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MN2020 - Minnesota 2020 Journal: Collapsing
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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Collapsing

August 03, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

On August 1, 2007, the Interstate 35W Mississippi River Bridge in downtown Minneapolis fell in horrifying, cascading fashion. Five years later, to the day, the Minnesota Department of Education released its 2011-2012 statewide assessment results. The first is a cautionary tale for the latter. Overload a structure long enough, surpassing its design capacity, and eventually the structure collapses.

Minnesota’s recent school year produced a strong, positive testing outcome. Scores are up. Kids in grades 3-8 continue improving their rate of reading and math proficiency.

“The upward trends we’re seeing show that we are on the right path to prepare our students for success,” said Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. “As teachers, principals and districts continue to sharpen their focus on reading well by third grade; I believe we’ll continue to see even greater gains across all grade levels as time goes on.”

This statement is pulled straight from MDE’s press release. It’s accurate and merits repeating. Minnesota, reflecting our strong public education tradition, has adeptly adapted to public expectations of improving student performance.

There are, however, some troubling spots. The achievement gap, the testing performance difference between white and non-white students remains uncomfortably large. Students of color test proficiency rates are significantly and stubbornly lower than majority culture students. Grade 11 math proficiency scores edged down this year rather than up, coming at a moment when those same students need to pass the high school graduation math test.

But, all in all, it’s a good report. I have just one troubling concern. How do we expect test scores to continue rising, reflecting real student mastery of content, when we keep taking money from schools? Like a bridge, increasing the load without improving structural integrity, schools eventually risk genuine collapse. Where the 35W Bridge collapsed in a single, horrific moment, school collapse will be a slow, water torture style decline.

Twin conservative educational policies have produced this moment. The first is the insistence that, however much money that we’re spending on any public function, it’s too much. The second is the dark narrative that addressing educational underachievement is solely a teacher’s responsibility and, by extension, solely a teacher’s fault. The first policy strips funding from schools while the second assigns blame for a host of complex phenomena impacting student performance, pointing a finger at the one group of people that are daily working to improve student achievement.

It’s a neat package. Spend less on schools, increase performance expectations and then blame educators for failing to achieve results. Further manipulate public discontent by then repeating in a nifty, endless tautological loop.

The federal No Child Left Behind law, passed in 2001, facilitated this policy shift by creating uniform standardized national testing criteria. NCLB, went one step further however, mandating that every child in every school in every district achieve testing proficiency by 2013. Through this mechanism, NCLB institutionalized the idea that public schools were failing. It’s the public policy equivalent of a straw man argument, a logical fallacy where the premise only exists to be refuted.

Minnesota’s schools face plenty of real, genuine and complex challenges. We don’t need public educational finance policy that passes harmful preplanned outcomes off as objective cost-benefit analysis.

Broadly, Minnesota’s schools have two objectives. They’re different sides of the same coin. Schools prepare workforce and schools prepare citizens. Success with the former is easier to measure than it is with the latter. In either case, we can’t truly know the results for a generation. There’s the rub, not to mention the risk.

Since NCLB’s implementation, test result improvement pressures have certainly raised test scores but with an unanticipated consequence. Schools are focusing on curriculum that results in improved NCLB-mandated testing. Teachers are teaching to the test. It’s much, much less clear if that shift will yield better, flexible, and adaptable workers or even more engaged citizens.

While I have strong opinions about schools, teaching, learning, and just about everything to do with education, I try not to take pedagogical sides. I do know that decreasing school funding results in fewer teaching tools and curricular options, narrowing rather than widening the educational path to success.

The State of Minnesota spends 13 percent fewer inflation-adjusted dollars on K-12 schools than it spent eight years ago. Schools districts have increased property taxes and cut budgets. We are headed in an unsustainable direction. Minnesota is overdue to renew its commitment to schooling. The alternative—staying on Minnesota’s present policy path—is, like the 35W Bridge’s collapse, an unavoidable outcome.

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