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The blogroll edition: Smart thinkers on college readiness, teacher quality

We’re blessed here in Minnesota with a large number of big-brained advocates of public education who write about the policy dilemmas of the day.

We’re blessed here in Minnesota with a large number of big-brained advocates of public education who write about the policy dilemmas of the day — but in sundry places that you, Dear Reader, may not be in the habit of visiting.

And so today I offer you a quick roundup of some of the best items I read over the holidays — and the polar vortex extension of same.

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan is the director of the Center for School Change and one of the state’s most ardent advocates of exposing teens to college-level coursework while they’re still in high school. He is also the author of an education column carried by ECM Publishers’

One of his recent efforts points out that it’s been three years since the last release of “Getting Prepared,” a report tallying the number of state college entrants who need remedial, high-school level coursework. State law requires the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (MNSCU) to report this data annually to the Department of Education, which is in turn supposed to report to the Legislature.

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“I’ve been asking for this report since fall of 2012,” writes Nathan. “In March 2013, I was told that the responsibility to produce the report had been shifted from the two public higher-education systems … to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.”

That office, he goes on to report, told him it had turned up “inconsistencies” in a new data reporting system, requiring a laborious review of thousands of records. Nathan suggests that until the new system is debugged, administrators go back to the old one.

Knowing how many students start their college careers conquering skills they should have acquired in high school is important for several reasons — particularly in the wake of lawmakers’ decision last year to eliminate high-school exit exams.

Nathan elaborated in an e-mail exchange:

“The last report (issued in 2011) showed that:

“* Overall, 40 percent of Minnesota public high school graduates who entered a Minnesota public college or university took one or more remedial (aka ‘developmental’) course;

“* 54 percent of Minnesota public high school graduates who entered a two-year Minnesota public state college took one or more remedial courses;

“* 22 percent of Minnesota public high school graduates who entered a four-year state university took one or more remedial courses.

“This involved more than 12,000 students. This has real financial consequences for students, families and taxpayers.

“Moreover, national research shows that only one-fourth of two-year college students who take remedial courses complete a two-year degree in eight years. Taking remedial courses discourages many youngsters from continuing their education.”

If she had a magic wand …

Holly Kragthorpe

Next, Holly Kragthorpe is a public school parent, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) middle-school teacher, a Minneapolis Federation of Teachers steward at Ramsey Middle School, which she helped to open, and a member of Educators 4 Excellence (E4E). Somehow, she also manages to compose great writing about teaching, most recently as a blogging fellow at MinnCAN.

In that capacity, she recently penned an open letter to barely former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who visited with E4E members last month in anticipation of assuming his new job as head of Generation Next. The topic: What would she do with a magic, gap-closing wand?

The first item on Kragthorpe’s five-point list would enable the institution of the other four. Instituting longer school days and years for students could be done without substantially increasing teachers’ hours.

By staggering schedules within teams of teachers, a 170-day school year could become a 180- or even 200-day year punctuated by more frequent, short breaks. Similarly, staggering the daily schedule — with some teachers starting early and others finishing later — would create smaller classes and more opportunity for learning.

Some schools are already having success with the model, Kragthorpe told me in an interview. And without increased costs. 

The scheme would free up time during the heavily staffed middle hours for teachers to collaborate, in part by observing one another’s teaching. This way, both professional development and evaluation could be “job embedded” — ongoing throughout the year — something research strongly supports as a driver of student achievement.

“Teacher quality is the number one way to increase student achievement and narrow the learning gaps,” Kragthorpe wrote. “We need a school culture where our teaching practices are made public, where we are not only supported in improving but also expected to improve.”

Also on Kragthorpe’s wish list: leadership roles for teachers, a culture that fights institutionalized racism and support for emergent leaders.

Systemic equity and great teaching

Chris Stewart

Finally, Chris Stewart, a former Minneapolis School Board member and current executive director of the African American Leadership Forum, has crystallized a dynamite presentation by Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, one of education’s brightest — and least ideological — luminaries.  

Her prescription, laid out in an hourlong YouTube video embedded in’s compulsively readable synopsis: Systemic equity and great teaching.

Sayeth Stewart, of Darling-Hammond: “To truly get it right for teachers and students, school districts should be providing systemic supports, meaningful feedback, access to sustained professional development beyond one- or two-day ‘spray and pray’ seminars, and routine opportunities for collaboration in teams. If we succeed providing those things, student achievement improves.”

Helpfully, Stewart has provided parenthetical references to times for those who want to hear more about any of the five points in Darling-Hammond’s presentations but just can’t spare the whole hour.