Seven successes of Minnesota education in 2014

Joe Nathan
By Joe Nathan
ECM Columnist

Seven Minnesota education stories strike me as especially encouraging in looking back on 2014. This isn’t to suggest everything is perfect. But we should give students, families, school faculty, Gov. Mark Dayton and state legislators credit for some important steps.

First, in a terrific Senate hearing, eight state teachers of the year offered their ideas. Legislators listened carefully. It appears that several of their suggestions will be included in 2015 legislation. More than 25 percent of the Minnesota Senate attended this hearing, Democrats and Republicans. As mentioned in my column about this hearing (http://bit.ly/1uMHF6m), it’s likely that some of the teachers’ ideas will be used to help develop new or revise existing laws on education.

Second, expanding on the idea of listening to and empowering teachers, a Minnesota group of educators and policy experts called Education Evolving published a new report (online at http://bit.ly/1zeLYwG) that described the idea of “teacher led” schools. A national poll found that 85 percent of the public and 78 percent of educators think it’s a good idea, the report said. Moreover 54 percent of teachers are “very interested” in participating in such an arrangement. We’ll be talking more about this in the coming year.

Third, with leadership from Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray, DFL Minneapolis, the Legislature passed a new law designed to help more students for whom English is not their first language. The law, called Learning for English Academic Proficiency and Success, or LEAPS, includes the latest research on what will most help these students. University faculty, district and charter educators combined to provide information for this law.

Fourth, building on previously adopted legislation, Minnesota began implementation of statewide all-day, every-day kindergarten and an expansion of preschool programs for students from low-income families. Considerable research shows the value of these programs.

Fifth, recognizing that a good start is important, but not enough, Minnesota has encouraged many high school students to take college-level courses. Minnesota’s Department of Education reported that the number of Minnesota 11th- and 12th-graders taking and passing Advanced Placement exams more than doubled from 2004 to 2014, from 8.5 percent to 18.1 percent (read my column on this topic at http://bit.ly/1zeNf6P). Since 2010, Minnesota AP course-taking is up 32 percent by American Indians, 57 percent by Asian Americans, 61 percent by African Americans and 98 percent by Hispanics, according to a report.

Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius wrote, in part: “This is one more piece of good news for our kids, teachers and families that Minnesota is on the right path and making progress. More and more, our students are getting a head start on their postsecondary education.”

New University of Minnesota preliminary research of more than 31,000 students showed how valuable AP and other dual-credit courses can be. It found that students from low-income families who participated in any of these programs earned first-semester and first-year grades that were comparable to more affluent students who had not participated in these programs. Thus, participating in dual-credit was an important “gap closing” strategy.

Sixth, a bipartisan coalition, initiated by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, started discussion of potential goals for completion of some form of higher education, whether it be via a certificate or diploma. The group also recognized the importance of helping young people understand the kinds of jobs available and skills required for both current and potential jobs (read more about the meeting at http://bit.ly/1GlAHdW).

Finally, though there were many fine books published about learning and teaching, one of my favorites was “Teaching with Heart,” which I wrote about in a column, online at http://bit.ly/1oAGYLe.

This book features short essays by educators, several of whom are Minnesotans. They comment on poems that inspire their work. One, written by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, cites “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. The poem ends with a sentence that applies to some of what great teachers do: “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]