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Dayton speech’s education elements: a political Rorschach test

For public-education advocates, there was something in it for any and all to latch on to as evidence that a second term as governor would be good for their policy agenda.

First and foremost, Dayton called on the state Department of Education to conduct a review of tests administered in Minnesota schools with an eye toward streamlining assessments.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

During Mark Dayton’s first gubernatorial run it was clear that the man cared passionately about Minnesota schools. He was prone to popping up in principals’ offices to ask wonky questions and staying as long as they’d have him.

Dayton came as close as he ever does to sparkling when the campaign presented opportunities for him to describe, in passionate detail, the pupils and teachers he met along the way. And he seemed wholly unconcerned about the politics of it all.

Education may have been front and center in Wednesday night’s State of the State address, but this time out Dayton is talking like a man who wants to be re-elected. His remarks, it’s safe to say, preview Dayton’s 2014 campaign.

A quick canvass of public-education advocates suggests that the speech was something of a political Rorschach test. There was something in it for any and all to latch on to as evidence that a second term for the governor would be good for their policy agenda. 

Calls for review of tests

First and foremost, Dayton called on the state Department of Education to conduct a review of tests administered in Minnesota schools with an eye toward streamlining assessments. No doubt this will be the most popular of the talking points to come with both parents and with the state’s largest teacher union, Education Minnesota.

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It’s also a pretty safe place to expend some political capital because the uses and misuses of assessments are devilishly tricky to understand. A big, broad policy statement might mean anything in terms of implementation.

Over the last few months, teacher unions and other groups have gained tremendous traction toward capturing the public’s imagination concerning testing. Student creativity and energy, the line goes, are being crushed by mandates to drill for one test after another.

There is, of course, some truth to this. And some truth to the notion that as a matter of course the issue has been quietly fixing itself as better tests roll out.

Until recently, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments — the exams the state is obliged to administer — were so flawed that most districts administered a second, more useful set of “value-added” tests.

This has changed over the last couple of years, but as new exams in reading, math and science have been rolled out the public perception has increasingly become a conviction that more high-stakes exams are being forced upon teachers and students.

Governor understands ed-data uses

Dayton — at least the Dayton who enjoyed holing up with principals and their statistics before his election — understands all of this. During his first campaign he demonstrated a keen understanding of the possible uses of data in education.

In his Wednesday night address he telegraphed as much, making reference to the on-the-fly quizzes and tests teachers are being encouraged to use to plug gaps in student learning on the spot.

“A growing number of elementary schools in Minnesota are applying ‘one-minute, read-out-loud’ tests, which can determine reading levels in just that one minute,” he said. “Such tests can be repeated throughout the school year, as often as necessary, to measure students’ progress and adjust learning strategies accordingly.”

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In the same breath, however, he also used examples of standardized test scores by individual grade and demographic group to assert that Minnesota compares favorably to school systems around the nation and world.

A sore spot

This has become a sore spot with many of the education advocates who are concerned that information about student performance is being selectively reported in an election year. Scores for other groups of students, they note, continue to show huge gaps in outcomes.

Finally, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been crystal clear about accountability. States must continue to measure schools’ performance, although there is leeway in terms of how they do it.

There were other places in the address where Dayton might want to consider whether he is leaving himself open for rebuttal. Among the accomplishments of his administration he mentioned the 2011 Legislature’s creation of an alternative pathway to teacher licensure.

Technically, he is correct. But it is also true that he appointed all of the members of a state Board of Teaching that three weeks ago, three years overdue and under the threat of legal action, finally implemented one plank of the law and who are set to vote on another next week.

Similarly, lest he be confronted by questions of implementation, Dayton might want to reconsider talking about the “Read Well by Third Grade” literacy initiative.

Early-ed advocates were pleased

Early-childhood-education advocates were thrilled with the address. Calling early ed “real education reform,” Dayton called for access to quality, affordable pre-K programming for all Minnesota 3- and 4-year-olds by 2018. Mushy in the details, certainly, but still a strong commitment.

Dayton also noted last year’s $46 million appropriation for early-ed scholarships for low-income families and pointed out that the state Senate this year proposes doubling that amount.

This is particularly intriguing to the early-ed lobby, which has feared for weeks that the increased scholarship spending would not survive the conference committee process in part because Dayton has repeatedly asserted a spending target that would not allow for it.

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Longer days, school years ahead?

Finally, Dayton hinted at a couple of reforms that might be the kind of political hot potato a safely re-elected governor could take on. Minnesota schools have some of the shortest pupil days and years, he noted, something that must change if the state is to remain competitive.

“We want Minnesota to be the best,” he noted in closing. “To be the very best it can possibly be. Because we live here. Many of our children and grandchildren will live here. We want them to achieve the very best they can for themselves and for their families.

“In his epic saga ‘Giants in the Earth,’ O.E. Rolvaag wrote, ‘By attempting the impossible, they accomplished the unbelievable,’ ” Dayton continued. “Unity of purpose might seem impossible. But if we try, it might just show up, when we really need it.”