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Charting a New Consensus on Education

July 17, 2007 By Steve Kelley, Special to Minnesota 2020

Steve Kelley is the Director of the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy housed at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, and was the chair of the Minnesota Senate Education Committee from 2003 through 2006.

The 2007 legislative session demonstrated that divided government is bad for Minnesota's kids.  We do not have a bipartisan strategy for improving Minnesota's schools.  It looks like policymakers will just be muddling through until the era of divided government ends or we develop bipartisan consensus on what needs to be done to get better outcomes for all students. 

Minnesotans have to start by recognizing that federal education policy is dysfunctional and that states are going to have to do the best we can in the face of challenges created by Congress and the President.  That may change but I'm not optimistic.  Minnesota and our school districts are being forced to pay too much of the cost of the national commitment to educating all children with disabilities.  In addition, the No Child Left Behind Act prevents innovation and forces districts to overemphasize basic skills testing at the expense of other goals.

The essential first step to a broad improvement strategy is to agree on the goal of K-12 education. We ought to prepare all students to be successful in some college program: technical or community college or a 4 year college, even if some students choose not to go on to college.  Many organizations have adopted this outcome for our schools but we need to make sure it is it accepted nearly universally. We need to achieve that goal if Minnesota and the country is going to compete successfully in a global economy. 

Step two is to recognize that we cannot achieve this much bigger, 21st century expectation for schools with 20th century funding levels.  The goal is, in a sense, a doubling of our previous expectations and we need to invest more in public education if we are to have any chance of getting where we need to go.  Improved efficiency and effectiveness are needed, true.  Yet we just can't squeeze enough out of a labor intensive system to achieve the goal without more resources. 

In order to prepare students for success and ensure future citizens have the background they need, we must make science and math education more exciting and effective and careers in science and engineering more attractive.  We have to dramatically improve how we engage girls and kids of color in the technical subjects so that they master the subject matter.  Expanding hands-on learning and complex problem-solving to improve learning in science and other subjects is a good first step. 

The National Governors Association and other groups have been emphasizing the need to strengthen innovation among America's workers and companies.  One of their strategies is to improve the scientific and technical skills of our graduates.  Technical skill mastery is necessary but not sufficient for innovation.  We have to wed technical skill with creativity.  Design must be an essential component of engineering.  All our kids must be able to bring different, existing ideas together in their minds and imagine the new.  NCLB and funding stress are driving innovative preparation and innovation as a goal out of our schools.   We have no alternative to putting art and music together with science and math in our schools if we are to keep the creative and economic edge that Americans have enjoyed.

Americans and Minnesotans are divided over many issues.  We simply must restore the common, shared belief, held by our founders, that knowledge and skill in the arts and the sciences is essential to democracy and self-government in a free nation.  The task won't be easy but we can forge the common good by pounding out a new vision for success in public education which we can all support.

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