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Education bloggers offer issues and approaches to ponder

Mary Cathryn Ricker
Mary Cathryn Ricker

There is a great deal of education-related bloggy goodness going around this week and Your Humble Blogger would be remiss if she allowed you to head off to your weekend without proposing a little leisure-time reading.

First and most notably, Mary Cathryn Ricker is blogging from Finland where she has spent the week as one of two local members of a star-studded delegation of U.S. education advocates, courtesy of the Education Funders Strategy Group.

Ricker is the head of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and co-chair of the state task force that is working on designing a teacher-evaluation process. This promises good things for teachers and students, since she believes evaluations should improve teaching, not punish underperformance.

She’s not just smart, but witty: Her blog entries this week include “Angry Birds, Happy People,” “I Like to Move it, Muuvit” and “Anything for You, Finland.” If you check it out, be sure to read through her tweets, which are found just to the left of the main blog copy.

The other Twin Citian on the trip is Ted Kolderie, a senior associate at the St. Paul-based education policy think tank Education Evolving, one of the designers of Minnesota’s 1991 charter school law and a convener of big conversations.

And Finland, of course, is basically the Promised Land for educators. Pupils there perennially top international rankings, and it boasts the most equitable outcomes in the world — admittedly with a more homogenous population — with few discrepancies between its low- and high-performing schools.

Teaching is a prestigious occupation in Finland, attracting the top of each academic class. And teachers who graduate from the country’s single graduate-level training program have a great deal of freedom in the classroom.

Very different personalities, Ricker and Kolderie are both firm believers that empowering teachers drives learning. I can only imagine if they are seated together, no one on the flight home will get any sleep.

The aforementioned evaluation process design gets raised by teacher-blogger Christina Salter, who titled her post about the experience “A Win-Win.” The school where she taught and was evaluated is St. Paul’s Higher Ground Academy, and the site where she is a “school reform blogging fellow” belongs to the advocacy group MinnCAN.

“I completely support the idea that schools should evaluate teachers on the basis of their students’ progress,” Salter wrote. “As for my school’s approach, it’s a complicated but fair way to incorporate student data into my evaluation.”

It is, however, a path strewn with problematic issues, she added: “My experience in the classroom has made me realize how difficult it can be to accurately use student data. I know that some of my students’ test scores do not always truly reflect their academic growth, whether that is due to problems with taking the assessment or even lucky guesses for the answers.

“Based on my personal experience, I think that using student data to evaluate teachers nationwide is a worthwhile goal, but lawmakers need to ensure that it’s used fairly and in conjunction with other measures of teacher quality.”

Finally, the School Law Center has started a blog and gotten a Twitter handle, and if the first entries are any indication, it’ll be bookmark- and follow-worthy. The first blog post concerned Mississippi’s horrifying school-to-prison pipeline; the second, back-to-school advice for families of special-ed students.

A small St. Paul law firm founded by Amy Goetz, the center represents students and families in all kinds of education-related cases. A couple of its clients have appeared in MinnPost stories.

Goetz’ former law partner, Atlee Reilly, represented J.K., a Minneapolis teen who was transferred involuntarily out of Minneapolis’ Southwest High School in a move that drew attention to a disciplinary policy that Reilly contended denied kids due process.

Don Austin’s quest to learn to read in jail shone light on our own prison pipeline in a 2010 story that drew the attention of a documentarian taking a look at the issue.

Lamentably, it seems the pipeline endures. In June, Austin was charged with a new offense. We’re keeping an eye on it in case there’s another chapter to be added to his story.

Me, I’m starting my weekend a little early. I’m headed to the State Fair, where I’m looking forward to moderating a discussion about politics, voting and money at the Independence Party booth with former IP gubernatorial candidates Tom Horner, Tim Penny and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, who is in town with FairVote.

As the party’s FaceBook page bills it, “What happens when you take a political reporter, a rock bassist and a couple of policy wonks and put them all next to a giant shack of cheese curds?” Join us at 3 p.m. Friday to find out!

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/25/2012 - 08:58 am.

    empowering teachers drives learning

    Let us try empowering students and families so that students and families will drive competition and choice.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/25/2012 - 12:10 pm.

    I am pleased to see that teachers unions took the lessons brought by “Waiting for Superman” seriously, but it may be that that rushing off to investigate the film’s superhero state now is premature…or maybe not.

    The film illustrated the school system in a country the size of Montana, an ethically and racially homogenous, highly skilled and prosperous population the size of Los Angeles…a country that is rapidly disappearing, in fact.

    Because the median age of Finland is increasing at an untenable rate, they have loosened immigration laws that had for all intents and purposes consisted of a closed border.

    The country has, in the past decade, seen a large influx of immigrants from Somalia and Balkan states. (As an aside, one of the stipulations for immigration is that non-EU applicants must show they have existing employment, or a pending offer).

    Finland spends approximately the same percentage of it’s GDP on public education as the United States, so we can say that funding isn’t the magic bullet. The next 10-15 years will show the true effect of the diversity we claim to be such a crucial component.

  3. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 08/26/2012 - 12:18 pm.

    No claim about the lessons of “Waiting for Superman”

    should pass without considering the opposing viewpoint, espoused knowingly and passionately by Diane Ravitch

    She writes in the New York Review of Books (link: http://bit.ly/cbpssN ) about the myth of charter schools.

    “Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, when the filmmaker knows that there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones? Why not give an honest accounting?”

    I also note that Finland has a completely unionized school system. Teacher and union bashers should keep this fact in mind when pointing to unions and teachers as the source of perceived failure in the US public school system.

  4. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 08/27/2012 - 07:58 am.


    One can’t separate the educational system from the total system, which includes government and economics. Finland, a democratic socialist nation with a history of honesty in government and economics, has approximately 4% of its students going to school hungry, while in the USA the figure is over 20%, most of them in public schools. See how efficient private business would be if they had over 20% of their workers hungry, and then have them keep every employee on staff because they are mandated to have “no employee left behind.”

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/27/2012 - 09:11 am.

    Unions in a socialist economy.

    Folks that tout unions in countries with socialized economies do not do their credibility any favors.

    Neither do those that choose anti-charter squawkers that have been widely, and correctly identified as an NEA tool:

    “NEA’s highest honor”

    Also, having so obviously not done his homework, Mr. Gleason is probably not aware that the Brookings Institution has given Ms. Ravitch the boot…I guess her blatant sock-pupppetry was too much, even for them.

  6. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 08/27/2012 - 01:12 pm.

    So apparently anyone who is willing to point

    out the shortcomings of the charter school system is a tool of the NEA?

    Yes, I was aware that Ms. Ravitch was not a member of the Brookings Institute when I commented earlier, Mr. Swift. Would you care to explain the relevance of this point?

    Ms. Ravitch has a long and distinguished career in the theory and practice of education. For example,

    “Ravitch began her career as an editorial assistant at the New Leader magazine, a small journal devoted to democratic ideas. In 1975, she became a historian of education with a Ph.D. from Columbia University. At that time she worked closely with Teachers College president Lawrence A. Cremin, who was her mentor.

    She was appointed to public office by Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Secretary of Education Richard Riley appointed her to serve as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which supervises the National Assessment of Educational Progress; she was a member of NAGB from 1997 to 2004.”

    link: http://bit.ly/77V4N2

    She has also written an excellent book that I recommend to all with a serious interest in education:

    The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

    Available on Amazon: http://amzn.to/NRTMiG

    It has been reviewed by 173 people and has been rated 4.5/5 stars.

    Instead of character assassination it would be helpful to address the actual arguments of someone with whom you disagree.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/27/2012 - 08:49 pm.

    CV is not in question; it’s motivation

    The link I provided shows Ms. Ravitch receiving the NEA’s highest award…it’s kind of like the Congressional Medal of Honor for government school union supporters…like the NEA itself, it has nothing to do with excellence in education.

    The relevance of Ms. Ravitch’s departure is to point out that even the left wing Brookings Institute found her work not worth the price they were paying for it. Obviously, there are some, you and the teacher’s union for instance, that disagree….that’s fine, but as I say it really doesn’t add any credibility to your argument, such as it is.

    I’ve read Ravitch. She isn’t saying anything you can’t hear from any one else working desperately to prop up a public system that is rotting from within.

  8. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 08/27/2012 - 11:44 pm.

    You seem to be having a hard time, Mr Swift

    understanding that just because an organization that you don’t like – the NEA – gave Ms. Ravitch an award does not make her arguments invalid.

    And your argument about the Brookings Institute is equally ludicrous. Because you perceive the Brookings Institute as somehow leftist and that Ravitch and Brookings recently parted company somehow that this invalidates her arguments?

    And you do all this without ever addressing her main argument that charter schools are not the answer to a maiden’s prayer. They do not, on average, do any better than the average public school and may, in fact, do a lot worse.

    And by the way Brookings Fellows are unpaid. It is an honorary position.

    I think I’ve posted enough information with links for anyone interested to dismiss your initial blanket claim that somehow lessons had been learned, even by the teacher’s unions, from the Superman infopropaganda film.

    I suggest that, once again, you have brought no arguments to the table other than an attempt at character assassination, and dismissal of arguments because organizations you do not like have honored Ms. Ravitch – very weak and illogical argumentation.

    I’ve spent enough time with you on this topic Mr. Swift.

    Bye for now.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/28/2012 - 08:47 am.

    “Brookings Fellows are unpaid. It is an honorary position”

    So can we say then that getting the boot constitutes a singular dishonor?

    Also, you’ll forgive me for pointing out that if the government school unions are not learning lessons taught in “Waiting for Superman”, it’s quite odd that they’d be scrambling to visit the movie’s hero state.

    Somehow, I’m guessing you’re going to find a minute or two to spare to try and excuse Ms. Ravitch yet again, although I aver I do not count on any more a cogent response.

  10. Submitted by Jerry Von Korff on 09/06/2012 - 09:23 pm.

    Ravitch’s book is thoughtful, literate, well-researched and compelling. It is a must-read for anyone who is interested in education policy. If you are pro-charter, you should read it. If you believe in charters, if you have confidence in the wisdom of your position, why should you be afraid that others will read this book. You ought to be able to combat her ideas on the merits. This idea, that you can resolve a policy debate by attacking a person, as opposed to responding to her logic and data, is the very definition of argument ad hominem. Its a regrettable trend in the charter anti-charter debate. There is mounting data that undermines the contention that charters represent a viable strategy to create significant improvement in American public education. A ton of money is pouring into this strategy: if it is not going to work, we need to know that. Attacking people who participate in the debate is a way of saying, really, that you lack confidence in the merits of your position. Recently, the anti-charter advocates have sought to undermine charters by attacking Eric Mahmoud personally. This is just as reprehensible. We have to get this right for the sake of the next generation.

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