Looking back over 2013, I think Minnesota parents, policymakers, taxpayers and educators sent each other three major, memorable messages about public schools. Column readers sent me more than 1,000 comments in 2013. Your messages helped me reach these conclusions:
• We’re willing to put more money into education, especially if it appears that additional funds will have a strong positive impact.
• We need to broaden the way we assess students and schools.
• Many people are looking for something different than the traditional approach to public education.
Let’s take them one by one.
First, Gov. Mark Dayton, Minnesota legislators and many local voters were willing to spend more money on education in 2013. For example, the Legislature allocated more than $170 million to help support all-day, every-day kindergarten and fund early childhood education scholarships for students from low-income families.
Moreover, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association, local voters approved 51 of 59 operating levies, and 23 of 26 requests for buildings or other capital expenses. The 86.4 percent local levy approval rate was the highest since the association began keeping track in 1980. Bloomington, Braham, Cambridge-Isanti, Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Little Falls, Mounds View, Orono, Osseo, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, St. Louis Park and Stillwater were among the communities that passed some form of referendum.
Second, we need to broaden the way we assess students and schools. The Legislature responded to concerns about over-reliance on traditional, statewide, standardized tests. Led by people such as state Rep. Carlos Mariani, Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, the Legislature eliminated its requirement that students must pass standardized tests in reading and writing before graduating from high school.
Legislators substituted a mixture of assessments. Students will be asked to take tests designed to help them understand how close they are to meeting expectations of Minnesota’s post-secondary institutions that offer one-, two- and four-year programs. Students also will be expected to develop plans for what they plan to do after high school. The Minnesota Business Partnership and Minnesota Chamber of Commerce are very concerned about removing the requirement that students pass tests before they graduate.
This change is part of why I think it’s so important, as I wrote last week, for the Minnesota Department of Education to issue an annual report on the number of graduates taking remedial courses on entering colleges and universities. The Legislature requires this be done yearly. But the last report was released in January 2011.
There’s also growing discussion among educators about other things that need assessing. Paul Tough, a speaker at the annual Education Minnesota conference in October, explained that successful students develop persistence and what he calls “grit.” Some alternative and charter educators in Minnesota have been talking about how this could be measured.
Third, many families are looking for something different than the traditional approach to public education. For example:
• Increasing numbers of students are participating in some form of dual credit courses (for high school and college credit). Marisa Gustafson of our (Center for School Change) staff did an analysis of Minnesota Department of Education data. Over the last several years, the number of Minnesota students taking Advanced Placement courses has increased by 44 percent, those taking International Baccalaureate courses by 70 percent, those taking College in the Schools courses by 14 percent and those taking Post Secondary Enrollment courses by 9 percent.
• The number of Minnesota families sending their youngsters to charter public schools increased again, as it has over the past 20 years. Charter K-12 enrollment grew by more than 2,000 from the 2011-12 to the 2012-13 school year.
Meanwhile, the number of K-12 students attending district public schools declined by about 4,800. Most Minnesota K-12 students still attend district public schools.
But during the past decade, the number attending charters has increased about 30,000, while the number attending district public schools has declined by more than 40,000.
A growing number of districts, including Anoka-Hennepin, Edina, Farmington, Forest Lake, Hopkins, Lakeville, Minnetonka, Osseo and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan are offering options to their families.
Minnesotans seem willing to spend more money on education, but not just for more of the same.
By Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, who directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org.