Seagren, Sykora, Cox Hold Education Listening Session

This past week Bridgewater school hosted an education focused legislative listening session with Rep. Alice Seagren, chair of the House K-12 Education Finance Committee Rep. Barb Sykora , Chair of the House K-12 Education Policy Committee and Rep. Ray Cox of Northfield. The meeting was advertised as chance to comment Governor Pawlenty’s education initiatives, namely the ‘Super Teacher‘ bill, the ‘Truancy/Driver license revocation‘ bill and the ‘Reading by Second Grade’ bill. However most of the conversation seemed to be about the new ‘Social Studies Standards‘ , ‘School finance’ and the possibility of linking testing results or rather individual improvement with funding.

On this last issue, Rep. Seagren indicated there was no plan to link learning progress with funding. One questioner indicated to do so would be unfair, because the potential improvement of students who were not doing so well would easily exceed the paced progress by students who were doing well. That would skew the results and increase the likelihood that schools with a majority of students who were performing well would get less money than those who started out low but improved by one or two grade levels. Rep. Sykora supported this view and said it was her belief that we have in the past wasted money by rewarding those who fail. This seemed strange reasoning to me, that providing funding for schools with a great need is rewarding their failure, when in a time of limited resources it makes sense to apply resources where there is the greatest need. But she went on to explain the basis for her belief — that it was her view that we should really be spending resources on the gifted students because indeed they will be the ones running the country. I refrained from pointing out that that did not seem to be the case in the present White House to say nothing about the ethical and moral implications of that statement.

Social Studies teacher Kevin Dahle brought up the Social Studies Standards, and St. Olaf History Professor Bob Entenmann added his concerns about the nature of the standards. His feeling is that rather than enhancing student learning, these standards will diminish a student’s chances for deeper learning. He recently wrote in an article to the Star Tribune:

Our children need a strong foundation in history and social studies to prepare for citizenship. This is why the Legislature mandated standards that are “clear, concise, objective, and grade-level appropriate.”

Unfortunately, the proposed standards do not meet these criteria. They are often not grade-appropriate, they often include inconsequential trivia and they leave out much that is significant. They pay little attention to analysis and critical thinking.

The draft standards in American history in particular promote a kind of patriotism that depends on a selective memory — and forgetting — of our past, paying little attention to conflict, tensions and ambiguities in our history. Patriotism should not depend on ignorance. Our kids will not love our country less if they learn that it is not perfect. The proposed standards need to be changed fundamentally. Our children deserve to become knowledgeable and thoughtful citizens.

Rep. Cox offered that he felt that Bob knew more about this subject than anyone else and mentioned his article. I imagine this means that Rep. Cox will be taking what he has heard from Prof. Entenmann and using it to challenge the final draft of the standards if they don’t meet the Legislative mandate he quotes. We’ll be watching for his leadership along these lines.

Rep. Sykora seemed to think that in time the discord about the standards would subside. “There’s no fuss about Language Arts and Math anymore.” But I’d guess that was because people were busy commenting on the Science and Social Studies proposed Standards. The comments made regarding the Science and Social Studies proposed Standards are posted on the Dept. of Education website. Little was said about the make up of the committee creating the standards and their agenda. It would be interesting to know why the commissioner feels that bank executives and advocates of a right wing agenda have more representation on this committee than career teachers. There’s a very specific article in City Pages that addressed this slant in perspective, representation, and agenda called “Cooking the Books: Right-wingers divine new education standards”, by Britt Robson. Regarding the political bias of committee members:

The backgrounds of some committee members are also notable. There’s Bruce Sanborn, listed on the education department’s website simply as a parent and, long ago, a schoolteacher for two years. But Sanborn is also chairman of the board of the Claremont Institute, whose mission is to “restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.” The institute will present Rush Limbaugh with its Statesmanship Award at a dinner in Los Angeles on November 21 and has recently named Reagan-era education commisioner William Bennett its Washington fellow. (In a fundraising letter for the conservative Heritage Foundation, Bennett once wrote, “Armed with public opinion, we can wear down the [teachers’] unions.”)

Matthew Abe is similarly listed on the website as an involved parent. There is no mention that Abe runs the Minnesota Education Reform News website, with a mission to “inform Minnesota citizens about the shortcomings of performance-based, anti-knowledge, behavior-, and attitude-based education.” The site links to EdWatch, the new name for the conservative, Christian-oriented Maple River Education Coalition.

According to Norman Draper at the Star Tribune, there was not total agreement in the committee quoting one of the committee members

“We had a very contentious debate about that,” said Westonka schools social studies teacher Marc Doepner-Hove, a member of the U.S. history committee who disagrees with the majority. “What struck me so much about the debate is the strong sense that we need to put the examples back into the [requirements] or the teachers won’t teach them or won’t know what to teach. To put it as bluntly as you can, they don’t trust the teachers.”

Finally here is comment from Michael Boucher, Minneapolis’ South High Social Studies teacher
(StarTribune 11- 15):

The new standards are more of an embarrassment than the Profile ever was. They are a mishmash of fact and fallacy, and are woefully inadequate for Minnesota’s children. Educators are looking for guidance as to what students need to know and be able to do, but this list masquerading as standards gives no real guidance and actually makes the burdens for teachers and students worse than the old curriculum standards.

When asked about Pawlenty’s Super Teacher plan, that is, to pay selected teachers $100,000 to teach in a school for struggling learners to see if the problems of troubled learners can’t be solved there seemed to be little agreement on the specifics of what this plan would mean. Would they work all in one school? What would happen if improvements were not made? What happens to these bonuses the second year? What effect would a pay structure like this that few could participate in have on collective bargaining? Rep. Seagren seemed concerned about the proposal and offered that she knew that teachers were motivated to work in these settings by other things than money. “Teachers need to be reasonably compensated but teachers have other motivations and I am not sure this will achieve the desired affect.” To which Rep. Cox expressed that he believed money was very important to teachers.

I have had the opportunity to work with Rep. Seagren on a few occasions when working on legislation concerning Alternative schools, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for her as a legislator. She has a wealth of knowledge and experience and is balanced in her approach. Most of the teachers in attendance seemed attentive but one commented to me afterward that he wished there
had been more listening and less rhetoric.

I was unable to get to the session at its start, so I don’t know if the any time was given to Pawlenty’s other main “Excellence and Accountability” initiatives. The remaining two prongs of his agenda, although motivated by an attempt to solve difficult problems, strike me as efforts to legislate something that is not easily enforced by legislation, and by methods that are off the mark.

The first prong of the three part Pawlenty “Excellence and Accountability” is “Reading by Second Grade,” which is not a novel idea – it’s the focus of much discussion nationally and in Minnesota was the title of 1999 Senate File 232!

The other is the proposal to take away driver’s licenses from students who miss school. It’s also not a new idea, but it’s one that strikes me as a hardship that does nothing to address the reasons why students don’t attend and focuses particularly on the poor or those students who have to shoulder adult responsibilities at a young age. It’s focus is punitive, not remedial. When I was sixteen and my father passed away, I was the only driver in my family. Had my situation been different, a measure such as this could have had a devastating impact on my family. I know that there are other instances where sometimes young drivers, because of circumstances are forced to take on more responsibility for the family, for example, some students miss school on occasion to care for younger siblings so mom can go to work because she just can’t afford to miss anymore. Will the new law take into account special circumstances? Who will decide? How will we know if indeed it really has an effect on the behavior of teens?

Minnesota Public Radio had a story about this:

DFL legislative leaders were quick to criticize the plan. House Minority Leader Matt Entenza says the governor is looking for simplistic, sound bite solutions. Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, says Pawlenty is using his education initiatives as a way to cover up budget cuts he pushed last session.

“What’s effective in keeping kids in school is not gimmicks, but getting parents involved in an authentic way, not taking over their role, and making sure that kids who are truant have the proper supports, the proper time on task,” says Greiling. “They need to spend time in summer school. They need to spend time after school. The governor cut those programs. Those are what really work.”

Minnesota Issue Watch in a related story says:

In response to 1995 legislation, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office initiated the Truancy Intervention Program in all five school districts in the county for students age 12 to 16. This early intervention program, first, holds meetings with groups of parents of identified truants, then, if attendance does not improve, an individual attendance contract is negotiated with the parent and child. If truants fail to honor the contract, the parent and child are referred to the courts. Filings for truancy petitions have dropped almost 73 percent in the past two years. A total of 4,101 students from 70 schools have been processed through the program; 76 percent of them improved their attendance, according to the program’s 1996-1997 year-end report.

The Republican agenda for education like NCLB doesn’t make the grade.

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