Seeking common ground may help improve schools / Joe Nathan’s Column

Originally published at

By Joe Nathan on January 22, 2014


 Can the Minnesota Business Partnership, which focuses on making the best possible use of existing funds, and Parents United, which urges that more money be spent on Minnesota’s public schools, find things they agree on? Can the African American Leadership Forum, which represents more than a thousand Minnesotans, many deeply concerned about public schools, agree with what the Minnesota Association of School Administrators is suggesting? An intriguing new effort is hoping the answer to these questions is “yes.” 

I give former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser and former St. Paul Council of Churches Executive Director Grant Abbott considerable credit. Over the next few weeks, they are convening a variety of groups for public conversations that will be taped and available for viewing online.

Their goal is to improve Minnesota’s public schools, with a focus on reducing the achievement gap. First, they want to find several things these groups agree on. Then they hope to work with the organizations to focus on agreements in ways that make a real, positive difference for Minnesota students.

Fraser started the Achievement Gap Committee in 2007. He wanted to provide a forum for people to share their research, concerns, strategies and success in reducing the achievement gap. Over the years, teacher union presidents, university professors, district and charter educators, and a wide range of others described what they were doing.

Despite their efforts, Minnesota has one of the nation’s largest gaps in high school graduation rates among students of different races. Abbott and Fraser wanted to do more.

So late last year, they began inviting a variety of groups to make brief, 15-minute presentations on a panel – with people they sometimes agreed with and sometimes disagreed with.

Full disclosure: They asked me to be part of a panel that included Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools; Maureen Ramirez, policy and research director with Growth and Justice; and Chris Stewart, executive director of the African American Leadership Forum. The meeting, the first of three, was on Jan. 21.

From left, Mary Cecconi, Joe Nathan, Maureen Ramirez and Chris Stewart (Photo courtesy of John Risken)
From left, Mary Cecconi, Joe Nathan, Maureen Ramirez and Chris Stewart (Photo courtesy of John Risken)


Some of the talking points were:

• Cecconi presented graphs illustrating her view that Minnesota should spend more money on K-12 education. She does not think more money is the total answer, but she definitely thinks it is part of what’s needed. More information is available at

• Ramirez explained that Growth and Justice has prepared reports showing key areas of what it describes as “strategic investment,” such as more high-quality early childhood education programs.

• Stewart described what his organization believes are five key gaps, including the “preparation gap” and the “belief” gap.

• I pointed to research about the value of strong early childhood programs for students from low-income families and of students taking dual-credit courses, the progress Minnesota has made and the need to do more.

Over the next month, the committee will convene two more meetings to hear from other groups and then seek points of agreement.

Cynics quote retired football coach Lou Holz: “When all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.”

Give Fraser and Abbott credit for taking on tough but important issues. They may not succeed. But they may.


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