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 


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 

As EdTech Grows, Concern About Corporate Influence

Last April, when New York governor Andrew Cuomo was deciding how to allocate $2 billion for classroom technology, he turned to a three person council for advice. One of the advisors he selected was Google chairman Eric Schmidt, prompting criticism about a potential conflict of interest. Would Schmidt recommend Google-favorable learning technology? This controversy illustrates a larger concern with the growing acceptance and adoption with educational technology: how much of a role should corporations be allowed to play in our education system?

One area of particular relevance to this question is educational technology. A number of school districts in Minnesota are jumping on the EdTech bandwagon, allocating more and more funding to getting every student access to the newest technologies. Some districts, such as Lakeville and Minnetonka, already have bought thousands of iPads for classroom use, with others such as Saint Paul planning on doing the same. Venture Academy, a charter school for primarily low-income students in Minneapolis, is integrating different types of digital learning into their curricula thanks to a grant from the Gates Foundation.

The burgeoning link between tech companies and K12 schools is worrisome. When districts make exclusive deals with tech giants, the companies gain a type of control over the schools. They can use their influence to push unnecessary products and suggest changes to curriculum. Schools should only concern themselves with educating students, not improving the bottom line of a corporation.

The risk for collusion is real. Organizations like the Gates Foundation, Pearson LLC, and Educational Testing Service have long documented histories of anti-teacher lobbying and other chicanery with the Department of Education. Some of the biggest proponents of Common Core have spent millions pushing state governments to adopt the standards – and 46 states have. Last July, Apple was found guilty of conspiring with publishing companies to raise e-book prices. The same could very well happen with education content in our state, especially when schools are tied to the company by contract.

I am not a Luddite. I think the integration of technology into Minnesota classrooms is more or less inevitable. But the legislature and school districts should be cautious about how far they go with EdTech. Peer reviewed research is mixed on the advantages of specific technologies. Computer education is lacking; lots of students do not even know how to effectively use the technology they do have. Digital learning can help students achieve, but simply handing them an iPad the first day after summer break is not going to guarantee success. We need to keep this in mind as technology begins to occupy a larger place in the classroom.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Corporate Business  Technology 

Food and Education Go Hand in Hand

School Nutrition Association has increased its lobbying efforts to turn back new nutritional standards. In 2010 new legislation was passed that limited sodium and increased fruits and vegetables in school lunches. These regulations were passed with bipartisan support, but have since come under attack by the SNA by creating “opt-out” options for school districts. Their “concern” being that the new regulations will raise the price of producing school lunches thus putting additional strain in the districts. Right here in Minnesota we have a great example of how to create healthier meals that taste great.

Bertrand Weber is the Director of Nutrition and Culinary Services for the Minneapolis Public Schools. After seeing how school food exacerbated his son’s type 1 diabetes, Weber transitioned from cooking at high end restaurants and hotels to managing culinary services for school districts. When he started his position at MPS, he signaled big things would be changing. Many schools now have salad bars and school kitchens are being renovated so food can be cooked on site again. Students like the changes. Participation in the school lunch program has risen from 58 to 66 percent in just 2 years. Weber’s success shows that schools can find creative ways to provide high quality food that meets the new standards.

Weber also shifted district food purchasing policy to buy more local fruits and vegetables.

This is part of a larger movement by anchor institutions to use their purchasing power to shift large markets. The Real Food Challenge is a national student led movement to shift 20% of the $5 billion higher education spends on food each year. The Real Food Challenge lobbies universities to commit at least 20% of their food purchasing power to community supported, sustainable, and justly produced food. This May, the California State University committed their entire system to 20% real food by 2020. With 447,000 students and a $100 million food budget, they are the largest signatory of the Real Food Challenge. The $20 million that will be shifted each year will support the local food economy, improve wages on tomato farms and coffee plantations, and improve the health of our ecosystems.

Minnesota educational institutions should sign the Real Food Challenge Commitment. The University of Minnesota has special commitments to agriculture through its status as a land grant university. It could support more just and sustainable food for its enrolled 69,000 students. MNSCU serves 430,000 students. Changing its food purchasing policy would have a similar impact as it has in California. The Minnesota public schools serve 845,177 students each year. A significant change in purchasing policy at public schools would have the largest impact of all.  Let’s make Real Food possible for all Minnesotans by having our public institutions lead the way.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Agriculture  Nutrition  K-12 education 

St. Paul’s Open World Learning Center: An Innovative Case Study

Getting on the High Impact Learning Practices train is imperative to success. Here’s the proof.

The Open World Learning Center (OWL) in St. Paul is based on the Expeditionary Learning model, which deploys an interesting mix of education policies that have proved to be good for students. These policies includes diversity of information and learning practices, discussion-based education, and learning by serving the community, among many other practices. The school mission statement “promotes rigorous and engaging curriculum; active, inquiry-based pedagogy; and a school culture that demands and teaches compassion and good citizenship.”

This model has, thus far, had some success as the 2012-13 graduation report lists out 100% of students at the Open World Learning Center either graduated or are continuing their education to earn their G.E.D.

The school has achieved its success in large part by using a group of high-impact learning practices more commonly found in higher education, as discussed in a previous blog post, at the K-12 level. For example, OWL’s program makes heavy use of service learning opportunities and self-directed learning.

As part of the Saint Paul Public School system, Open World Learning Center shows that this model can thrive in the public setting and proves that private schools are not the only ones capable of enacting this model. What this does require is a comprehensive system that trusts teachers and students more than tests.

While the OWL model cannot be replicated cookie cutter (just as no other single model should), these teaching practices and teacher support have great potential for public schools throughout Minnesota.

The particular application of the Expeditionary Learning model has proven to be a greatly positive set of policies for both students and educators. Professional development for teachers is a key pillar of this system and provides both a support system for teachers and active encouragement to innovate practices to best serve students.

Many aspects of High Impact Learning Practices are represented in the Open World Learning Center. However, less tangible than any of these practices is the most important aspect: innovation.

Innovation is the key to ensuring further educational excellence. This innovation is not limited to teaching methods but can be embodied in funding allocations, student distribution and skill assessment. That a district school has been successfully leading in this area for over 40 years is proof of the importance of strong public school that empower teachers, students and parents. OWL’S innovative work is a mark that public schools have and will continue to thrive and is inspiration to educational innovators everywhere.

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

Evidence Suggests Minnesota Isn’t Sold on Computer Science

As a MN2020 article highlighted last week, it’s becoming increasingly important for students to not only be able to interact with and consume technology but to actually work with technology and create content. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that the State of Minnesota and Minnesota's school districts do not agree. Minnesota’s graduation requirements don’t include computer science, consistently less than a third of all public school students have access to the subject, and expenditures on the instruction of this subject have been declining in recent years.

The following graph charts total combined Minnesota school district spending on computer science/technology education instruction. For the first part of the past decade, disregarding enrollment fluctuations, spending is nearly constant but a disheartening downward trend starts around 2009 and continues through 2013.

Along with spending, another telling data trend is the percent of public school students who attend a school that a has spent money on computer science/technology education instruction. The graph below is most likely displaying inflated estimates due to the dubious notion that every student at a school that spent money on computer science actually took a class in that subject.

The upward trend starting in 2011 in the second graph should inspire hope but when combined with decreased spending it signals a problem. Both areas -the percentage of students learning computer science and expenditures- need to become concurrent upward trends.

Minnesota's end goal should be to make computer science a graduation requirement but on the way to that goal schools can take steps to implement it as a core class. Computer science isn't cheap. It can require large expenditures but with state’s financial support, public schools can reach a goal of having 100% of students enrolled in some type of computer science class.

As a state, we shouldn’t lose sight of creating computer science graduation requirements but what we need to ensure is that future spending increases, allowing more instruction for more students. By increasing both spending and access, schools will be better prepared for when computer science becomes mandatory.

Technology is always changing, becoming rapidly integrated into everyday life at an accelerating pace. This means students need to be prepared to go beyond just consuming technology and be able to fully utilize the tools of technology in life and in work. Real computer science instruction translates into real state economic growth and propsperity.

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

School Choice and Special Education

Special education has been sparking conversation again. Locally, MinnPost has produced two pieces digging into a report on the state of special education [PDF] in the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Nationally, Education Next has run an online forum discussing charter schools and special education. Some key themes connect these writings.

School Choice and High-Stakes Testing Concentrate Students With the Greatest Needs In a Few Schools

All three of the writers at Education Next agreed that charter schools are serving a smaller share of students receiving special education than are district schools, and that the students with the most significant (and most expensive) needs often attend district schools. Robin Lake observed, “[I]t’s a particular problem when charters comprise nearly half of all public schools in a district,” and Pedro Noguera noted that the combination of choice policies (including, but not limited to charter schools) with high-pressure testing systems makes the problem worse.

It’s Not Just About Serving Students but Serving Them Well

Another common thread running through the Education Next articles, as well as MinnPost’s coverage of special education in MPS, is that admitting students with special needs is not enough. It’s also important to provide effective services that keep expectations high and avoid stigma.

The report’s hopeful tone illustrates another Education Next author’s point. Gary Miron reported that school districts are more efficient at providing special education than charter schools, and spend less on administration. Even with its struggles, MPS will likely have an easier time implementing positive changes than would a charter system in aggregate.

(Miron’s finding that most of the difference in per-pupil spending between charters and districts is the result of “district schools’ higher spending on special education and student support services,” is also interesting.)

You Can Do a Lot of Things Right and Still Struggle

The persistent existence of problems doesn’t mean that everything has gone wrong. The MPS report praises the district for its many services, its passionate staff, and its parent engagement on special education. Still, the report offers several suggestions for how the district can better activate the capacity it’s already built.


Decades after the first federal legislation on the subject, we’re still grappling with how to ensure special education services are delivered effectively, efficiently, and equitably. Some of our policies can unintentionally exacerbate the problem, and being strong in some areas is not always enough. We still have a lot to do to fulfill the goals of special education.

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

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