Minnesota needs smart workers? Then it needs smart teachers.

  • Article by: STEVE FORD
  • Updated: March 17, 2013 - 9:18 PM

We aren’t going to get a top workforce by lowering our education standards.

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History teacher Eric Sparks works with 7th grade students, Lilah Schulz, Lydia Larson and Walker Ferguson in the hallway at Sanford Middle School. Sparks has a flexible classroom, allowing some students to work in the hallway during class.

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Last Sunday, columnist Lori Sturdevant pointed that our state needs to better train its workforce (“We’re gonna need a better workforce,” March 10), citing evidence that we are not producing enough skilled workers to fill current job vacancies. She went on to explain that we can ill-afford to watch our businesses seek high-skilled workers elsewhere and gear down here at home if Minnesota “ is going to stay prosperous enough to educate workers for a knowledge-based economy …”

Her article featured the efforts of state Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, who wants to develop “a real strategy for raising the educational attainment of the state’s workforce.”

On Tuesday, Rep. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, contributed an article denouncing the basic-skills test that is part of the Minnesota Teacher Licensing Examinations (“Minnesota teachers take a test that’s unfair,” March 12). “It is a bad test. Period,” he wrote. “It needs to be eliminated.”

Dahle’s argument was partly based on the situation of an art teacher who, “unless we eliminate the test, will lose his job.” He also laments the bind in which many of our minority teacher candidates find themselves: “Studies done at Augsburg College show a significant drop in passing rates among minority teachers, including those with English as a first language.” (My emphasis.)

Hmmm. Now, I cannot comment on the exact content of the MTLE basic-skills test — it’s held secret — but I can offer my observations as a teacher and tutor:

• We are doing a lousy job of teaching our youngsters to write and speak effectively. It is common knowledge. Over the last two decades, colleges and universities have created remedial writing labs to address this growing problem. A 2011 job outlook survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that verbal communication was at the top of the list of skills employers are looking for in college graduates.

• We can’t expect to prepare workers for a “knowledge-based economy” if we don’t have a knowledge-based education system. Beginning in the 1970s, our schools abandoned the conservative model of educating children — not altogether a bad thing, I hasten to add — and adopted the humanitarian model. Phonics was out; “whole language” was in. Competition gave way to cooperation. Content was to a large extent replaced by process, and rigor began to morph into fluff. Textbooks became less prevalent, and teachers were called on to create more of their own curricula.

Again, this was not all bad. After all, our children did feel better about themselves. But the system became very disjointed as administrators and teachers flailed about in waves of new initiatives that came and went with the tides. As a result, there was, and still is, little consistency in the quality of the product — our students.

• Four years ago, the Bush Foundation rolled out a $40 million grant to 14 teacher training institutions for the purpose of improving teacher quality. I’m wondering how that worked out. I recently met a fourth-year student in one of those programs; she had never heard of the grant and felt inadequately trained for the classroom. I just hope she doesn’t become one of the staggering number of new teachers who give up before they’ve served five years.

Rep. Dahle, I hear what you are saying. I’m certain we could do better at targeting these tests of prospective teachers’ abilities. But please hear what I am saying: The answer to poor academic skills (language or otherwise) among teacher candidates is not eliminating the tests that measure them. We should be raising the bar, not lowering it. You and your colleagues at the Capitol should focus on two things:

• First, and most important, demand that our teacher training institutions reinvigorate their curricula. Those kids are there to learn stuff. Academic stuff, practical stuff — knowledge that they can take to their classrooms and adapt to their programs. As Sturdevant says, it’s a knowledge-based economy.

• Second, recognize that our schools are in rough shape, inside and out. Teachers and administrators are exhausted and stressed-out. Stop paying lip service to the importance of children to our future, and start paying the bills.

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Steve Ford, of St. Paul, is a retired writing teacher, tutor and volunteer adult education writing instructor.

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