Administrators offer post-election advice

Forest Lake, Lakes International officials suggest policy changes


Joe Nathan
Education Columnist

What should the top educational priority be for Congress and the Obama Administration?  Twenty-six Minnesota education leaders responded when I asked them recently.  Their responses fell into several major areas.

Linda Madsen, Forest Lake Area Schools superintendent suggested: “Reform No Child Left Behind (NCLB), provide incentives for innovation and success but do not label good schools as failing. The current NCLB system has some very valuable components, and school districts have benefitted from the program. Yet the current ‘all or nothing’ configuration essentially labels schools as either great or terrible, and far too many good schools are labeled as terrible due to failing to achieve 100-percent success. Also, the adapted NCLB format that Minnesota was allowed to implement was successful in focusing more on student growth. Reward the great schools, help the struggling ones. Nationally, we need to continue to turn our attention on the degree to which students are advancing and what we can do to accelerate that growth, rather than spending all of our energy on the ‘final product’ without any sense of what gets students there.”

Cam Hedlund of Lakes International Language Academy in Forest Lake spoke for many district and charter leaders, saying, “Please move away from standardized test scores as the sole measure of a school’s success. Please insist that states measure school success by how well educators meet the needs of the whole child, by how well they help students become well-rounded world citizens, by how well they help students maintain physical and emotional well-being and balance and by how much students come to love learning and maintain a sense of inquiry throughout their lives.”

Our taxes have paid for development of new assessments designed to give a broader, more complete view of student progress.  Standardized tests measure some, but not all important things we want students to learn.

Many leaders agree with Dennis Carlson, Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent: “We need a bipartisan approach to address Special Education funding. The Anoka-Hennepin school district is now subsidizing special education services to students using $31 million annually from our general fund. We support wholeheartedly the services to our special education students but it should not come as a cost to our other students. State and Federal mandates should be adequately funded or the statute intent is not genuine.”

According to the non-partisan publication Education Week, Congress promised to pay approximately 40 per cent of the cost of special education costs when the initial federal law was passed in 1975.  But current federal spending is about 16 percent of the costs.  Providing 40 percent would involve going from about $11.5 billion to about 35.3 billion. Legislation that would do this by 2021 was introduced earlier this year.  But it did not pass.

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, agreed and added to these priorities.  He wrote: “My top priority for the next president is to stop treating federal education policy like a political football and bring some stability to our schools. That starts with closing the Pell Grant shortfall once and for all, actually honoring the federal government’s  promise to pay for special education in the states and replacing No Child Left Behind with a new law that creates sensible accountability while preserving flexibility at the state and local levels.”

Jason Ulbrich, Executive Director of Eagle Ridge Charter, Eden Prairie urged the President “to encourage high performing schools to share best practices and reproduce.  This would include providing promised funding on time and to give flexibility in utilizing federal monies. “

It may be naïve to think that Congress and the President will agree on most, or even all of these suggestions. But I think it’s a good list. I hope legislators listen and learn from these folks.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at [email protected]