After decades of discouraging reports about student learning, Minnesotans are entitled to hear serious ideas from their elected officials and candidates about how to improve so important a system as public education.
We are not getting that discussion; we’re not getting good thinking about why academic performance is so flat and progress so slow.
Democratic candidates, here as everywhere, talk about “adequate funding” and early childhood programs. Republicans talk about choice and vouchers. Everyone deplores the low level of learning; everyone wants better results. Few talk seriously about what’s causing the problems or what realistically to do about them.
Heavy focus on the “achievement gap” might suggest the education problem exists only in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s better, actually, to think about “the gap” between what students everywhere in Minnesota are learning and what they should — and could — be learning.
The effort to get at the policy problem in K-12 should begin with a conversation about what and where the problem is.
Consultant Tom Veblen identifies problem-definition as the most difficult challenge problem solvers face. He grew up in Hallock, Minn., worked 20 years for Cargill, was in the first class of White House Fellows in 1965-66 and spent the rest of his career as a consultant for organizations in “the world food system.”
The education policy discussion is a kind of consulting.
“Deep-seated problems,” Veblen writes, “are multi-dimensional and excruciatingly difficult to define. This means the diagnostic phase of a consulting engagement is indispensable.
“Most clients don’t see it that way … . Only when the things they have tried have failed do they seek outside help. Paid to define and solve problems, they are hardly disposed to question their own understanding … . They seek treatment, not diagnosis … . And the client almost always has a wrong definition [of the problem], an almost always eloquently stated wrong definition … .”
That fits public education, which has long resisted questions about organizational design. For years its leadership insisted the problem was that the Legislature was not providing enough money. The “Nation At Risk” report in 1983 declared a need for change, but when the ensuing discussion about “restructuring” led nowhere, the notion developed that the educational system and the structure of school were fine. The problem was low performance and lack of accountability. From that came the push for standards and testing.
Today it is clearer that the problem is one of design. Institutions are designed for the job they’re assigned to perform. They need to be redesigned when the job changes. Over many years Minnesota has redesigned most of its governmental institutions but has been slow to get to public education. Until recently we were trying to meet a (now) 21st-century challenge with a system of schools designed for a 19th-century society and economy.
Between 1985 and 1991, however, the state made a critical start. In opening the system, it ended the public-utility arrangement. Interdistrict enrollment meant students no longer had to go to school where they lived. The postsecondary option and chartering made it possible for organizations other than the school district to offer public education.
That dramatic change shapes today’s policy challenge, which is for the state to give school districts the flexibility to pick up the new approaches to learning and the different forms of school appearing in other districts and states, in the charter sector and, increasingly outside, online.
Two decades ago, three leading superintendents saw that need: Don Helmstetter, then president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA), Tom Nelson, a former commissioner of education, and Jim Walker, a Minnesota “superintendent of the year,” asked their associations to urge the Legislature to enlarge districts’ ability to respond. MASA and the school boards association listened. But they did nothing.
Since 1998, the need has only grown, with still no initiative from the K-12 associations. Clearly, action will require a political push — which is what has moved education policy in this state before.
With five weeks to go in the 1970 gubernatorial campaign, Wendell Anderson came out for a Citizens League proposal to restore equalization in school finance; he won — and saw the “Minnesota Miracle” enacted in a bipartisan way in 1971.
In 1985, Gov. Rudy Perpich endorsed a proposal from the Minnesota Business Partnership for interdistrict choice. It was in operation by 1988. State Rep. Connie Levi attached the postsecondary option to that legislation. In 1991, state Sen. Ember Reichgott and state Rep. Becky Kelso championed chartering.
Interestingly, most (not all) expansion of choice has been pushed through by DFLers. This is not surprising: The support for choice is largely in their party’s constituency. It is found among parents who themselves have not finished or gone beyond high school; among lower-income families; in the cities; and among people of color.
State action needn’t be a mandate. To increase the capacity of school districts to adapt, the Legislature could do now what it did years ago to enlarge the capacity of (then) “village” governments to handle the rush of suburban development after World War II. The state established in law three “optional plans” designed to help municipalities meet their challenges and a process by which one of the plans could be adopted by local voters. (For early thinking about possible new forms of school district organization, go to http://bit.ly/SelfImprovingSystem.)
The question will then be what a redesigned district should do.
Getting beyond the status quo will require a fundamentally new approach to change. The tradition has been to make marginal improvements on the familiar way of doing things. Boards are usually ready with ideas of that sort, about how “we” — from the top — will now do better. The hard thing is to move beyond the traditional: toward personalizing learning, letting students move at their own pace, making learning project-based, delegating more decisions to the schools.
Not everyone is ready for the radically different. Those wanting the different will be a minority, opposed by a majority that emphatically does not.
Centralized as it is, districts do not do “different” well. Boards find the different politically uncomfortable. Different can create controversy and animosity, can complicate an election. It seems more practical to keep things the same across the schools and down through time.
So, with opinion divided, proposals for major change are likely to be rejected — or be so heavily compromised as to have little effect.
“Radical” change “at scale” is a contradiction in terms.
Success lies in starting small, with those who are ready for change; devolving decisions about learning to the schools and the teachers, then letting their innovations spread as others find they too are ready. This is the way large systems change, as illustrated in the famous curve graph in Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations: with new ideas flowing from the “early adopters” to the “laggards.”
The reality of gradual change will distress those pushing to have all schools become better now. But the Legislature cannot enact good schools: It can only create a system that will in time create good schools.
What’s needed is a form of district organizations where leadership fosters “a climate of encouragement for innovation at the front-line level” — to take historian Paul Kennedy’s description in his book “Engineers of Victory” of the role of leadership in winning World War II.
The state needs to move districts into a new model that is able to do both incremental and radical change, both innovation and improvement — and is willing to allow teachers more involvement in professional issues, from which they were excluded when bargaining appeared in 1960. The idea is for schools to focus on ways to motivate teachers and students. Larger professional responsibilities will motivate teachers. Personalizing learning will motivate students. Motivation matters for engagement, and engagement matters for learning.
Letting teachers lead the learning is the approach most conspicuously not yet tried for public education. It is time for it to be tried. Teachers will change school more dramatically than boards will.
The political leadership will find support for that. Thoughtful superintendents and board members understand they have to make their schools attractive — and so they do have to change. Mayors and city council members want schools doing more with vocational programs, to help their local economies. There is widespread interest in — and support for — enlarging teachers’ professional roles (see www.teacherpowered.org). Significant interest exists now inside the unions.
DFLers and Republicans will argue about the half of education policy that involves money. Imagine if they would agree on the policy half — agree, literally, that whichever party wins, Minnesota will have a self-improving system of public education with innovation developing in the charter, alternative and online sectors and diffusing gradually through the district sector.
On such a pro-district, pro-teacher and pro-student agenda, why wouldn’t they agree?
In private moments, former president of the Minnesota Education Association Bob Astrup described public education as “torqued out” — like the stick-shift car that in first gear will go no faster no matter how much gas you give it. It was time, he meant, to shift education into another gear.
The auto industry introduced automatic transmissions in the 1940s. It’s time to create something like that for public education, arranging for school — teaching and learning — to shift smoothly into new and different forms as needs change and opportunities arise.
Ted Kolderie is a longtime public-policy analyst in Minnesota. He received the Conant Award from the Education Commission of the States in 2011 for his contributions to public education.