Learning to Ask the Right People the Right Questions

It’s interesting to me that so much of the work of a student in school is about finding the “right” answers, while so many leaders and policy makers struggle to find the right questions.

Earlier this month, the education-focused Hechinger Report covered the debate within many districts about which technology to buy. The article’s frame emphasized the tablet vs. laptop split (which, as the article noted, is mostly an iPad vs. laptop split, since nearly all tablets used in schools are iPads). In exploring this specific question, the article touched on a broader point: Before we can make these choices, we must pose the right questions to the right people.

This is most clearly demonstrated when the article quotes a veteran teacher who has successfully incorporated iPads into much of his practice. He said, “You’ll probably never find the answer of what is the right device. First you have to ask: What do you want the device to do for your children?”

Think about those last two words. “Your children.” That could refer either to a parent or guardian’s children or to a teacher’s students. Both groups—families and teachers—need to be included when making these decisions.

This inclusion must go beyond tokenism. Putting one teacher and one parent in a working group with ten district administrators is not inclusion. Holding a meeting to tell faculty or families about the district’s plan after it’s been set is not inclusion. The conversations that must happen in more schools and more districts are about what families want for their children, what teachers need to help meet those goals, and how schools can support that work.

Not every decision can be made this way, but many more should be. Education technology is poised to become a $10 billion industry in the next couple of years. If new tech is to have an effect on learning, teaching is going to need to change to take advantage of what the new tools offer. Making good decisions here requires including the people closest to the classroom in defining priorities, responsibilities, and plans.

This style of education governance isn’t very common right now. Recent reforms have focused more on top-down technocracy for teachers and encouraging families to leave schools rather than help improve them. We could do with a little more democracy to figure out what we want technology, and really schools in general, to do for children.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education 

Politics of Anger

Last week, I spent 16 hours sitting in a DFL booth at our county fair. For those who have not had the opportunity to participate as a volunteer in a political booth at an event like a county fair, it is an interesting experience. It gives you the opportunity to talk with people;  some who agree with you and some who do not. Actually, the most interesting discussions can be with those who disagree. I know I have had discussions lasting more than 30 minutes with people who hold opposite views to mine. We often end by agreeing to disagree and shake hands. These are good educating discussions—giving us all a chance to understand those with different viewpoints than ours.

It is also fun to hand out candy to kids. We asked the kids to promise to vote when they turn 18 if they took a piece of candy. I am not sure how many will remember their promise, but if one more person votes when turning 18, it is worth the effort. By the way, they just had to promise to vote—not for any particular person or party. Some of the other good things about the fair is you have people come to the booth, and say they did not realize there were other democrats in the area. This is probably not true in the metro area, but it certainly is if you live where I do. We do get a chance with these people to invite them to our meetings and events. For me, another good thing about the fair is the opportunity for some good food. It is not the State Fair, but the 4H booth had some good hamburgers.

So, I told you some of the good things about the fair, but there was one event that really upset me. A gentleman walked by our booth and made some comments accusing us of various things, most of which I missed, but I heard him say that we were trying to destroy Christianity. Now I know destroying Christianity is not in our platform, but what bothers me the most is the anger and bitterness of this gentleman.

Many of us really get emotional about our political views, and often call our opponents names, although not always out loud. For me politics should be a way to express different views, and then have our governing bodies develop a strategy for the future using those opposing views. Yes, sometimes I may be too utopian, but whatever our political views we need to avoid the anger and out of control emotion.

If we want to end the polarization that is taking over national, state and local politics, then we have to listen to our opponents respectfully, and not resort to name calling. At times it may be difficult, but I think it worth the effort.

Posted in News & Notes

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A One-Sided Fight over St. Paul’s Streets

Under pressure from the City Council last week, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman outlined a $54 million street-improvement program—more than 10 percent of his proposed $515 million operating budget for 2015. Hizzoner thus significantly raised a group of rebellious council members' bid of $22 million for streets after they likened his earlier plan to "putting a Band-Aid on a broken hip."

There's a lesson here. Despite all the buzz about Americans' flagging interest in driving, despite Congress's serial brinksmanship over highway funding, despite all of St. Paul's recent transit improvements connected with the Green Line light rail launch, it's where the rubber meets the road that still counts in transportation policymaking.

And despite all the conservative grumbling about subsidies for transit, it's motorists who do most of the feeding at the public trough. Little of Coleman's $54 million for rebuilding and repaving streets, and not a penny of the $34.4 million in new money he's earmarking, will come from user fees for driving such as fuel taxes and registration fees. Instead, it comes from taxes and special assessments on property, whether the owners drive or not.

Now, it's been argued that city streets are a "public good" that benefit drivers and non-drivers alike by providing access for buses, bicycles and emergency services while boosting property values and commercial activity. True enough, but who comprises the overwhelming predominance of traffic on those streets? The folks behind the wheel who pay nothing directly for the privilege.

Coleman's plan focuses on rebuilding bumpy arterial streets, some of which may qualify for Minnesota's 9 percent share of highway user funding that goes to Municipal Street Aid. More money may actually come from diverting $10 million of a $14.5 million residential street repair fund to the arterials. That's not a bad idea. I've often thought that city streets where people live should be left in lousy shape to discourage drivers from speeding. I've even dreamed of turning them into greenways, limiting everyday motor access to the alleys.

The mayor's budget calls for 2.4 percent increase in the property tax levy, a sure target for criticism from some quarters. But if spending trims begin, don't look for any in street repairs. A more likely candidate for the axe is Coleman's proposed introduction of paid parental leave for city workers. The projected cost there is $200,000—or 0.37 percent of his streets budget.

The way this plays out will tell us once again what we value most in our autocentric society.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Roads & Highways 

The True Potential for MOOCs

Massive open online courses, MOOCs for short, burst onto the education scene in 2012. Their emergence as the ‘cutting-edge’ future of education supposedly spelled the end for traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and K-12 education.

Put simply, this shift hasn’t happened, nor will it.

Along these same lines, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul recently proposed a “revolutionary” education plan that limits oversight and funding for national education policy.

He suggests that: “if you have one person in the country who is, like, the best at explaining calculus, that person maybe should teach every calculus class in the country.” The reasoning behind Paul’s philosophy is identical to that of advocates for fully realized MOOC education.

Simplistic statements about who is “best” at something aside, Paul seems to be attempting to fit the wide discipline of education into one small aspect of teaching, the explanation of content. Using this worldview it must surely be deplorable that no one has learned everything there is to know on all known subjects. Wikipedia has all of the information right there!

But maybe education requires more than explanation. Perhaps students benefit more from interaction with a learned professional who encourages individual engagement with complex notions and creative means to solve problems.

Educator James Goodman wrote on Salon.com that: “Real learning comes from engaging with material. Whether you’re forming an argument about a character’s motives in a novel, debating the root causes of World War I, trying to make sense of the relationship between temperature and pressure of gases, or trying to understand the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, the best learning doesn’t happen when the answers are simply given to you.”

In many cases, MOOCs may fit into this equation in order to learn about an interesting subject you didn’t have time for in school or to pursue a hobby or passion, with more intention.

EdX, the non-profit host of free MOOCs from institutions such as Harvard and MIT, has shown nearly 2.5 million students interested in their courses; however, only 10 percent complete the coursework. MOOCs have transformed from an omen of education’s doom to a “genre.” Similar to web series housed on YouTube, such as CrashCourse, these online video-based courses aim to reach interested parties to increase knowledge, not replace educational institutions.

Schools are not perfect in their mission for educating our children. However, they offer far more than only a computer screen ever will.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Community Education 

Learning Across Generations and the Conditions for Innovation

The more time I spend studying interesting efforts to improve education, the more examples I see of isolated examples that do an extraordinary job of combining the right resources and people to achieve great things. Figuring out how to make the extraordinary more, well, ordinary means thinking about the conditions that help these sorts of efforts begin and thrive.

Recently, Education Week covered the growth of programs aimed at helping parents and guardians raise their own educational level as their children go through school. Responding to the well-documented associations between children’s educational outcomes and those of their parents, these programs are meant to interrupt the intergenerational cycles of educational struggle.

Especially with the rising cost of child care, people often struggle to add post-secondary work to their jobs and child-related responsibilities. Finding ways to integrate child care with meaningful educational opportunities for adults offers one way to meet two needs at once.

In one example, a community college co-located two high schools on site. According to Education Week’s reporting, "The college and high schools integrate child care for parents taking classes, and try to frame instruction in ways relating to parents’ career goals and parenting issues.”

It would be quite possible for more Minnesota communities to sustain similar efforts. Local high schools and MnSCU branches could partner up with early childhood educators in different ways depending on local needs.

The underlying conditions required for such efforts to be successful on a wide scale include adequate K-12 and postsecondary funding, committed leadership, proactive engagement with families, and sustained investment in early childhood education.

Each of those conditions is achievable, and each one has additional benefits beyond enabling the kind of multigenerational education Education Week profiled. This broader, more inclusive vision for education is about laying the fundamentals for many different innovative approaches that can adapt to provide what’s best for each area’s students.

Supporting democratic, community-minded education should be a progressive goal as the limitations of technocratic and market-based reform grow clearer.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Community Schools 

Minnesota’s Suicide Rates

The Minnesota Department of Health expects to share new data in early September on suicide deaths across the state with the hope rates decrease, or at least hold steady. Minnesota has seen a continuous rise in suicides over the last decade, especially among older adults— a direction that mirrors a national trend in adult suicides. 

Jon Roesler of the Minnesota Department of Health says there has been an increase in suicide across the state in all age and demographic groups —especially in the “baby boomer” generation—a demographic to which Robin Williams, at age 63, belonged. As the state population ages, there are higher rates of suicide death. In fact, between 2010 and 2030, the number of adults age 65+ is expected to nearly double. Roesler calls it a “perfect storm.”  Roesler additionally notes another disturbing trend: an increase in the number of women dying by suicide.

While loss of jobs may be a contributing factor, Roesler stresses there are multiple stressers including isolation, substance abuse and mental illness. Roesler says “it’s feeling like a new normal and not a satisfactory new normal.” He also was quick to add that there is hope on the way. “The good news is that is suicide prevention programs help," says Roesler. He adds, "We have seen it work especially in youth prevention".

The Minnesota Department of Health is currently working on a new state suicide prevention plan that will "look at how to take our limited resources and make effective policy.” That plan is expected to be released January of 2015.

Beginning September 1, Minnesota will be able to participate in a national data system that Roesler feels will help guide state policy. Just last Tuesday, Minnesota was approved for the needed $216,000 in funding for the National Violent Death Reporting System operated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The system will allow the state to collect data on circumstances on violent death (which includes suicide and homicides) which will ultimately help drive suicide prevention policy by determining risk factors.

"Everyone in Minnesota has a role to play in preventing suicides," said Dr. Dan Reidenberg, SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices for Education Executive Director). "By knowing the warning signs and what to do if you are concerned about someone, you can save a life."  There are a number of suicide prevention hotlines available 24 hours a day.

Check out Tuesday's online discussion about mental health. 

Posted in Health Care | Related Topics: Mental Health 


Moose Inspire Public-Private Partnership

Aiming to restore the dwindling moose population, the state of Minnesota has blazed a new trail in environmental research funding. On August 11, Minnesota launched the first of its kind public-private partnership with the Call of the Moose campaign. This innovative collaboration will set a precedent for future public-private relationships to enhance scientific attainability.

Moose are iconic animals, but they struggle to survive. Minnesota’s moose population dropped by 52 percent since 2010. The reason behind the rapid plunge in moose survival is not yet clear. Various factors like ticks, abandonment, wolves, habitat destruction, and disease play a role, but more research is needed to reverse the downward trend.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently conducting the largest research project ever undertaken in the state to solve the moose dilemma. The DNR created the Minnesota Moose Research and Management Plan, which outlines strategies to track moose populations, evaluate causes of death, regulate hunting, monitor disease and parasites, and examine moose-habitat relationships.

All of this research is expensive. Community support for moose population restoration is inadequate. The state of Minnesota stepped into new territory by partnering with the Les Kouba Marketing Group (LRM) to raise funds for moose research and launch awareness efforts.

In memory of renowned wildlife artist Les Kouba, the LRM will donate a portion of its profits from sponsorship or sales of Kouba products to fund moose research over the next three years.

Artwork by Kouba is also featured on the new critical-habitat license plate, which depicts an adult moose next to the words, “Reinvest in Minnesota.” Available since August 1st, the moose license plate is an addition to a statewide conservation fundraiser, with seven other animal plates offered, to raise money for habitat restoration and environmental research.

The Call of the Moose campaign embodies Minnesota’s dedication to ecological restoration and scientific achievement. The new public-private partnership will surely demonstrate the benefits of joint resources and support. Hopefully, Minnesota legislators will continue to consider this new type of coalition as a potential strategy for other fundraising efforts to expand the state’s research and innovation capabilities.

Posted in Energy & Environment | Related Topics: Environment 

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Friday Reads from the MN2020 Staff

Happy Friday! Below are a few things that we've enjoyed reading this week. 

From Lucas:
Urban Growler in St. Anthony Park: “We are the new Northeast” (CityPages) — St. Anthony park is quickly becoming the "New Northeast." I made a pit stop at one of the areas new breweries, Urban Growler, this weekend. Their food and beer is great. This is one of many new exciting small businesses emerging along the Green Line.

From Michael:
How John Oliver Beats Apathy (The Atlantic) — A nice piece examining what John Oliver has done differently with his new show that makes it both entertaining and an often-effective call-to-action.

From Deb:
Once doomed State Fair carousel marks 100th birthday (KARE 11) — Boyd Huppert of KARE 11 is one of my favorite story tellers.

From Conrad:
I've been harping lately on the policy silliness in Washington over highway funding. It's so bad that even a right-winger like U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden occasionally lapses into semi-sense. He briefly voiced support the other day for raising federal fuel taxes -- with a typical conservative proviso that increases in the regressive levy at the pump should be balanced with cuts elsewhere, most likely the progressive income tax -- but almost immediately backed away, without further comment on the flip-flop. Anyway, here's some real sense from the Bipartisan Policy Center on what to do about this recurring problem.

From Nick:
Spot The Historical Error In This “Downton Abbey” Publicity Picture (BuzzFeed) -- Guys, you had ONE job.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Friday Reads 

Subprime Loans: Round Two?

The subprime mortgage crisis was a central cause of the recent recession. In short, lenders were providing expensive mortgages to low-income borrowers at an unprecedented rate. Once the housing bubble popped, subprime borrowers defaulted in droves, which helped push the deeply imbricated global financial system to the brink of collapse.

In the wake of the financial crisis, several regulations have been put in place to reform lending practices, like the rule that “prohibits a creditor from making a higher-priced mortgage loan without regard to the consumer’s ability to repay the loan.” Subprime loans have since faded from prominence.

Recent headlines, though, tell a different story. The alarms have been raised; subprime lending is back. Wells Fargo, the largest originator of loans in Minnesota, has lowered the minimum FICO score for FHA backed loans to 600—subprime loan territory. Federal prosecutors have started to investigate the burgeoning subprime auto loan market, which is particularly suspect since most dealers operate outside the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau's jurisdiction. Even President Obama has pushed loan originators to expand lending opportunitites. Since big banks have been wary of loosening lending standards, subprime lending firms, some of which are run by the same people who engaged in irresponsible lending practices in the run-up to the financial crisis, are seizing the opportunity to offer products that look eerily similar to the ones that brought the global financial system to its knees.

The question is this: does the creeping availability of subprime loans merely represent an opportunity for creditworthy borrowers who have recently been excluded from the tight credit market, or an insidious return to pre-2008 lending practices?

Fortunately, it appears that lenders are extending subprime loans in a relatively responsible and restrained way, at least for now. If they are again used irresponsibly though, there could be several unpalatable social and economic effects. The global financial system and our economy could falter, again. Subprime loans have a nasty discriminatory streak as well—a study by the Institute of Race and Poverty found that high-income people of color in Minnesota are more likely to be given a subprime loan than low-income whites, which is both astonishing and emblematic of the problems subprime loans can involve. 

Policymakers and the public should watch the reemergence of subprime lending closely. Subprime loans are not inherently harmful but they can quickly become ruinous. Regulatory agencies like the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and the Minnesota Department of Commerce must be empowered to ensure that any surge in subprime loans represents an increase in responsible lending to creditworthy borrowers and not a return to the reckless predatory lending that was a principal cause of the financial crisis. 

Posted in Fiscal Policy | Related Topics: Financial Industry  Personal Finance 

The State as a Model Employer

Our public workforce should reflect our state’s diversity, but Minnesota is not living up to this standard.  Research shows that 10 percent of Minnesota’s civilian noninstitutionalized population has a disability, but only a little more than three percent of state public employees are disabled. The state’s disabled workforce has been shrinking for 15 years—now is the time to reverse the trend.

In response to recent criticism by disability advocates, Governor Mark Dayton issued an executive order last week that urges state agencies to hire more workers with disabilities. The order outlines a goal to double the amount of Minnesota’s public employees with disabilities to at least 7 percent by August 2018.

Under Dayton’s order, all Executive Branch Agencies must work to hire more people with disabilities by designing better recruitment strategies, updating hiring tools, training managers and human resource personnel, and submitting quarterly progress reports.

As the largest employer in Minnesota, the state is responsible for offering employment opportunities to all of its citizens. The talents of individuals with disabilities cannot be overlooked.

Governor Dayton’s executive order will hopefully inspire the state to embrace its potential as a model employer. As more people with disabilities gain careers as public employees of the state, businesses and organizations will learn the importance of equal employment.

Commenting on the reason behind Minnesota’s failure to hire more workers with disabilities, Governor Dayton told MPR, “Part of it is just the lack of attention to this as a priority.”

In order to successfully prioritize equality throughout all of Minnesota’s economic landscape, the state government must create an accessible, welcoming environment for disabled persons through workplace accommodations, staff education, and community awareness training.

Proactive recruitment is necessary to inform the disability community about available public positions. State agencies should partner with disability advocacy organizations to reach out to potential employees. Minnesota’s government must also work to improve the accessibility of job applications and the hiring process.

The Governor’s executive order was only the first step in transforming the state into a model employer. Communities must support the government as it implements improvements to open employment opportunities to individuals with disabilities. With our state leaders on board, all of Minnesota’s employers will learn to embrace equality.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Job Growth  Workers' Rights 

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