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In Battle over Quality, Let’s Not Forget Content

September 23, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

It's a quadrennial ritual: Gubernatorial candidates of all stripes roll out their plans for how they would handle education if elected. While these discussions revolve around funding and, as is the flavor of the day, teacher effectiveness and accountability, lawmakers can and have affected your child's classroom in ways you might not suspect.

Increased school financing is critical but raising the estimated $1.5 billion extra needed to properly fund K-12 education is a tough task for the next governor, who will have to neutralize a nearly $6 billion state budget gap.

Therefore, in lieu of giving too many specifics about adequate funding, especially at the $1.5 billion level, candidates shift focus to improving teacher quality. However, there is no proven way to measure teacher effectiveness that's fair to students and educators.  Rhetoric around the issue just becomes an election year distraction. Candidates should be talking about shaping legislation that improves curriculum.

I asked Mankato Schools Curriculum Director Cindy Amoroso how lawmakers changed the classroom experience over the last 10 years. She said the first change was when the state issued curriculum standards.

"Take the requirement that all eighth graders now have to pass algebra I," she said.

This raises some interesting questions about high school math curriculum: Are ninth graders now ready for geometry and 10th graders for algebra II? Do schools create algebra I in eighth grade and algebra I.5 in ninth grade? "This is a great example of how legislation can make a significant change."

There have been additional changes. The number of required high school math classes has risen from two to three; the number of required science classes has grown from two to three; and there's an additional mandatory art credit. And then there are the GRAD tests in reading, science and math that each student must pass to receive a diploma. Many students take remedial classes to help them pass the tests.

"So you add all that up and there are three to six electives that students aren't taking today they were 10 years ago," Amoroso said. "Maybe those students would have taken world language or technical science, and the fact that they're not taking them today affects those programs."

While raising math, science and art standards is an educational improvement, some may see the loss of other electives as a drawback to a more rounded education. 

I asked her about what some lawmakers are claiming is a cure-all for underfunded, overcrowded schools, online learning. She agreed with what most rank-and-file teachers say: Online learning is a good tool but it doesn't replace hands-on teaching. It's handy for students to go online to find assignments and notes, review a subject or access a study tool, but physically being in the classroom with a teacher who can meet your educational needs is what it takes for success.

Amoroso also acknowledged the other, less savory aspect of online learning -- inequitable access. Every student, no matter their economic standing or their disability, is welcome in a public school. To expect each of these students to have access to a computer or the wherewithal to effectively use it is unrealistic.

Of course, the 1,000-pound elephant in the room is the federal No Child Left Behind law and its Minnesota henchman, the MCA II test. While Amoroso wouldn't say that teachers or districts have altered their content to help students succeed on the seven-year-old test -- a technique known as "teaching to the test," which is widely acknowledged to be occurring -- she did allow that teachers are "feeling demands on the amount of content we're attempting to deliver to our students."

While our candidates debate the merits of teacher effectiveness and how we might measure their quality, teachers themselves are being buffeted by legislation that changes what our children receive for an education.

The debate about teacher quality is a bogus issue. Candidates who won't promise to address the horrible financial problems facing Minnesota education should at least discuss the legislative changes that have and will affect every student.

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