Sunday, February 19, 2012

Looking Back. Looking Ahead. I missed a couple of stories from my wrap-up of last week and thought I'd chime in before the start of the new week. The House Education Finance Committee took a return trip to Florida (figuratively) to discuss Representative Pam Myhra's (R-Burnsville) HF 648 last Wednesday. HF 648 would implement an A through F grading system for all schools in Minnesota, with a number of indicators determining a school's grade. A grading system of this type was part of a set of reforms passed in Florida a few years back and is credited by some with helping boost achievement in that state.

The problem with the proposal is that it appears to be redundant given the waiver from NCLB that Minnesota received from the federal government just over a week ago. While the plan that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) submitted to the US Department of Education upon which the waiver was granted uses a bulk of the indicators included in HF 648, it does not spell out "hard" letter grades to school districts. There are some who believe that providing letter grades to schools is the most transparent way to deal with the issue of achievement, but would letter grades tell the whole story? Further, the plan that will be implemented by MDE will have two sets of underachieving schools that will be labeled as Priority Schools or Focus Schools.

As I am wont to do (and my tongue is firmly in my cheek), I think I can come up with a compromise that incorporates parts of both plans. I would suggest five classes of schools: Awesome Schools, Beneficial Schools, Competent Schools, Defective Schools, and Frightful Schools. Eh. Come to think of it, maybe Priority and Focus work better.

Diane Ravitch Uses Another "F" Location. Forsaking "all things Florida," education thinker/writer Dr. Diane Ravitch, in reviewing Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, zeroes in on the education system in Finland as one to be emulated as the United States attempts to raise its student achievement. Ravitch points out four reasons why the Finnish model may be one to study more closely:
  1. Finland has one of the highest-performing school systems in the world as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA);
  2. Finland has rejected most of the reforms currently being considered in the United States, particularly the heavy regimen to testing prescribed by NCLB;
  3. Finland have the least variation in educational quality district-to-district among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations; and
  4. Finland borrowed most of its ideas from American pre-NCLB educational philosophy.
The centerpiece of Finland's system, in Ravitch's eyes, is its concentration on teacher training. Teacher preparation programs are highly selective in who they enroll and the program participants graduate with a master's degree. Subject matter teachers earn their master's degree not in teacher education, but in subject areas.

I am going to try and obtain re-printing rights to the article and hopefully post it on the website in the near future. In the meantime, head out to your local Barnes & Noble and grab a copy of the March 8, 2012, issue of The New York Review of Books. It's a fun paper in which to indulge one's self.

Sunday StarTribune. The StarTribune has been doing a great job covering education issues during the legislative session and Sunday's edition was no different. The opinion page featured a piece from Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher outlining his organization's opposition to HF 1870/SF 1690, the bill that would require districts to base all layoffs on merit instead of seniority. Whatever one feels about the approach advocated in HF 1870/SF 1690, the Dooher article does summarize the points of contention very clearly.

Eric Wieferring wrote a great piece on Minnesota's property tax system that highlighted many of the problems that have emanated from the 2001 decision to eliminate the general education levy and replace it with a statewide business property tax and subsequent decisions to reduce aids to local units of government. While Wieferring didn't single out referendum equalization (my guess is he's not familiar with the program) as one of the property taxpayer aids that has lost value in real terms, it appears that it would fit nicely in Weiffering's critique. I can't find a link on the StarTribune webpage, but the column is on the front of Sunday's Business Section.

Education System "Anachronistic?" The presidential campaign is always good for a few hoots, but I was hardly hooting when I read Republican candidate Rick Santorum's comment from Saturday in which he questioned the relevance of the current education system in the United States. Santorum and his wife have home-schooled their five children and that is all well and good, but to question the United States' commitment to creating and maintaining a system that has helped build a strong middle class and is the key to our country remaining competitive in the world had me shaking my head. Our system has some issues that need to be addressed, but our commitment to providing comprehensive access to educational opportunity remains among the highest in the world and it's something we should retain and not assign to the dustbin of history.

Looking Ahead. Two big items on the agenda for the week ahead. On Tuesday, the new legislative district boundaries will be announced and I can assure you there will be more than a few long faces among the legislators as they see the geography of their new districts. Some may be paired with other legislators while others will have significant amounts of "new" territory in their district. Some districts may be vacant. In other words, there will be shuffling in the months ahead.

On Wednesday, the House Education Finance Committee will hear HF 1858, Representative Duane Quam's (R-Byron) bill that would require that school district operating referenda be held only on general election day in even numbered years. This would make a difficult situation even more difficult for school districts that are seeking to augment their funding with voter-approved levies. I expect that there will be a large (and spirited) turnout for the hearing.

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