As the school year kicks off, Gov. Mark Dayton and his DFL allies are congratulating themselves on pumping hundreds of millions of new dollars into Minnesota schools during the last legislative session. Thanks to their enlightened leadership, they assure us, our schools are now on track to produce the “world’s best workforce” — and to achieve the ever-elusive goals of closing our yawning racial achievement gap and attaining a 100 percent graduation rate.
The rhetoric is impressive, no doubt. When it comes to making these promises a reality, however, Dayton and Co. are not just stuck in neutral but are advancing backward at breakneck speed. Far from raising standards and ensuring accountability — critical in a globally competitive economy — they are undermining both, for students and teachers.
In the much-lauded 2013 “education session,” for example, the Legislature dumped our state’s high school graduation exams: the GRAD tests. The tests measured reading and writing skills — at a ninth-grade and tenth-grade level, respectively — and students had been required to pass them to demonstrate that they had earned a high school diploma.
Now, a Minnesota diploma will now be essentially meaningless: a certificate that students can get just by showing up. Sure, students will take new career and college-readiness exams, but they can bomb them completely and still get a diploma. After more than a decade of reforms aimed at ensuring that graduates can meet fundamental academic standards, we’re back to measuring educational success by “seat time,” not by what students actually know and can do.
DFLers have dismantled standards for teachers, too. The Legislature put Teachers Basic Skills test on hold, and the Minnesota Department of Education has announced that, for the next two years, new teachers need not pass or even take it.
Effective teachers are the key to student achievement. Nevertheless, the Legislature rejected a bill that would have prevented Minnesota students from being assigned to a low-performing teacher two years in a row.
Yet “the main driver of the variation in student learning at school is the quality of the teachers,” according to a 2007 report produced by McKinsey & Co. On average, students with high-performing teachers progress three times faster than those with low-performing teachers, according to the report. At the primary level, students who have low-performing teachers for several years in a row “suffer an educational loss which is largely irreversible.”
The list of the DFL establishment’s destructive educational policies goes on:
• In 2012, Dayton vetoed legislation that would have repealed our state’s indefensible “last-in, first-out” teacher layoff law. The law is a perennial source of parental complaint, and all but one Minneapolis mayoral candidate unequivocally endorse changing it.
• The administration follows the teachers union’s lead in supporting the outdated, quality-blind “steps and lanes” approach to teacher compensation, which bases pay on seniority and postgraduate education. Our state’s Q Comp law is intended to link pay to performance and to encourage more strategic ways to compensate teachers. But as the Minneapolis school district plans its potential participation in Q Comp — granting only $3 per teacher per year for performance pay — the Minnesota Department of Education has clearly signaled that it is willing to abandon that effort and to allow Q Comp money to be used for other purposes.
• The administration also has increased hurdles for innovative programs like Teach for America, which places outstanding college grads in classrooms in high-poverty schools. Yet a recent Mathematica study of student math performance found that, on average, TFA teachers are “more effective across the board” than other teachers, “making gains equivalent to an additional 2.6 months of school for the average student nationwide.”
Education is at crossroads in Minnesota. Our state has one of the nation’s widest racial learning gaps. It also has the worst graduation rate for Hispanics, the next-to-worst rate for black students and the fourth-worst for low-income students, according to federal data.
In these dire circumstances, our leaders should welcome new ideas. Instead, under Dayton, we’re going backward — torpedoing every promising proposal not endorsed by union bosses. New preschool and all-day kindergarten funding is unlikely to make a sustained difference when standards and accountability for students, teachers and schools are being thrown to the winds.
Who pays the highest price? Our state’s struggling low-income and minority students. Despite the DFL establishment’s rhetoric of concern for them, in reality, the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is back with a vengeance.
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.