“This legislative session may have the first truly multifaceted debate on education in many years: One much needed.” So wrote Roy Magnuson, a longtime St. Paul civics teacher, in a recent e-mail.

Well, perhaps not in this short election-year legislative session. But certainly a debate through this year, leading to the long budget session in 2021.

Clearly, problems and questions abound; proposals to achieve quality and equity run in all directions. For example:

Will money do it? Or is this “not the kind of problem money solves?”

Should testing be cut back?

Is the definition of “achievement” too narrow?

Should districts be able, and encouraged, to innovate with the kinds of schools families are leaving conventional school to get?

Or should family choice be restricted to protect the districts?

Can we get the schools we need by changing the schools we have, or only by creating different schools from scratch?

How can teachers be helped to deal with disruption in the classroom, and helped generally with what causes so many to quit?

Is the effort of some immigrant groups to have their children educated together a commitment to their culture that Minnesota should respect? Can such schools be called “segregated” when attendance is no longer assigned by political authority?

On and on.

Recently there has been a politically significant addition, the quite different proposal from former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, to ensure students a quality education by amending the Minnesota Constitution to require it.

Listening at the proposal’s unveiling at the bank Jan. 13, I was struck by two things about it.

First: It’s like Brexit.

How so? A constitutional amendment would ask the public to vote on an objective — with neither its implications nor its implementation having been made clear. “Referendum first, practicalities later” produced problems in Britain. It could produce problems here.

One implication seems obvious. Rights are “actionable.” Establishing “quality education” as a right means that districts, perhaps, could be sued for failure to “deliver quality education.” That is bound to cause discussion.

Second: The “how” of implementation is critical. The idea of committing to make children’s interests “paramount” came across with great power that afternoon, and the status quo took a real kicking. But the how of defining and ensuring “quality” is left to be addressed later.

Fortunately, Minnesota has the opportunity to think before voting. Here a constitutional amendment can go to the ballot only by action of the Legislature. So, as Roy Magnuson says, this is the time for discussion.

Taken seriously, “Children First” calls into question the essence of the status quo in public education — which is that schools deliver education; that improving learning is something adults do by fixing school, and that students adapt to the schooling adults create.

The idea of beginning the other way around — with schools adapting to what students want and need, seeing the student as a co-worker on the job of learning — implies radical change for those running schools. It means:

• Giving students a voice; asking what they think about school and listening to what they say. Listen especially to those now not doing well; those in groups low on graphs of “the achievement gap.”

• Making motivation a priority; charging and enabling teachers to get students engaged in learning. Let young people concentrate on what they like and are good at, rather than making them work on what they don’t like and are not good at.

• Once learning is personalized, dropping age-grading. Allow and encourage young people to move as fast as they could go, in academics as in athletics.

• Broadening the concept of achievement beyond reading and math; an important assessment but too narrow. The capacity we’d then see, even in young people tagged by today’s standards as low-performing, might surprise us.

• Enlarging teachers’ professional role, to make learning student-centered; something not always easy for boards and administrators.

• Treating adolescents as adults. “Our high schools used to be filled with children, Mary Lee Fitzgerald said from her experience as superintendent and commissioner in New Jersey. “Today they’re full of young people who are basically adults — being treated still as children.”

Implementing such a “Children First” agenda will also challenge much in conventional education policy.

There are influential adults who no way want to begin with what interests students; who insist that school must teach what adults know young people need to study.

It will be hard to reverse the long drift into “central master planning” and to move instead to “a school-based strategy” as Robert Bruininks, dean of the college of education at the University of Minnesota before becoming its president, says is necessary.

“Children First” will require being realistic about adult organizations. Organizations have incentives to put their own interests first. And when pushed to face the need for change, their leadership often displays what consultants know as “the client’s resistance to rigorous diagnosis.”

The state will need to relax the concept of conventional school, in which much of the status quo is embedded; easing up on the “must” so often imposed by legislators, assumed by legislative staff and enforced by rule-makers in the Department of Education. It will mean letting schools and teachers try things.

Like all radical change, the idea that school should adapt to students will come gradually. But Page and Kashkari are compelling: The track we’re on is not getting us to the objectives we want; something different is needed.

Were the constitutional amendment to be adopted first we would still face, afterward, the tough questions about how to define “quality” and how to ensure it; how to make “children first” real.

Better to think through those questions now.

 

Ted Kolderie is a longtime public-policy analyst in Minnesota.