Guaranteeing every child a quality education sounds like a good idea — if someone can find a way to make it happen.
A proposal to amend the Minnesota Constitution to make quality education a "paramount duty" of the state is before the Legislature this session. It was advanced a year ago by Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and Alan Page, a former justice of the state Supreme Court.
But when asked to define "quality education" and to explain the "how" of its implementation, both demur. Others — "the people" — will do that, they say. Their role is to establish that civil right for children.
It is important, though, to have more than a goal. Public education has enough unrealized goals already.
None of the national goals adopted in 1989 were realized. In Minnesota, student failure to meet achievement standards is quietly ignored.
Proclaiming goals and voting appropriations is the standard education program for people in politics. Journalists asking "how?" get little response. Proposals for meaningful system change do sometimes appear, as in the 1980s, but rarely.
A fear of lawsuits, some suggest, might push districts into meaningful system change. But in the Legislature last session a major argument against approving the Page-Kashkari amendment was that this would turn education policy over to the lawyers.
So the state might not implement "quality learning." The district system, the school board and administrator associations, are silent on the proposed amendment. So was Gov. Tim Walz last week when announcing his education goals — the product of a hush-hush roundtable he had been working through the fall. Denise Specht, president of the state teachers union, appeared with Walz and did not modify her organization's opposition to the amendment. Page spoke briefly, visibly disappointed.
Success for the proposed amendment probably depends on finding a "how." And there is a way.
Start by understanding that our (1857) state Constitution required only that the Legislature make public schools available: Whether and how well students learned was up to them.
With its provision for quality education the Page Amendment proposes a fundamental change: The state would require results.
That in turn will require factoring in the co-workers on the job of learning — it will mean finding ways to motivate students.
Jack Frymier said just that to Minnesotans in 1999: "If young people want to learn, they will; if they don't, you probably can't make 'em. So any successful effort to improve student learning will begin by improving student motivation."
Unfortunately, as Gallup's polling shows, student engagement falls off sharply as children move through middle school and high school. Students often find conventional schools too large and impersonal, lacking in close relationships with teachers, insensitive to their races and cultures, knowing and caring little about what interests and is relevant to them.
Motivation being individual, Frymier said, the role of the teacher becomes critical: Only the teachers know students as individuals. Maximizing motivation requires teachers to adapt to students, personalizing learning. That enlarges teachers' professional role — which is important for recruitment and retention.
Minnesotans know how to do this. In the 1960s, alternative schools began appearing: smaller, more personalized, with teachers able to move away from conventional instruction. After 1991, by making it possible to create new and different schools, chartering created a kind of research and development sector for public education.
About 2013, reform advocates at Education Evolving launched a national effort to introduce something like the professional-partnership model into public school, letting teachers lead the learning. Two districts — Farmington and Spring Lake Park — now give individual teachers agency to change what they do, however they wish, if they wish, to graduate students with the knowledge, skills and personal traits the board seeks.
The challenge is to expand this approach to learning. An amendment could do that by making use of our Constitution's two most overlooked words: those charging the Legislature to secure, "by taxation or otherwise," a "thorough and efficient system of public schools" ("efficient" meaning "capable of accomplishing the result intended").
The "otherwise" would involve adding to the Page-Kashkari amendment language making it also a paramount duty of the state to create a system capable of fulfilling this fundamental right. The Legislature — or governor — would then direct a redesign of secondary education focused on enabling teachers to maximize student motivation.
This leaves the question of defining quality learning and quality schooling. Assuming agreement that all young children should know how to read and do basic math, debate will focus on secondary school. Personalization will change the notion that all students must do uniformly well in everything. Standards will be high relative to the career for which a student is headed.
When all children achieve with what they do best and are most interested in, agony over the achievement gap will ease. Note, too, that in its annual poll of public opinion about the schools, the Kappan magazine found that 8 in 10 Americans say they care less about test scores than about seeing young people genuinely engaged in learning.
There is a road to quality education, if the Legislature will take it.
Ted Kolderie is a longtime public-policy analyst in Minnesota.