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U.S. history and the power of re-education

In Minnesota, we’ve had generations to act on our public education shortcomings. But we haven’t.

The following is an opinion piece by Daniel Sellers, Executive Director of MinnCAN. Pollen aims to promote open discussion among our members as a platform where all perspectives are welcome.

We’ve had generations to act on our public education shortcomings. But we haven’t. The Deep South now outpaces Minnesota by numerous accounts. We trail the nation.

If Minnesota’s white students posted nation-worst achievement and graduation rates, we’d have redesigned education overnight.

Instead we protect status quo, punishing those who are “different” than us.

Our toilsome history

In 1865, the U.S. Congress voted “yea” on the Thirteenth Amendment. Passing in the House of Representatives by a mere two votes, we abolished slavery and brought closure to the bloody Civil War.

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On the cusp of President’s Day 2013 and after recently watching Lincoln, I laud the re-education of this pivotal era in U.S. history.

Minnesota enlisted the first infantry to fight for people’s rights, yet at that same time, we marginalized indigenous people back home, such as the Dakota, to achieve statehood. 

We emerged as a homogeneous state while projecting that we were welcoming to others.

Nearly 100 years later, the Civil War re-emerged, but under the auspice of Civil Rights. It ignited quickly and revealed uncomfortable truths locally. Some of it began with Roy Wilkins, editor of St. Paul’s African-American Appeal, who captured this as early as the 1920s. In the 1940s, Hubert Humphrey emerged as a formidable policymaker pushing for equality from Minneapolis’ northside to the platform of the Democratic Party.

We’re lucky to have had these and other visionaries guide the North Star state. But reality lies in the shadows of our rosy misconceptions about ourselves. Civil Rights inequalities have perplexed us for too long—even 148 years after the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage and decades following the Civil Rights Movement.

At the core of it all: education.

Near worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps cripple us. Minnesota black students have the second-worst graduation rate in the United States; American Indians and Latinos, the worst.

We deflect, saying we can’t solve education until we solve poverty. However, this is greater than just poverty, and other states are addressing poverty and injustices by redesigning education.

Quality education as a fundamental right

Conversations to eradicate inequalities are ripe with tension because change is hard.

Fortunately though, many teachers, policymakers, and people like you and me now voice unwavering public will for educational equality.

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Hundreds of newly-elected officials recently filled Minnesota’s capitol and school board chambers. I hope more of us can muster up the courage to engage honestly about what we need to do as a community to strengthen public education.

Education reform, a roadmap to redesign and strengthen our schools, is gaining traction: more nonprofits and foundations are rolling up their sleeves, more educators are joining the conversation, more Minnesotans are advocating for all kids, and more ed reform bills are becoming state law.

This pioneering work requires more people to pitch in.

The 2012 election bore heightened interest in reform. Candidates from both parties touted recent local wins, from educator evaluations to district-charter collaboration. This speaks volumes. Minnesota has the capacity to do what’s right for children.

Everyone should engage in school boards: their elections, operations, and work. As vision-setting and governance entities for our schools, they matter an awful lot. It’s imperative that they represent and reflect diverse constituencies and look out for kids’ best interests.

When we consider reform opportunities, we focus on educator effectiveness as a direct link to advance student learning. We talk about funding, facilities, and tests. School boards aren’t always part of this conversation.

By definition, school boards are policy-making entities that hire superintendents and help set and monitor district objectives, including budgets, curriculum, personnel, and facilities. Our state gives school boards these authorities with the intent to best educate our kids.

Strong schools start with top-notch leadership guiding them. Get to know your local school board. Praise them when they’re doing the right thing and hold them accountable when they’re not. Their connection to advancing student learning is direct and powerful. Same goes for our state legislators.

This new frontier needs you

Our opportunity gaps aren’t new, but if there was ever a time to address them it’s now.

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It’s our moral obligation, especially as scores of people from diverse backgrounds make this state their new home. Let’s celebrate a new Minnesota, one richer in culture. It starts with refining a vision for quality schools for all and then acting on it. Minnesota’s livelihood depends on it.

We do many things well. Now, let’s do things well for all kids.

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