22/2011 - 03:36 pm.

    It’s frustrating for all of us who do education in one way or another and, at the end of every Annual Report, find what statisticians call No Significant Difference. Actually, after 50 years of teaching in K-12 and now higher-ed, I think the negative annual NSD’s have accumulated enough, so that like Sisyphus, we find that the two steps back have us much worse off than we were.

    Who really knows? It sure was simpler back in the early 60’s. I’ll say that. We didn’t test the kids near as much….a few quizzes and midterms and finals. Some got it, some got a little of it, and those who didn’t dropped out to pretty good-paying jobs. Well, that was then.

    We have attempted to subject education to the same total quality, highly standardized metrics that J.D. Powers awards to carmakers. It doesn’t work. At a very different school I started in St. Paul 20 years ago, the staff compared all the focus on testing to pulling up our seedlings every day to see how the roots were growing. Even with 10,000 visitors and a President coming to see what we were trying to, we didn’t last 5 years. As that old sportswriter once wrote, “You could look it up.”

    We’ve got too many non-standard kids being subjected to standardized metrics and standardized curriculum deliveries. I read the other day that someone proposed that teachers read a script to insure that all kids hear the “right” message. If Obama loses next fall, he could make a fortune teaching effective tele-prompting.

    I don’t blame poor Horace Mann. He put a group of kids of all ages in a schoolroom and they, with help from the teacher, taught one another. That’s a far more sensible model than today. We group the kids by age instead of by what they know and don’t know and need to know.

    We are caught in a morass of nonsensical rules and regs, tweaked with regularity by legislators, government officials, superintendents and dumped upon the already far-too-busy teachers.

    I wish for your 2012 a story #7, where more kids learn more. That’s been my motto for 50 years and I’m not giving up!

  9. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 12/23/2011 - 10:26 am.

    Ray Schoch’s (#2) comments are required reading for posters on this topic.

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