Has education reform group Generation Next built a moat?

  • Article by: BILL WILSON and JOE NATHAN
  • Updated: August 22, 2014 - 6:51 PM

Where were teachers’ representatives or charter schools at last week’s rally?

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In a rally last week for Generation Next, the education reform group’s co-chair — Kim Nelson, a General Mills vice president — asked participants to “hold our feet to the fire.” The two of us appreciate that openness. Given our 80-plus years experience working with schools, students and families, we want to offer compliments ­— and concerns.

First, congratulations to Generation Next on obtaining widespread agreement on goals, including significant increases in students reading well by third grade and increases in the high school graduation rate and the number of people who have graduated or earned certificates from a college or university. Establishing focus and priorities are important steps. Generation Next also has wisely recognized the value of working with both schools and with families.

However, simply setting goals does not guarantee success. The well-intentioned federal No Child Left Behind goal of “all students proficient by 2014” has not been achieved. Equally important, many NCLB strategies have frustrated educators, families and students. So we have several concerns.

First, among the many speakers last week, including Minneapolis and St. Paul superintendents, why wasn’t there a leader from the teachers union? Speakers often cited Cincinnati’s progress as the basis for Generation Next’s work.

One of the coauthors of the article you’re reading spent seven years working with Cincinnati’s district, union and community members. With Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation support, Cincinnati eliminated the high school graduation gap between white and African-American students. Cincinnati’s Federation of Teachers was a vital partner.

One of us talked with presidents of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Federation of Teachers after the Generation Next meeting last week. They were “not pleased.” Lynn Nordgren, MFT president, feels “the voice of the classroom teacher is being drowned out” in Gen Next efforts. Denise Rodriguez, SPFT president, pointed out that the screening of young students that Gen Next highlighted as a key strategy already is being done. Both wondered why the group didn’t mention reducing class size in K-3 classes, a proven way to improve achievement.

Nordgren pointed out that tutoring, a key Gen Next strategy, has a mixed record. May educators decide among several strategies to improve reading? Or has Gen Next decided that it will only support additional tutoring?

Equally important, both unions have been frustrated by the disinterest in one of the keys for Cincinnati’s progress. Cincinnati teachers and principals had power and resources to create new schools within schools. They controlled curriculum and budget, so long as they produced progress.

For example, one of the Cincinnati high schools making the greatest improvement shifted to separating young women and young men in academic classes and provided space for a family-service organization. Another developed new business connections.

Second, why didn’t any charter school leader speak at the Generation Next rally? Charter public school enrollment is increasing and now represents more than 20 percent of public school students in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Star Tribune’s “Beat the Odds” list regularly includes many of charters (including one directed by a co-author of this column). We’ve asked before, but it’s still not clear: How will charters share in Gen Next resources?

(Full disclosure: Eighteen months ago, Higher Ground Academy and CSC and two other charters applied for but did not receive Generation Next funds. Minneapolis and St. Paul district foundations did receive grants, along with a few other groups.)

Finally, Generation Next should post its budget and allocations. How much is going to schools? Cincinnati spent heavily on teacher training that was heavily influenced by what teachers said they needed. Schools were rewarded for progress. It’s not clear how Generation Next has spent or will spend dollars. It should be clear.

Our organizations, and students we work with, have benefited from Generation Next’s corporate partners. We appreciate their commitment and focus.

Effective leaders tap expertise throughout their organizations. Generation Next will make considerable progress on important goals if district and charter educators, families and others are not just “at the table,” but if their best ideas are used.

 

Bill Wilson, the first African-American elected to the St. Paul City Council and formerly Minnesota’s commissioner of human rights, is founder and executive director of Higher Ground Academy. Joe Nathan, formerly a St. Paul Public School teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change.

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