New policy threatens 30 years of great work in Minnesota / Joe Nathan’s Column

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College in the Schools, aka Concurrent Enrollment, one of the Minnesota’s most family friendly, successful education programs developed over the past 30 years, is threatened by a questionable new policy from the ironically named Higher Learning Commission.

The commission is a self-perpetuating, nonpublicly elected group, based in Chicago, that accredits colleges and universities in 19 states, including Minnesota. Its power comes from Congress, which requires colleges and universities wanting federal “Pell” grants to be accredited.

In 45 years of work with educators and legislators, I’ve never seen so much bipartisan, widespread opposition develop so quickly toward a single policy, as has arisen in the past two weeks since high school educators learned about the policy. Urban, suburban and rural, district and charter, Republican and DFL policymakers and educators are challenging it.. They agree that the new policy would reduce students’ and families’ access to higher education and could cost millions to implement.

This policy demands that, effective fall 2017, all high school concurrent enrollment teachers have either a master’s degree in their field or a master’s in teaching, plus 18 additional credits (essentially six additional courses). The commission refuses to allow current high school teachers, regardless of their success, to continue teaching the concurrent enrollment courses if they don’t meet these standards. The commission wants to impose its model on high schools – a model that doesn’t require college and university professors take even one course on how to teach.

Almost 25,000 Minnesota students enrolled in these courses, created via high school-college collaboration, in 2013-14. Students and families saved millions of dollars. Students are better prepared for college. These courses helped reduce graduation gaps between students of different races and helped increase college graduation rates. Recognizing this, the 2015 Minnesota Legislature allocated $8.6 million to help support and expand this program.

Minnesota Commissioner Brenda Cassellius told me that she was “very frustrated” after talking with the Higher Learning Commission president, Barbara Gellman-Danley, who served as president of the University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College in Ohio from 2008-2014. U.S. News & World Report notes that the University of Rio Grande retains only 53 percent of its freshman class (so almost half of its freshman leave after one year) and that their six-year graduation rate is 39 percent. The Higher Learning Commission accredits this university. While acceptable to the commission, is this low level of success a model for Minnesota?

Recognizing that some outstanding teachers have not earned a master’s degree, the University of Minnesota has a “teaching specialist” position. This job does not require a master’s degree. The commission should accept this for colleges, universities and high schools.

Dan Hoverman, Mounds View superintendent, and Jon Peterson, St. Paul Public Schools director of College and Career Programs, wrote that the new requirements “present a huge barrier to established and future concurrent enrollment programs.”

State Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, a 40-year public school teacher, principal and district administrator, believes the commission leaders have “offered no data or research to support their new policy.” State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, calls the policy “well intended but ill conceived.”

Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, says the policy “will negatively impact 30 years of development of and investment in concurrent enrollment programs for Minnesota schools.” He added, “The new credentialing proposal will threaten the ability in many communities to offer these highly successful research-based courses.”

Minnesota Rural Education Association Director Fred Nolan wrote: “These changes are devastating. They would make it extremely difficult to carry out College in the Schools courses that are urgently needed, and extremely popular.”

Minnesota Association of Charter Schools Director Eugene Piccolo believes that the commission’s standards “have the potential to limit opportunities for students in their quest for achieving their higher education and career aspirations and goals.” He added, “We question the problem/issue/research that led to this new policy.”

Indiana Higher Education Commission’s chief academic officer, Ken Sauer, described a “growing tide of anxiety” about the Higher Learning Commission’s standards. He wrote, “As much as we value credentials, isn’t the bottom line how well a teacher helps a student, as measured by that student’s success?”

Both the Higher Learning Commission Board Chair David Anderson, who is St. Olaf’s president, and Gellman-Danley refused my interview requests.

Many college and university people are open and responsive. The commission’s actions represents the disrespect that some “higher” education faculty display toward high school faculty and a disinterest in demonstrated student success.

A growing coalition of educators, parents and community groups is encouraging Congress to question the commission’s demands. If you agree, please consider contacting U.S. senators and representatives.

Forty years ago, K-12 educators concluded that Midwestern accreditation standards were out of date. The North Central accreditation association responded, developing new, optional standards.

The Higher Learning Commission should respect great work in many high schools and revise its standards. It shouldn’t disregard and dismantle 30 years of high school-college collaboration.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.