Friday Reads

As we do every week, I asked our MN2020 staff, "What's making you happy this week?" Following, are their responses -- a list of recommended reads that we're hoping will make your Friday a little brighter.

From Michael:
Looking for Tom Lehrer, Comedy's Mysterious Genius (Buzzfeed)— While Buzzfeed may be better known for its lists and quick-hit pieces, this longer article is an interesting look at the history and current situation of Tom Lehrer, the man responsible for "The Elements Song," "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," "New Math," and many other sharp and quirky songs.

From Julia:
Glow-in-the-Dark 'Smart Highways' Replace Street Lights in the Netherlands (Inhabit) — I really enjoyed this short video because it enhances the importance of artists and thinking outside of the box. This shows examples of how smart highways in the future will function as well as possible routes to reduce our ecological footprint in regards to light energy. The ideas presented give me hope for the future of clean energy approaches for our environment.

From John:
The Nutritional Quality of Donated Food (Center for Urban and Regional Affairs) — Focusing on food shelf nutritional quality makes a big difference. From the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, one of our state's great public policy research resources.

From Conrad:
The Political Economy of Sprawl (Smart Growth for Conservatives) — Virginia blogger James A. Bacon describes himself as "one of the world’s few conservatives who supports the broader vision of the Smart Growth movement." Here he lists all the dirty reasons why red-state voters love sprawl:

From Nicole:
U.S. Views of Technology and the Future (Pew Research) — Driverless cars? Personal robot servants? The ability to control the weather? Our ideas about how technology could – and should – impact our lives over the next 50 years are documented in a new study by the Pew Research Foundation. Does the extent to which these ideas differ by gender, age, education level, and income tell us something about the present?

From Lee:
I'm reading Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Hedrick Smith's 2012 book Who Stole the American Dream and recommend it to everyone no longer pleased with the status quo and is interested in studying how we got to where we're at in hopes of bringing about change.

From Shruthi:
There's More to Life Than Being Happy (The Atlantic) — This article details what happiness is and how one can pursue happiness, and their life purpose.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Friday Reads 

Putting a Cap on Urban Redevelopment

The Green Line LRT has brought many redevelopment projects to St. Paul. One such project site involves a parcel of land on Snelling Ave., just north of I-94, known as the Bus Barn site.

The Bus Barn is part of a larger site, called Snelling Area Station. Future plans there include significant transit-oriented development, a mixed-use urban village, green space, and better leveraging retail and job opportunities. It's a solid start for developing the area.

I look forward to a final site plan and community engagement on this project. But it is missing an opportunity to be truly innovative. I want the community, the city and the developers to think about something else. Freeway Caps (or lids). What if we added these along I-94? 

I-94 divides many communities up and down its corridor. In Saint Paul, there is a clear divide from those who live on the north side of 94 from those who live on its south side. You're not likely to cross the freeway by foot or bike, unless you absolutely have to. As someone who lives south of 94, I can attest to this. Crossing the freeway, with the exception of the Griggs and Chatsworth bridges, is a pretty daunting task—narrow sidewalks, speeding traffic, windy, dirty and generally unfriendly to pedestrian and bike traffic.

As Saint Paul works on its mission to be the most ‘Livable City in America’, we need to look at other cities for inspiration: how about Florence, Italy?

Ok, ok, a little too far away? How about something closer to home? How about Dallas, TX? Columbus, Ohio? or Chicago, Illinois? Or even Minneapolis?

Freeway caps/lids are based on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy. Most freeway caps are usually turned into parks, but many cities are starting to use them for added office, retail and restaurant space.

Columbus constructed its freeway cap over I-670 to connect it’s downtown with the Short North neighborhood. Chicago is looking at covering three blocks of the Kennedy Expressway and building an office complex and a park. There are many other cities that are looking at doing this or have already done a cap. Recently, students at the ‘U’ came up with a plan to cover I-35 that would include business, retail and park space.

Saint Paul should look at building a freeway cap or lid over 94 at Snelling Ave to Pascal St. This would link the north and south side of 94, connecting a residential neighborhood with mixed use and business areas. State, local and private partnership financing could also be on the table because of the project's transformative economic potential. 

With new development on Snelling and Selby underway and the eventual redevelopment north of 94 toward University, freeway caps would help ensure more foot-powered traffic through a much longer stretch of Snelling, maximizing economic and environmental impacts. 

Is the City ready to be that innovative?

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: City Management  Minneapolis / St Paul  Roads & Highways  Infrastructure 

Weigh in on Statewide Bike Plan

Minnesotans are invited to weigh in on a forthcoming statewide bicycle system plan at nine public meetings around the state over the next several weeks. Public comments "will help us identify and recommend bike routes, improve existing facilities in the bike system and more effectively address the needs of bicyclists," says the state Department of Transportation.

Details, including an online survey and mapping tool, are available at

The meetings will include a facilitated workshop and activities for both adults and children. They will run from 4 to 6 p.m., with a community open house until 7 p.m. Here's the schedule:

St. Cloud: April 23, Whitney Senior Center, 1527 Northway Dr.

Granite Falls: April 30, Kilowatt Community Center, 600 Kilowatt Dr.

Fergus Falls: May 1, West Central Initiative, 1000 Western Av.

Mankato: May 6, Blue Earth County Library, 100 E. Main St.

Bemidji: May 7, Hampton Inn and Suites, 1019 Paul Bunyan Dr. S.

Duluth: May 8, City Hall, 411 W. First St.

Rochester: May 13, University Center Rochester, Heinz Center HA102, 1926 Collegeview Rd. E.

St. Paul: May 14, Neighborhood House at Wellstone Center, Westside Room, 179 Robie St. E.

Minneapolis: May 15, University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, 2001 Plymouth Av. N.

Your input is vital for this important initiative to expand our transportation choices. If you can't make a meeting, comment online at

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Complete Streets  Bicycles 

At the Intersection of Race, Poverty, and Language

Growing up with the toxic stress and other harmful effects of poverty is tough. So is growing up when the language at home is different from the language at school. Both at once is obviously even tougher, although students who can hold onto their home language while becoming fluent in English will have a leg up as adults. That’s the main thrust of a recent Pioneer Press piece investigating the need for, and development of, more teaching aimed at bilingual students and those still learning English.

It’s a topic that raises a host of interesting questions. Nearly 70,000 Minnesotan students this school year are officially designated as English Learners, which works out to about 8% of the statewide student population. Some districts are working with much higher concentrations; roughly one quarter of Minneapolis Public Schools students and one third of Saint Paul Public Schools students are English Learners.

Nor is the concentration of language need uniform across racial and ethnic groups.

(Data from Minnesota Department of Education)

Between 2011 and 2013, roughly two out of every five Asian and Hispanic students taking the state math test was an English Learner, most of whom were also eligible for free or reduced price lunch, a common definition of low income status.

This obviously and intuitively has an effect on test scores, even when we focus just on students coming from low income families and look at math, which is not as immediately connected to language fluency as reading.

(Data from Minnesota Department of Education)

Indeed, the effects of language fluency cut across subject matter and income levels, with the graphs for low income reading proficiency, middle/high income math proficiency, and middle/high income reading proficiency available through the links provided. These results are also summarized in the table at the end of this post.

Of course, test scores are an imperfect measure of student performance, and the arbitrary cutpoints used to define “proficient” are debatable. Still, these are not minor differences we’re seeing, and they should be a reminder that our test score gaps aren’t just about race or poverty alone, especially when comparing Asian and Hispanic students to white ones. The need for high-quality services that support English Learners is very high, and many schools do not have the resources they need to provide the support they should. We should do better.

(Data from Minnesota Department of Education)

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  Student Assessment 

Gender Pay Gap a Global Problem

While some nations have done better closing the gender pay gap than others, no country in the world pays women on average more than men, according, a website that specializes in helping people move to other countries.

South Korea was the “most significant offender” with a 37.5 percent pay difference, Russia followed with a 32.1 percent disparity.

Within the EU, new member Estonia had the biggest pay difference – 30 percent – while Germany had the second widest gap of 20.8 percent.

Other official measurements of gender gaps found the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland, along with Poland, as having the most equitable workplaces. Slovenia, however, might top them all; the Eurostat data gathering mechanism for the EU found only a 2.5 percent gap in Slovenia during 2012.

Eurostat’s February “Gender pay gap statistics” report shows women’s gross hourly earnings were 16.4 percent lower than men’s, and it was 16.7 percent lower in the 17 “euro area” nations that share the euro currency.

The Guardian newspaper raised similar concerns about women’s pay and employment in the UK within data assembled by the Organization or Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The UK’s gender gap in pay has fallen from 26 percent in 2000 to 18 percent in 2012, Gwyn Topham reported. But the UK’s overall rankings on women in the labor market placed it 18th among 27 OECD member nations.

That broader measurement ranks gender pay gaps, women’s participation rates in labor markets, unemployment rates and the proportion of full-time to part-time jobs held by women. Norway, Sweden and Denmark were the bright lights in these survey findings.

Many European counterparts are doing slightly better than the US as a whole, but they too have large gender equity issues that need fixing. How is a question we must work collectively to address. 

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Job Growth  Gender Inequalities 

What Minnesota Can Learn From Indiana’s Teacher Evaluations

They’ve measured twice, and it turns out there’s not much cutting to do.

Indiana recently released results from its new teacher evaluation system, which has been updated like many other states’ to incorporate calculations based on test scores as part of the evaluation. The results: Only 2% of teachers and administrators were identified as needing improvement, with less than a quarter of those labeled as outright ineffective. This resembles other states’ results. For example, 98% of teachers in Michigan’s new system were rated effective or better, as were 98% in Tennessee and 97% in Florida.

For those who believe that educational inequity is the result of an epidemic of bad teaching, these results raise eyebrows. For everyone, they raise questions. How many of this year’s teachers who “need improvement” or are “ineffective” will be rated as effective or better next year? How about the year after that? What is the appropriate response to teachers labeled “ineffective”? What is the “right” percentage of “ineffective” teachers?

Teacher evaluation is still growing as both a process and a policy tool. Various critics have questioned the validity and usefulness of in-person observations. Critics have also challenged the accuracy, reliability, and usefulness of evaluation techniques that rely on calculations based on student test scores. And none of that helps figure out what should happen when the evaluation system stamps a teacher “ineffective.”

As Minnesota looks ahead to statewide implementation of its new evaluation system in 2014-15, we can learn from other states’ experiences. We shouldn’t expect a large share of our teachers to be labeled “ineffective.” We shouldn’t bet on firing teachers as a major path to improvement and equity. And we should give more thought to how we focus on support and improvement for teachers at all points on the evaluation scale rather than hoping that the hunt for bad teachers will fix much of our equity problem.

We could interpret the results from Indiana and other states as a sign that most teachers really are effective at their jobs. Some will no doubt argue that we just aren’t being tough enough in our evaluations. Others will argue that we still don’t have the tools we need to reliably assess quality on a large scale. Whatever your interpretation, our focus for the next few years should be on supporting and developing teachers as professionals, not betting on the new system unmasking thousands of terrible teachers.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Teachers  Teacher Assessment 


Video: A $9.50 Minimum Wage is now a Law

Smiling faces filled the rotunda as Governor Dayton singed the minimum wage bill into law. Many advocates, community leaders and low-wage workers got to see there hard work pay off as Minnesota’s new minimum wage has officially been increased to $9.50 by 2016. 

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Job Growth  Minimum Wage 

Issues that Matter in 2014’s Mid-term

November's mid-term elections are coming fast, especially since absentee voting will allow Minnesotans to cast ballots as early as mid-September.

What issues matter in this election?

To conservatives, there appears to be only one: Obamacare.

This is a shortsighted view because a) Obamacare has become well established in law and economics, and therefore b) the electorate at large will not vote based on this single issue.

The most important issues facing voters, according to a March, 2014 Gallup poll are, in rank order:

No other issue received more than 10%. And, of the four main issues identified, the number of people identifying health care as the most important problem has declined six points since December to 11%. Conversely, the percent identifying unemployment as the biggest issue facing this country has gone from 12% to 19%.

Comparing the candidates in Minnesota’s Second Congressional District demonstrates how out of touch conservatives are. For example, in recent times, Conservative John Kline has emphasized repealing Obamacare, funding for charter schools (since he can't get his proposed repeal of No Child Left Behind passed by the Senate), raising the age of eligibility for Social Security as his method of debt reduction and finding solvency for social security.

His press releases are telling: most are related to Obamacare; one touts his support for the IRS investigation. His Twitter feed focuses on charter schools, when he is not spinning the questions at his private telephone town hall conferences. Most telling, at this writing, is the Senate’s passage of a long term unemployment insurance extension—and a letter sent by seven House Republicans urging the bill to be brought to the House floor. Mr. Kline was not among the seven.

On the other hand, Mike Obermueller is focusing on middle class issues: raising the minimum wage, extending long term unemployment insurance, equal pay for equal work, finding a path to citizenship for out of status immigrants, using many of the 30 steps recommended by the Congressional Budget Office for ensuring Social Security's solvency, including, among others, increasing the cap on Social Security wages.

Why do conservatives focus on repeal of Obamacare? Do they rely on poll numbers suggesting that a majority find disfavor with the health care law? If so, they need be careful: although a majority might find dissatisfaction with Obamacare, a large portion offer that opinion because Obamacare does not go far enough!  Conservatives are wrong to think that dissatisfaction with Obamacare is based only on those who think the law is bad policy.

As Ethan Demers has written,  “The GOP will not succeed in the upcoming midterm elections if it proves itself to be a single-issue party. Unfortunately, that appears to be exactly what Republican Party leadership is aiming for.” Some conservatives see the problem the same way.

Mr. Kline is not one of them.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Minnesota Elections 

The Dean on the Screen

There’s not much poetry in our education discussions, but one pair of rhymes has endured. “The sage on the stage” and “the guide on the side” describe teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, respectively. The two have been engaged in a boxing match over the direction of pedagogy for decades.

For most schools during most of U.S. history, the teacher-centered sage has been the champion, so much so that I’d bet when most people hear the word “teacher,” they first picture an adult in front of a chalkboard or whiteboard at the front of a classroom.

The student-centered guide has mostly been the plucky challenger, though recently it’s gained more attention. While teacher-centered instruction is still the dominant mode of education—further reinforced every time a school or district adopts a heavily scripted curriculum that precludes most student-centered approaches—some people are growing increasingly interested in how technology can help more teachers move to the guide role.

We have to be intentional about how we incorporate technology into education, at least if we want it to help students. Those hoping for “The Dean on the Screen” to automatically transform stage-sages into side-guides are in for disappointment, especially after recent years have penned in so many teachers with narrow curriculum and teacher-centered approaches mandated from above. Effectively incorporating new technology with new teaching requires the change in instructional approach to precede, or at least accompany, the new tech.

A move to a more student-centered approach is good, and technology will be useful. However, effective student-centered teaching doesn’t require the latest in modern technology. In fact, pinning our instructional hopes on new tech is basically a guarantee they won’t be realized, at least in the short term. Basically every given piece of shiny new technology is subject to the Gartner hype cycle, where we imagine the grand new possibilities, then find that the technology alone doesn’t get us there, and then (maybe) climb out of the “Trough of Disillusionment.”

Here’s the bottom line: If you want student-centered schools, make student-centered schools. To the extent technology is helpful, use it. To the extent it’s overhyped, avoid it. But focus on the teaching, not the tech.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Classroom Methods  Curriculum 

The Trend Toward Flexibility

In my last blog, I wrote about how Minnesota's electricity system is paving the way for more renewable energy. More specifically, by voting in favor of adding solar alongside more natural gas - typically used with more flexible generation technology that can accomodate intermittent generation like solar or wind - the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission not only increased the share of solar in the mix in the short term, but pushed the entire system toward being more compatible with larger amounts of renewable energy technologies down the road.

Apparently, Minnesota is not unique in this respect.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) “Today in Energy” daily article last Tuesday revealed that half of the additional capacity built in 2013 was natural gas. And in second place, accounting for 22% of the additional capacity: solar. In two of the ten states adding the most capacity to the grid in 2013, Kansas and Michigan, wind accounted for the majority of their additional capacity. In fact, only two states, Texas and Indiana, added any coal to their portfolios.

Economics is likely the main driving force behind this trend. In the last five years, rapid expansion of large-scale shale gas operations has increased dry shale gas production from 1.0 trillion cubic feet to 4.8 trillion cubic feet between 2006 and 2010. This has driven prices down from around $10 per million Btu to under $4 at times making coal relatively less economical. Solar and wind have also taken off as the cost of the technology (particularly solar photovoltaic) and incentives have driven down prices and delivered respectable rates of return on project investments.

But policy is also driving the trend. Renewable Portfolio Standards, passed in 37 states, mandate or encourage the use of renewable energy technologies to generate a specified portion of a state’s electricity. The need for greater flexibility in the system to accommodate the intermittency of these technologies to comply with these laws along with their greater efficiency is influencing resource planning decisions to favor combined cycle generation plants.

As can be seen in the EIA’s handy graphic, a large portion of both natural gas and even coal plants are being built with combined cycle technology as opposed to conventional technologies. There’s even a small but noticeable amount of solar thermal capacity employing storage technology, another component to making the system more flexible.

Renewable energy accounts for about 12% of electricity generation in the U.S., as of 2013. That figure is expected to increase to 16% by 2040 under the EIA's base or reference case. This is likely too small of an increase and too small of a percentage overall to reduce emissions from electricity generation enough to to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But this projection could change in either direction with changes in policy or costs. If states, like Minnesota, continue to move toward a more renewable energy compatible system through their resource planning decisions, this number could perhaps be a lot higher and put the U.S. as a whole on track to make a substantial dent on our CO2 footprint.

Posted in Energy & Environment | Related Topics: Energy  Coal Power 

Next Page