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A Better Leader for Minnesota Education

November 12, 2008 By Tom Hoffman, Guest Commentary

Tom Hoffman: Assistant Professor, Hamline University, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  


There are more than 50,000 teachers in Minnesota. Who in our state government advocates for all these public school teachers?

Ideally, wouldn't it be the Commissioner of Education?

I ask because of recent concerns surrounding what constitutes a quality public school education. Generally, people who become teachers do so because of a desire to make a difference, a desire to build a strong rapport with young people and to use their creativity to bring their subjects alive to students.

In other words, 50,000 public school teachers did not enter teaching because of a political affiliation; rather they entered the classroom to pursue a cause beyond themselves.

Our Commissioner of Education, however, is appointed because of political affiliation and serves the educational whims of the governor. Perhaps the time has come to consider a Commissioner of Education that earns the job not because of which party she supports, but because of educational expertise.

According to the 1983 government report, A Nation at Risk, there was widespread public perception that something was seriously remiss in our educational system. Since then, "school reform" has become a legislative mantra at both federal and state levels. Politicians, not teachers or administrators, acquired a growing influence in attempts to fix the system.

Indeed the system does need fixing, primarily because teaching and learning has become more complex.

Let me site three examples of urgent education issues in Minnesota today.

Diversity. Minnesota continues to be an attractive place for immigration. According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, nearly 200,000 people immigrated to Minnesota since 2000 -- more than 12,000 from Somalia, 6,000 from Ethiopia, 5,000 from India and Mexico. It is essential that our government leaders advocate for educational quality for all Minnesotans regardless of how long the students have been in the state.

Pedagogy. Because the process of instruction has become more research-driven, we know more about effective teaching than ever before. What began at Stanford University, Columbia Teachers College and the University of Chicago as an effort to quantify what constitutes a quality education has continued with the likes of Cremin, Lageman, Tyack, Cuban, Sergiovanni, Marzano, Fullan, Elmore, and Reeves. These are institutions and individuals who passionately fought for the use of research to become an impetus for improved instruction. We must ensure that new knowledge about teaching and learning gets to those who use it.

Resources. More than any time in recent history, schools are losing the game of competing for taxpayer dollars. The state provides about 80 percent of schools' operating funds, leaving most of the rest up to local property taxpayers. A cash-strapped state has dropped school investment by 4.4 percent since 2003, leaving cash-strapped taxpayers on the hook to pay for education. What are the ramifications when both the state and local taxpayers refuse to properly fund schools?

Issues of diversity, pedagogy and limited recourses are just three of many compelling issues that affect student achievement today. Other examples include issues of generational poverty, soaring special education costs, equal use to technology in schools; and community collaboration to better support local schools.

But instead of addressing these issues, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren announced their new agenda for Minnesota's schools. Priority issues for the current year include continued funding of Q-Comp (merit pay), tougher standards for those wanting to go to college to become teachers; and looking at non-licensed community experts to become teachers in math and science.

Clearly these people have a different set of priorities. For Minnesota, who should be framing the issues that impact students, teachers and families the most? As a partisan politician, can leadership of Minnesota schools legitimately come from the Commissioner of Education?

Perhaps it is time to look at a new way to provide leadership to teachers and students. What would happen if the Commissioner of Education ran for office on authentic school experience and a platform of issues that provided a choice for state voters?

In an election, Minnesota voters might identify a person with a compelling desire to advocate for teachers and students in a way today's politicians have failed to accomplish. To play politics with an issue as important as education is very unwise. Minnesotans must demand better representation from their leaders than they have received.

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