Carpe Diem!

Al Fan

Al Fan, Executive Director, Charter School Partners

It is time for Minnesotans to seize the day.  A convergence of national and local initiatives is creating a unique opportunity for education reform that offers Minnesota a chance to reclaim its leadership position in education.  While defenders of the status quo tout our high overall statewide education rankings, they ignore our achievement gap and the failure of our education system to prepare our future workforce.

At the national level, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have re-energized the education reform movement through their Race to the Top initiative and their emphasis on turning around low performing schools and replicating high performing charter schools.

Charter School Partners is a new Minnesota nonprofit positioned at the center of this convergence to make high performing charters a vehicle for closing the achievement gap.  Successful charter schools around the country like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, the Noble Network, Achievement First, and many others have shown it is possible to educate all children regardless of their skin color or their zip code. Charter School Partners wants to replicate their success in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Education has embraced its new legislative authority to hold charter school authorizers to a much higher standard than before by only approving six of the first 13 applications.  Commissioner Alice Seagren and her team should be commended for their courage in re-establishing a “high bar” for Minnesota charters.

At the local level, the Minneapolis Public School (MPS) district has created an Office of New Schools that will offer facilities and services to recruit a portfolio of high performing charter schools into Minneapolis.  Charter School Partners is working closely with MPS to identify and recruit future charter school leaders that are committed to creating the highest performing charters in our urban communities.

The recent arrival of Teach for America also signals a commitment to a higher standard of teaching in our urban schools.  Increasing the supply of high quality talent, both at the administration and teacher level, in Minnesota is critical to our mission of creating high performing charters that close the achievement gap.  Minnesota must embrace the urgency of the situation.  Only when we have shown that high performing charters can help all children succeed will it create a force of irrefutable evidence that educational excellence is possible in every community.

At the national, state, and district level, there is renewed energy, focus, and alignment to dramatically reform our educational landscape.  This is an opportunity Minnesota cannot afford to miss.  Charter schools started as an opportunity to provide choice to families, but choice is no longer just the ability for a student to pick a school that’s different than what the district has to offer.  The real choice for students is when they can graduate from high school and have the “choice” to pick their own future.  This choice will only happen when we acknowledge our education system’s failures and adopt new practices that will prepare all students to succeed in college.  The time is now! – Al Fan

Al Fan is the executive director of Charter School Partners, a nonprofit that works with charter schools in the Twin Cities to close the achievement gap.

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How to ensure long-term prosperity for Minnesota

Mary Brainerd

Mary Brainerd, Chair, the Itasca Project

We Minnesotans have a lot to be proud of.  Our state has benefited from a great deal of prosperity over the last several decades, and we have had an enviable quality of life.  But a growing body of research suggests that we are on track to reverse this positive trend.  Our job growth rates have fallen below the U.S. average.  Our income growth has stagnated relative to other parts of the country.  At the core of our economic vitality is a highly educated workforce, but other states and countries are now passing us by.  And, by many metrics, we have one of the largest achievement gaps in the country between white students and our growing population of minority students.  Clearly, our future prosperity is at risk.

So what is the secret to ensuring Minnesota’s long-term prosperity in an increasingly global world? We’ve known the answer for a long time:  Ensure that each and every child receives a world-class education from Pre-K to higher ed.

The Itasca Project has been working hard with our partners to explore what this really means.  With the Minnesota Business Partnership, we assessed Minnesota’s education system compared to world-class education systems (see, Minnesota’s Future: World-class Schools, World-Class Jobs). We’ve also been working closely and directly with the Minneapolis Public Schools District on their plan to dramatically improve educational quality and achievement in the district

Through this work (and scores of existing research, including the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program) we know what changes are needed to ensure that our education system remains competitive and that we close the persistent achievement gap.

We need to do more to ensure we have a highly effective teacher in every classroom.  Exploring opportunities to improve the way we recruit, train, and manage teachers is an important step. We also need to ensure we have top-notch leaders in the principal role at every school.  Again, reassessing the way we identify, license, and evaluate principals is at the heart of important change.  Setting rigorous standards for our students is key, as is a robust data system to track and improve performance in schools.

Though these strategies may seem simple – and even obvious – we have not yet addressed them effectively in Minnesota.  What we need to do seems fairly clear, but we cannot seem to agree on how to accomplish it.  This became painfully clear as our state failed to enter a competitive bid in Race to the Top – and lost our chance at millions of dollars that could have gone to our classrooms.

What will it take to transform our education system?  Leadership, courage, and engagement.  We need elected officials and education leaders to put politics aside and focus on what is best for the kids.  We need leaders from the state, the districts, the unions, the colleges and universities, and others to work together towards solutions.  We need parents and community members from across the state to get educated and engaged on the issue, and to demand better results from our education system.  And we need all of this urgently because other states and countries are taking school reform seriously.  Change is never easy, but if we don’t act now, we put our economic prosperity and quality of life at risk. – Mary Brainerd, the Itasca Project

Mary Brainerd is the President and CEO of HealthPartners and is the Chair of the Itasca Project.

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So, How are the Kids?

Nancy Hylden

Nancy Hylden, Associate, Faegre & Benson LLP

It’s hard to find a legislator who won’t look you in the eye and say that they are all for fixing our education system. Mountains of data suggest that it’s in everyone’s interest to do something.   Our aging work force needs replenishing while student populations are declining, and the costs we pay for failing individuals in our communities are growing exponentially, with state prison being the most expensive end result of all.

Perhaps the most distressing trend is the achievement gap, with data showing that children of color or in poverty are falling well behind their white, well-off counterparts. Parents frustrated by the pace of education reform are choosing to put their children in private schools, thus leaving public classrooms with even higher concentrations of children with bigger educational needs.

Despite this troubling outlook, here’s what happened at the state legislature this year:

  1. The funding bill for K-12 education: Failed to pass.
  2. Proposals to create alternative licensure routes for teachers: Failed to pass, and in part the reason why Minnesota was eliminated for federal Race to the Top funding.
  3. Charter school reforms: Failed to pass.
  4. State school aid payments: Postponed until next biennium, creating borrowing costs for many school districts to meet cash flow pressures.

Bottom line: no reform and little change even as the pace of decline in our education system appears to be accelerating.

Unfortunately for our kids, there is no “oil spill” equivalent to draw our attention, our anger and demand for change in our schools. The degradation to our education system has been and continues to be incremental. With no looming precipice over which we will fall, there is no overriding urgency to fix the problems. The benefits of reform, even with the uncertainties inevitably associated with it, must overcome our comfort with the status quo.

One modest piece of legislation signed with little fanfare was the omnibus early childhood education bill. This bill did a number of small but significant things to bring about state leadership and accountability measures in our early childhood education system, including:

  • Establishing a task force, funded with private dollars but administered under the Department of Education, to develop recommendations for the next governor and legislature for consolidating the array of early childhood programs now inefficiently dispersed across at least three state agencies;
  • Requiring the State’s Early Childhood Advisory Council to develop recommendations on benchmarking state progress.
  • Requiring the State’s Early Childhood Advisory Council to develop recommendations for expanding screenings and assessments;
  • Supporting the continuation and expansion of childcare provider quality ratings now piloted in several communities.

These are admittedly small steps, but they may arm the next governor and legislature with support for significant change and provide parents with earlier and better information about their kids and the programs available to them.

Finally, we will each have the opportunity during this election season, when all state legislators and statewide officers will be on the ballot, to demand that they do more to ensure that Minnesota be a high-achieving education state. Our kids, our economy and our future depend upon it. – Nancy Hylden

Nancy Hylden is an associate at Faegre & Benson. She advocates for education reform efforts at the state capitol on behalf of The Minneapolis Foundation.

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Education Crossroads

Sandra L. Vargas

Sandra L. Vargas

Minnesota is at a critical juncture. If and how we transform education today will influence our regional economy and quality of life for generations.

Many Minnesotans believe we have a strong education system. And it’s true that Minnesota continues to lead the nation on some measures:

  • Our overall reading scores typically rank among the top in the nation.
  • The majority of our high school graduates enroll in a post-secondary institution.
  • And our college graduation rates are above the national average.

Yet we are also clearly underperforming on too many critical counts:

  • Just half of Minnesota’s children enter kindergarten ready to learn.
  • 9 out of 10 African-American 4th graders are behind in reading.
  • About 40% of African-American, American-Indian and Latino students graduate from high school in four years.
  • 38% of Minnesota public high school graduates who attend state colleges and universities require remedial coursework.

When I speak with people in our community about the true failings of our educational system, they are often shocked to learn that Minnesota is faring so poorly. The truth is, we are creating a two-tiered society: those our educational system serves and those it neglects.

Often those who are aware there’s an achievement gap view the disparities with mild disbelief (“It’s not that bad.” “It’s only a few schools.” “The system works for most kids.”) or cynicism (“It’s too big to change.” “It’s the fault of the [fill in the blank].”) Sometimes I worry that we’re facing a perception gap as much as an achievement gap.

As a community, our long-term economic and cultural vitality depends upon everyone being able to contribute and share. Transforming our education system is our best hope of ensuring that opportunity is available to all.

We, at the Foundation, are working with nonprofit, public, philanthropic, and corporate allies through grant making and collaborative efforts to help make that transformation possible. We also seek to raise awareness of the facts, spotlight effective reform efforts, and build public will for change. This year, through Minnesota Meeting we’re partnering with the Itasca Project to focus on moving three aspects of this issue forward:

  • Our education system needs to be more flexible, innovative and accountable. It should reflect the fact that we live in the 21st century, and that our children will be competing with their peers from around the world for the jobs of the future.
  • We need to challenge and in some cases overturn the current orthodoxy about teaching methods as well as teacher training, licensing and evaluation.  We need to require that teachers be evaluated, in part, on student progress.
  • We need policymakers at all levels – from local school boards to the Governor’s office – to be held accountable for closing the racial achievement gap, which leaves thousands of students behind year after year.

On June 10, through the live on-line broadcast of Minnesota Meeting, you’ll hear from national education reform leader Alex Johnston. And over the next several weeks, individuals close to the education system and involved in local reform efforts will offer their viewpoints on this blog.

I hope you’ll stay with us and join the conversation. It will take a community to move this forward. We’re glad to be working with you.

Register now for the special live web broadcast of Minnesota Meeting.

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A Special Minnesota Meeting on Education Reform

June 10, 3:00 – 4:30 p.m.

The Minneapolis Foundation will bring together national and local community leaders for an insightful dialogue around the future of education in Minnesota. The discussion will be streamed live, from 3:00 and available for download and rebroadcast after the meeting.

Featured Speaker: Alex Johnston

Alex Johnston is the chief executive officer of Alex JohnsonConnCAN, widely regarded as one of the nation’s leading state-level education reform organizations. Mr. Johnston has led ConnCAN’s effort to advocate for state policies that will ensure every Connecticut child has access to a great public school.

Join the Conversation

We will follow Mr. Johnston’s remarks with a panel of local experts and audience discussion of educational reform efforts in Minnesota, including a reflection on the outcomes of the recent legislative session.

Register now for the special live web broadcast of Minnesota Meeting.

Special thanks to our sponsors for this Minnesota Meeting, the Itasca Project and the Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi Foundation for Children.

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