The Free Lesson in MnSCU’s $2M Consulting Contract

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’ recently announced a $2 million contract with consulting group McKinsey & Company to assist with a system-wide initiative, Charting the Future. The contract made headlines when Chancellor Steve Rostenstone did not mention McKinsey or the contract after a student asked about the cost of the initiative. Additionally, Rosenstone did not update the Board of Trustees on the contract agreement.

For a bit of background, Charting the Future is a MnSCU initiative, announced in November of 2013, which, according to their website, strives to “work together to improve transfer [student experience], marketing to increase the number of students each campus serves and collaborating on expanding programs that prepare students for the careers of tomorrow.” This system-wide project is meant to lay out a sustainable road map for MnSCU as the public higher education provider for a strong majority of Minnesotans.

McKinsey & Co., whose contract began in January 2014, recently finished their fact-finding mission and has made smaller recommendations based on preliminary data such as, if 10% of MnSCU’s five-plus year degree seeking students graduated in four years, the students would save $14 million dollars.

While Charting the Future initiative seems worthwhile and McKinsey has already produced some interesting analysis, the process has been bungled and deserved greater public discussion.

What this story points to, in fact, is that there is a gap in the oversight of Minnesota’s largest higher education institution. Currently, any contract expenditure under $3 million does not need to be approved by the board of trustees. Public reaction to the McKinsey consulting contract suggests a change in non-board approval triggers may be coming.

Lowering that threshold to $1 million dollars, would increase transparency and reduce concerns about the selection of consultants like McKinsey. While outside consulting firms can provide a new set of eyes on a project or problem, MnSCU stakeholders also need on-the-ground perspective about how to refine and finance higher education for Minnesota’s students.

Speaking for professors, administrators, and students by speaking past them instead of working with these groups about how to improve MnSCU educational mission isn’t the only option for answering problems. Higher ed consultants sift through data and make policy recommendations. Higher ed leaders make leadership decisions that create a prosperous organizational path forward, drawing community together. The latter is much harder than the former. Let's not confuse the two.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

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There Is No One Right Way

Two traps are easy for those who think and write about education policy to fall into. The first is the idea that what worked for “me” (whoever is doing the thinking or writing) would work for everyone else. This creates nostalgia for the “good old days,” which were really only ever good for some people. The second trap is the idea that what would work better for me would work better for everyone else. Both traps can be avoided, but it helps to know that they’re there.

In the past few days I’ve written about the benefits of arts education and learning in the wilderness. Neither one was of much interest to me as a student. I took one semester of drama to satisfy my high school’s arts requirement and called it a day; exploring the arts never spoke much to me as a student. As for wilderness learning, while I was a Boy Scout, I generally stuck to the minimum camping requirements, being more interested in community service and leadership development.

However, I know that great arts opportunities saved many people’s educations, and others have learned more outdoors than they ever would in a classroom. The education that worked well for me didn’t work as well for them, and I probably wouldn’t have done as well if school focused more heavily on the arts or on time outdoors.

Matching students to the learning opportunities that work best for them takes effort and resources. The more resources a family has, the easier it is for them to find good options. Opportunity gaps in this area are keenly felt.

It’s nigh on impossible for one school to be all things to all students. This is one argument for school choice, provided it’s focused on creating the right opportunities for students, not counterproductive competition.

However, one school can provide many opportunities to many students, if they know what students need and have the freedom and resources to offer them. Inviting families, students, and teachers into decision-making helps schools accurately identify what their students need. Expanding the definition of “a good education” beyond test scores to encompass other learning opportunities allows schools to pay attention to their students’ needs. Investing in schools enables them to provide what their students need.

There is no one right way to educate all students, but democratic, well-resourced schools can support many right ways for students to learn.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Arts & Music 

Taking Another Look at Year-Round School

As we reach the halfway point of summer break, those worried about summer slide may be looking for options. One policy, year-round education, got some attention in a policy brief from the Congressional Research Service back in June. That report is worth a read.

Teaching students year-round can take a few different forms. One is simply to extend the school year, running it later into June or July and starting it in August. This gives students more seat time, but can also add significant expense, as many workers (including but not limited to teachers) will be working more hours.

Another option, less concerned with increasing seat time and more interested in minimizing “the summer slide,” rearranges the school year. A common version is the 45-15 calendar, where students and teachers are in class for 45 school days (roughly nine weeks), then off for a 15 school day (three week) intersession. These intersessions don’t have to be full-on breaks; they offer excellent opportunities for mid-year remediation, heading off the gap-growing effects of the long summer break.

Some schools have also used this sort of on-off calendar to address capacity issues. With careful scheduling, as the CRS report explains, a school with capacity for 750 students at one time can serve 1000 students by breaking students up into 250-person groups and rotating 15-day intersessions.

The report notes that the research on this approach isn’t conclusive, in part because the methodology in most studies hasn’t been great. As with most educational innovations, the effectiveness is in the details of design and implementation. This is why involving teachers, families, students, and community members in discussions of schedule changes is so important.

Many teachers, for example, are interested in trying an on-off, year-round schedule, and some communities would likely appreciate its benefits if well-implemented. At the same time, calendar changes of this scale can be very disruptive, and should be undertaken only after informing the public and conducting democratic deliberation. Not every community needs or wants a year-round calendar, but every community should have the option to make an informed choice on the matter.

We know that some of the most significant equity gaps in education come from the years before students are in school and the disproportionate effects of summer break. The latter in particular makes year-round scheduling potentially appealing, and many communities should give it serious consideration.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: School Calendar 

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Education in the Wilderness

Some of the best learning happens outside of the classroom. Some of the best learning happens in intentionally crafted, equity minded programs. Sometimes, these are the same thing.

MinnPost recently covered the work of Wilderness Inquiry, which has been putting metro area students in canoes on urban waterways and finding other ways to increase students’ access to experiential, place-based learning. It’s an interesting mission which appears to be both full of potential and totally outside the general parameters of the education debate most other advocates are having.

Naturally, Minnesota isn’t the only place where people have dedicated themselves to helping students learn and grow by spending time in the wild and well outside their comfort zones. Alaska Crossings, for example, has been taking Alaskan students with mental illnesses on extended outdoor adventures since 2001. As with Wilderness Inquiry in Minnesota, the organizers have put significant energy into building a program that broadens students’ horizons with an eye towards improving their knowledge, skills, and mindsets. It’s the kind of learning that’s very tough to make happen in a classroom.

Nor is this approach limited to groups outside of schools. Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids is in large part built around preparing students for “expeditions” that get longer and more intense as students progress through the school. (For more on Northwest Passage, check out my 2012 post about their presentation at the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs conference.)

Running through all of these programs is the value of experiential learning and the clarifying effects for students of exploring the outdoors in ways that would previously have been alien to their everyday lives. While this type of learning does provide a new context for understanding ideas and skills from a variety of academic disciplines, much of the value is in the less measurable effects on students’ confidence, coping skills, and interpersonal skills.

As we continue to discuss equity and opportunity gaps, it’s important to remember the many ways that people learn and the different experiences available to students from different contexts. Minnesota’s children grow up in a huge range of circumstances and environments, and it’s beneficial for all of them to push outside of their comfort zones with the help of well-structured programs that keep them safe as they learn.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Youth Programs 

Let the Children Play

There is such a thing as too much break time; the evidence on the summer learning slide is clear. However, it’s possible to go too far in the other direction when school is in session.

Tim Walker is an American teacher working in Finland and he blogs about his experiences at “Taught by Finland” (with occasional guest posts from other American teachers in the country). A recent post of his discussed the importance of play and regular breaks in the Finnish school day, with elementary school students and teachers alternating 45 minutes of class time with 15 minutes of break time outside. When he believed this approach to be too “soft,” he tried lengthening the amount of time spent in class (offset by longer breaks), only to see his students grow more frustrated, stressed, and unproductive.

This, it turns out, reflects other research, which has found benefits of intercutting 40-45 minute blocks of class time with 10-15 minute breaks. These findings aren’t limited to Finland, turning up in East Asia as well. Eventually, Walker concluded, “[O]nce I started to see a break as a strategy to maximize learning, I stopped feeling guilty about shortening classroom instruction.”

The idea that time not spent focused on classwork could be helpful for students and teachers alike doesn’t have a lot of currency in today’s debate about education in the U.S. Schools that extend learning time are celebrated. Kindergarten classes cut end-of-year performances to have more study time. Principals require teachers to set bathroom time quotas in the interest of maximizing learning time.

This seems symptomatic of a mindset that only time spent in a seat following a teacher’s directions (even if those directions are to practice independently or do group work) counts as learning. Outside this bubble, though, it seems that students may well learn better when you give their minds a chance to relax or stretch in new, self-chosen directions. The idea that children could always be learning, and that giving them 15 minutes to play (or read or converse or…) outside every hour will hurt their chances of success, should be reconsidered.

The high-intensity, “no excuses” approach does work for some students. Reworking our school system to emphasize that approach over time for play and breaks, however, may be the wrong choice for many students. Our focus on rigor shouldn’t become a counterproductive obsession with constant seat time.

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

Legacy Amendment Yields Engaged Learning

When voters approved the Legacy Amendment in 2008, they weren’t just approving a .375% increase on their sales tax. Minnesota voters gave policymakers the message that arts, culture and environmental preservation are important and must be protected and cultivated.

Over its 25 year tenure, the Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund (19.75% of the total tax revenue) is projected to raise $1.2 billion in available revenue. This money has been earmarked for significant, educational endeavors and projects valuing Minnesota’s rich cultural tapestry.

This fund has benefited many institutions and numerous projects include education for Minnesota’s school children. Establishments as wide-ranging as the Minnesota Historical Society, the city of North St. Paul, and individual artists throughout the state are receiving grants as a way to further Minnesota’s artistic and educational heritage.

The “Hands On” History Curriculum for Minnesota’s Students focuses on creating experiential learning opportunities that conform to state social studies standards by using primary sources and physical materials to encourage students interaction with history.

Significantly, this curriculum will be made available across the state for social studies teachers. The development of this curriculum is a significant example of the good that the funds from the Legacy Amendment can be used for and is a resounding endorsement of the decision Minnesotans made six years ago.

This project contributes critical curricula to Minnesota’s school districts. As teachers have less time to develop independent lesson plans, these well-researched and vetted contributions become increasingly valuable.

This is just one example, of course, but it demonstrates the value of these efforts for Minnesota’s students, teachers, and schools.

The Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund supports many diverse projects across Minnesota and will, hopefully, continue to do so until at least 2034. Its success proves that when the revenue they raise is spent effectively and efficiently, marginal tax increases are well worth the investment.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  State Parks 

Conservatives: More Wisconsin-Style Education, Please

While Minnesotan progressives have been grateful to avoid Wisconsin’s recent economic fate, a recent Minnesota Public Radio story shows conservatives have been looking across the border at the Badger State’s education system and thinking, “I’ll have some of that, please.”

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the longing for Wisconsin is the universal support among the conservative candidates for vouchers. Governor Scott Walker and his conservative allies in the Wisconsin state legislature have been working diligently to expand the state’s voucher program outside of the Milwaukee area and to raise the income threshold so that more middle class families can channel public money into private schools.

As one Minnesota conservative candidate put it, “If not, if you want to go a charter school, if you want to go to a religious-based or a stem (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) school [sic] — if you’re a kid in Brooklyn Park, you should be able to go to that school in Anoka.”

First off, students in Brooklyn Park can already legally attend charter schools in Anoka. What’s more, Brooklyn Park students have access to district schools in Anoka since both cities are part of districts in the Northwest Suburban Integration School District. Also, there are STEM-focused district and charter schools throughout the metro area. Thus, the only reason for a voucher system this candidate lists that isn’t already covered by existing policy is using public money to send students to “a religious-based” school. (Although I suspect this candidate might not be as open to that religious-based school being Muslim rather than Christian.)

It’s not just voucher-love that conservative candidates like about Wisconsin. There’s also the erosion of teachers’ rights as workers. None of them have yet been so bold as to call for the elimination of collective bargaining rights (or at least aren’t quoted as such in the MPR article), but they have offered up tired criticisms of seniority and hypotheses that unions are to blame for resisting longer school days.

It isn’t all about the Wisconsin approach -- there’s support for California’s parent trigger law floating out there, too -- but it’s clear that conservative candidates for governor are happy to use the language of equity and “worst achievement gap in the country” rhetoric to advance a policy of privatization and targeting workers’ rights. If you were looking for another reason why this fall’s elections could have serious ramifications for public policy, well, here you go.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Reform 

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The Rainbow School System Has Arrived

This coming school year, the United States will, for the first time, have more students of color than white students in its public schools. American Indian enrollment has stayed largely flat, Asian American enrollment has increased slightly, black enrollment has ticked slightly downward, and Hispanic enrollment has steadily increased to nearly one in four students countrywide.

Of course, this looks somewhat different in each state and district. Here’s Minnesota and two of its districts, for example.


(Data from Minnesota Department of Education)

Minnesota is somewhat behind the national trend, with more than seven out of every ten students still white. However, some districts have already passed the milestone while others are almost there. For example, the Osseo Public Schools (a suburban district northwest of Minneapolis) had white enrollment of 49.2% last school year, with black and Asian enrollments appreciably higher than the statewide picture. A little south and mostly west of Mankato is the St. James school district, where the white enrollment is only slightly higher (in percentage terms) than Osseo’s, but where nearly all the students of color are Hispanic.

These variations between states and districts make for a more nuanced picture than simply saying, “White students are making up less and less of the student body with each passing year.” The ways St. James responds to its changing student demographics will and should be different, at least in some respects, from those Osseo takes. While some steps -- building staff members’ cultural awareness and responsiveness skills, for instance -- should be universal, each district will need to do its own outreach to its many constituent communities to ensure their voices are respected in the schools.

And, of course, there are more layers. Consider a student whose parents came to Minnesota from Liberia five years ago, a student whose parents came from Somalia fifteen years ago, and a student whose grandparents came from Alabama fifty years ago. All three students would still be identified as “black,” even though their experiences are likely to be dramatically different. We need teachers and school leaders who are prepared to invite all families and students into their schools and collaborate with their communities to provide equitable educations for all.

The numbers tell much of this story but they don't tell all of it.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Racial Inequalities 

STEM…and Everything Else

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines get a lot of press coverage and political rhetoric these days, and they should.

The United States has been falling behind in these academic disciplines for years despite the fact that STEM jobs would need to grow by 20-30% to keep up with these estimates. It must be noted here that many of the efforts focus on getting girls to know that STEM disciplines are for them as well, which should be emphasized by the fact that only 26% of the STEM workforce is made up of women.

While creating interest and proficiency in these subjects is imperative to creating a diverse and talented workforce, so too is encouraging students to pursue excellence in subjects such as the Fine Arts, Humanities, Communications and Social Sciences.

Could one have appreciated the excess of “the Jazz Age” of the 1920s without the literary achievement of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? Is the  marvel of the Marshall Plan after World War II able to be understood without the framework John Rawls offered in his Theory of Justice? 

The STEM disciplines are necessary and make up a significant amount of a diverse workforce. However, these “less concrete” non-STEM academic practices are highly valuable in their own right. Students throughout the United States have been falling behind in writing talents and writing is the only consistent way that students will find success across every discipline.

All subjects contribute to the cultivation of critical thinking skills but non-STEM fields have the potential to expand what students think of as learning. Learning to read with a critical eye and a mind for bias in the written form can help students both analyze a book's content and assist understanding bias in news media. Ideas presented in the non-STEM fields inform STEM field engagement and research through shared interest in cloning, psychology of music, or human behavioral studies just to name a few.

The point is not to cut funding from STEM programs in favor of non-STEM fields but to support all learning as interconnected and of value, along with a further recognition that math, English, history or science do not occur in a vacuum. Learning is a much more powerful, amorphous process and should be done in a way where all subjects are supported with propriety and intensity.

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

Sustaining Arts Education

When I first toured Brooklyn Center High School as an incoming teacher, I was amazed at how pervasive art was. Student work hung on the walls throughout the school. In addition to the band room and theater stage, there was a dance studio and a black box theater room. It was clear that the school’s grant money to become an arts magnet had been put to good use. When the grant money ran out a couple years later, though, it was unclear how much of the impressive arts programming could be sustained at the current levels. This story of endangered arts education is all too common.

A recent article in The Atlantic argued for arts education, citing the research on its positive effects for learning and supporting students’ many learning styles. The article referred back to a 2011 report from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, titled “Reinvesting in Public Education” [PDF].

That report laid out a more thorough research case for arts education and noted with distress, “[D]ue to budget constraints and emphasis on the subjects of high stakes testing, arts instruction in schools is on a downward trend.” (There is some irony to a report decrying the narrowing effects of high stakes testing while bearing a foreword by test-promoting Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.)

On the home front, MinnPost’s Beth Hawkins also has an article up on the importance of arts education, following up on her time at the Education Writers’ Association conference. While the article’s focus is Tennessee, it also includes information on Artscan, which allows comparison of state policies governing arts education. (Minnesota’s profile is here.)

All of these stories and resources point to the same idea: Arts education is both very valuable and very undervalued. In the hierarchy of K-12 disciplines, math and reading receive significant emphasis, as the topics of high-stakes testing. More expansively, we have the core four disciplines of English (including but not limited to reading), math, science, and social studies. Everything else -- physical education, the arts, world languages -- ends up on the periphery, where the knife is most likely to come when budgets require instruction be cut.

We must resist this tendency to leave the arts at the fringe of school. For as powerful as arts education is, too many students lack access to the opportunities it offers. That should change.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  Arts & Music 

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