Sunday, November 21, 2010

Legislative Education Reforms: Look before you Leap

I've started a series of posts on the topic of education reform in Minnesota. The premise of the posts is that with a new republican legislature and a new democratic governor, there's an opportunity for the new leaders to break new ground and make desperately needed reforms. As I was preparing my second post, yesterday's St. Cloud Daily Times reported a range of data on public employee salaries at the State level. I found the article really informative. It got me thinking: what if the Dayton administration and the republican legislature would begin their reform efforts by conducting a careful examination of good solid hard data? What if they began by holding hearings, listening to leading thinkers in education, and to folks throughout Minnesota who want reform efforts to succeed?

When a new political party sweeps into office, it arrives fully of energy, as if on steroids, ready to make changes. The topic of this post is to argue that before making decisions, the new leadership should begin their reform agenda with collecting some cold hard facts. There are plenty of needed reforms. The problem is that some of the reform ideas that are really popular will not work. A tremendous amount of damage has been done to public education at state and national levels by well-meaning reformers who have used their newly found powers to impose drastic but unworkable changes. My plea is, look before you leap. Collect some data; listen; make changes based on reforms of proven merit, not ideology.

Since well before I joined the St. Cloud Board of Education I've tried to keep track of the hearing-topics chosen by Senators and Representatives in St. Paul. It has struck me, that these hearings tend to focus on some of the issues of least importance. Things that are interesting, but don't really focus on topics that are really critical to making important decisions that could really make a difference for those of us in the hinterland. How about holding some hearings on the key critical topics that would drill down to the issues really facing public education? Drive out drivel, and get down to realities. Here are some topics that I wish the education committees would hold hearings on:
  • Minnesota collective bargaining: What are the hard facts regarding what has been happening as a result of Minnesota's current collective bargaining system in public education? What does the data tell us about the relationship between employee compensation and the level of public funding? Are school districts able to fund the increases that they are providing, or are they making cuts in order to fund them, and if so, where ? Is the collective bargaining system producing a result that is fair to employees and fair to school districts?
  • What does economics tell us teachers should get paid? There has been a whole lot of loose talk in Minnesota on whether teachers are getting paid too much or too little. It's time that we had took a really hard look at what we are paying teachers in Minnesota as compared to other states. We should look as well at what similar professions and pay and look at whether we are on course in Minnesota to pay what needs to be paid to attract the finest young people into the teaching profession in future years. Let's not answer this question based partisanship or whim. Our future depends upon providing the correct answer to this question.
  • What does the best research tell us it should cost to deliver a world class education, and how best should resources should be marshaled in a way to make sure that the necessary resources are used efficiently. Several years ago, a State bipartisan task-force began work on this question, which is really the most critical question facing our State, in my opinion. But somehow the issue got politicized, and the Republican Governor lost faith in the process. Democrats and advocates for public education accused the Governor of canceling the work of the commission, because the answer was coming back too high. Conservatives responded that the assumptions made by the Commission stacked the deck in ways that were forcing the answer to come back too high. Now, with the legislature in the hands of the Republicans, there is really no excuse for not getting the facts necessary to answer this question. Let's finish the job, and let's do it right. Mangling the facts to run education on the cheap will not work. Mangling the facts to elevate the cost of education beyond what is reasonably required will not work. Let's collect the best minds now to examine what we must spend to do the job right.
  • Special Education Finance: Since most Republicans have campaigned against unfunded mandates, its time for the legislature and Governor to take an honest look at what the current system is doing to public education. The facts are going to be rather, well, unpleasant. Year after year, governors and legislators have tried to sweep this problem under the rug, because the costs are so high. But you cannot reform by evading reality. Unless the legislature fixes the current special education finance mess, it cannot truly reform public education finance. Any effort to reform that leaves this problem unresolved, is doomed to total failure.
  • Study Programs that Really Work--and then provide incentives to adopt best practices; I would urge our colleagues at the legislature to take a look at the research on programs that actually have produced significant results, but to do so with great care and caution. The field of education is filled with charlatans who are selling snake-oil solutions. Their method is to find one isolated school somewhere in the country that is showing favorable results and then to claim that there is something about that particular school that is the magic bullet for all other schools throughout the country. The legislature should bring in the best minds in the country, particularly people who have carefully studied successful school systems and those who have actually run them.
As some of you know, I've been tremendously skeptical that the solutions most popular with national pundits and the chamber of commerce crowd will lead to reforms that are likely to do the most good. Not because I'm against reform. On the contrary, I believe that reform is desperately needed. But I believe that the chamber of commerce folks are deeply mired in a philosophy that works for running department stores, manufacturing plants, and restaurant chains, but that this philosophy is doomed to failure when translated to educational institutions composed of professionals. If we want real reform that promotes the very best practices that can really work, we are going to have to start out by opening our minds to data and research.

Look before you leap, Minnesota legislature. Reform, yes, but listen first, open your minds, work really hard to develop a workable solutions. If you do that, you will earn the gratitude of future generations. If you fail--if you are guided by mindless ideology--you are destined to destroy any chance to assure that Minnesota's next generation is ready for the 21st century.

No comments:

Post a Comment

comments welcome