It was the coldest day of this year when I joined a lively group convened in St. Paul as part of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s “2014 Education Summit.”
Experts shared their views on why the state is too often failing its students. Notwithstanding the oft-quoted view that “all our kids are above average,” it is clear that for too many of Minnesota’s young people, that definition of above average is not enough.
Among the summit presenters were former Washington, D.C., Superintendent Michelle Rhee and her one-time teachers union challenger, George Parker; a panel review of what Minnesota could learn from other states, overseen by former State Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, and 2006 gubernatorial candidate Peter Hutchinson, a onetime teacher.
All of this got me thinking about a long-ago reformer of education who was one of Minnesota’s most-respected business leaders from one of its most respected companies — Lew Lehr, CEO of 3M Co.
In the early 1980s, Lehr saw the need for new thinking in the way Minnesota was overseeing its most important constitutional mission: educating its youngest citizens, most of whom become future workers in the state.
Using his position as a leader in the Minnesota Business Partnership, Lehr convened fellow CEOs from Minnesota-based companies — in addition to the best minds he could assemble — to come up with constructive ideas for Gov. Rudy Perpich and Minnesota policymakers. Key among Lehr’s allies was Graco CEO David Koch.
Together they oversaw what became the largest privately funded education research project in the state’s history, initially retaining a Stanford Research Institute consulting firm in California to independently assess Minnesota’s situation and to make recommendations.
Beginning in December 1984, as I began as executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, we released a series of documents entitled “Educating Students for the 21st Century.”
“What we are looking for is a new standard of academic excellence based on a wealth of fine teachers and administrators and an unwavering commitment to educating our children for the future,” said Lehr.
For many years, the proposals were central to the Business Partnership’s agenda, working to reverse the decline in student test scores and address the diminished problem-solving, reasoning and communications skills that had become evident.
Despite strong opposition from within the education establishment, Perpich sided with most of the partnership’s recommendations and advanced a plan in 1985 that resulted in powerful new programs allowing students to jump-start their higher education by gaining high school academic credit for college coursework, empowering students and their parents to select their own public schools with state funding attached, making dramatic changes in school site management, including the introduction of publicly funded charter schools, and implementing stronger student and teacher performance measurements.
The partnership retained its own lobbyists, working closely with the governor, and recruited authors for the key legislation. Lehr even joined Perpich for a fly-around to meet with reporters and editors across the state to drum up bipartisan support. Over the next several years, many reforms were adopted that successfully advanced the education of K-12 students.
Fast-forward to today. Planners of the 2014 Education Summit recruited Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust based in Washington as keynote speaker.
In a data-driven assessment of how the 50 states are supporting the education of their children, Haycock combined success stories, the realities of the challenges, and strategies that have proved most effective.
Haycock focused on new and better ways to undertake teacher recruitment, professional development and evaluation while assigning only the best teachers to the most challenging classroom situations.
Among her suggestions: Don’t accept excuses for a lack of performance improvement; recognize that prekindergarten early learning is the most effective investment to ready kids for successful schooling, and emphasize the teaching of so-called “common core” competencies.
For actions taken nearly three decades ago, Minnesota owes much to Perpich, who died from cancer at 67 in 1995, and Lehr, 92, who lives in retirement in Arizona. The Minnesota business community’s continued commitment to education reform today reflects the continued legacy of these unsung heroes of the 1980s.
About the author: Chuck Slocum is former executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership and is president of the Williston Group, a management consulting firm. His e-mail is Chuck@WillistonGroup.com.