4 key education issues in 2015


This column originally was published by ECM/Sun Newspapers, hometownsource.com, 12-23-2015

Four key education issues in 2015

by Joe Nathan

2015 was a year mixed with progress and frustration in Minnesota public schools. Four major issues contributed to this: testing, federal requirements on schools, expanding opportunity, and working more effectively with the growing diversity of students in public schools.

First, how do we assess what individual students are learning and how schools are doing? This ongoing debate became much more heated in 2015. Minnesota’s statewide standardized testing program involves a multiyear base contract of $33.85 million with Pearson Corporation.

But several times, the Minnesota Department of Education had to step in and stop statewide-testing because many schools experienced what Jay Haugen, Farmington superintendent, described as “significant disruptions.” Hopkins Superintendent John Schultz spoke for many: “We remain very concerned and extremely frustrated about the disruption.” Terry Moffatt of DaVinci Academy in Blaine wrote, “We work very hard to create the best possible testing environment, and those environments have been disrupted to the detriment of students.” Ultimately, Pearson agreed to reduce the contract by $1 million and provide additional services.

Many other states shared similar frustrations. A national Gallup poll found 64 percent of the public and 67 percent of public school parents think there is “too much emphasis on standardized testing in the public schools.” (Learn more athttp://bit.ly/1V4l6cd.)

Ultimately, Congress heard concerns about testing. An unusual bipartisan effort produced a complete rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law. While annual statewide testing requirements remain, states have much more flexibility in working with schools. Next year I’ll write about the impact that this new federal law may have in schools for students, educators and families.

That same new law contains hundreds of millions of dollars to support various programs. U.S. Sen. Al Franken was deeply involved as one of the negotiators of the final U.S. Senate and House compromise. Franken helped convince his colleagues to include support for many improvements. That includes more funding for mental health, strengthening school leadership, and expanding public school choice via district and charter public schools and dual-credit programs.

This year the Minnesota Legislature’s K-12 and, for the first time, Higher Education committees increased financial and policy support for various forms of dual-credit. Educational organizations that sometimes had disagreed in the past – such as the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, Minnesota Rural Education Association, and Center for School Change, where I work – collaborated to help produce new and expanded opportunities.

At the same time, the ironically named “Higher” Learning Commission offered a new challenge to courses offered in high schools for college credit. While its director offered no research during her Minnesota legislative testimony to support the commission’s demands, this unelected body created considerable frustration. Faced with pushback from several states, including Minnesota, the Higher Learning Commission agreed to delay implementation. But many educators think the commission should revise its approach and are urging Congress to investigate this issue.

Finally, schools and the broader society are being asked to move closer to the wonderful promises found in our nation’s Declaration of Independence. The Minnesota Education Equity Partnership, a longtime statewide research and advocacy group, summed this up, recommending “collaborative and persistent efforts and, most importantly, a commitment to racial justice in education.” (More information on this is available here: http://mneep.org.)

But Americans vigorously disagree about how to move toward greater racial justice. Some of the most passionate responses I received during the year came from people commenting on my suggestions in this area.

Justice is one of the goals for the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution begins by explaining that we have come together to “form a more perfect union.” 2015 featured both progress and frustration with that ideal. Thank you to the thousands of educators, families and students who worked hard in 2015 to help move this country toward that wonderful Constitutional vision.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.