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Minnesota 2020 Journal: What Worked Then, Won’t Work Now

November 19, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

When it comes to schooling, everyone’s an expert. Nearly every living Minnesotan attended high school. Most of those folks graduated. Most graduated from a public school. No one is indifferent.

That perspective informs the public educational policy debate. It also hampers it because, however strong our perceptions regarding K-12 education, there’s a good chance that we’re not just misinformed, we’re wrong.

I’m a glass-is-half-full guy so I tend to view public education criticism as proof of an engaged citizenry. A vigorous educational outcomes debate, to me, is a healthy tonic. Unless, conservative no-new-taxes ideologues are manipulating public sentiment, seeking to undermine public confidence in Minnesota’s schools. Like now.

I’m mixed on my high school years. I had some great teachers, great opportunities and great memories. I also experienced adequate teachers. Small rural schools can’t hope to match larger school districts’ curricular and extracurricular offerings. And, diversity meant Swedes, Norwegians and Belgians.

As a high school student, I only developed the dimmest understanding of these factors. My evaluation of my K-12 public school education has evolved as I’ve grown. Comparing my experiences with my college friends, particularly in the classroom, was eye-opening. Walnut Grove High School and north suburban Chicago’s New Trier High School may be 500 miles apart but, culturally and academically, they’re different planets in different solar systems.

WGHS, however, gave me an educational experience that my large urban and suburban high school friends never knew. It was the opportunity of breadth, creating a deeply informed understanding of community’s needs and rewards. About the only thing I didn’t do in high school or junior high was sports. I was in band, choir, speech, theater, 4-H, student government, yearbook and student newspaper. I shot photos for the Walnut Grove Sentinel-Tribune. I’m pretty sure that I’m forgetting some stuff, too, but that’s my point. I had a rural high school’s freedom to try everything.

My big school college friends had very different experiences. They specialized. Their schools’ size didn’t prohibit participation in multiple activities but the sheer volume of students increased competition for a spot on the team or in the activity. Whether a school serves 1,000 students or only 100, five players start a basketball game.

During my high school years, WGHS didn’t teach foreign languages. Deciding that I’d attend a college requiring foreign language study for admission, I had to find some way to study a language that my school didn’t offer.

Tracy, Minnesota, seven miles west of Walnut Grove and forty percent larger, offered French. Not French, German, Spanish and Latin; just French. I convinced my principal and then my school board to let me take French, one hour a day, at Tracy HS. They weren’t crazy about the idea. I understand, in retrospect, that I was setting an uncomfortable precedent. If the Walnut Grove School Board permitted my enrollment in a non-Walnut Grove school district, it would open the door for similar accommodation requests.

I also understand, again in retrospect, that I’d struck a nerve. The Walnut Grove School District was proud of the education they delivered but my request highlighted an academic shortcoming. Not everyone thought language study was useful. In fact, I would say a majority felt that way because only legislatively-compelled curricular standards, introduced several decades later, forced Spanish language study’s addition.

This experience still rankles me but I recognize, now, that I was the outlier. My school’s curriculum facilitated a wide range of capacity and interest, just not foreign language study. At the time, my community saw little practical application of second or third languages. Older folks retained their native languages, learned from immigrant parents and used in their childhood homes. English had, however, supplanted Norwegian, Swedish and Flemish. French wasn’t going to make anyone, that view held, a better farmer so why offer it?

That perspective didn’t crystallize in Walnut Grove or anywhere in Minnesota. Today, Westbrook-Walnut Grove High School teaches Spanish and American Sign Language. So, if I draw solely from my high school experience evaluating any Minnesota school’s performance, I’ll be flat-out wrong. The world moves forward. Schools continuously evolve, seeking to deliver on that most elusive of challenges: a high quality education. But, that’s not everyone’s desire.

Conservative “no new taxes” policy seeks to reduce the tax burden on Minnesota’s wealthiest residents. Achieving that goal requires reducing state expenditures by whatever means necessary. Attacking schools and undermining public confidence in public education doesn’t improve learning, it just makes it easier to fool people into believing that school funding cuts will, somehow, not affect educational quality.

Our high school years deeply influenced all of us. But, just as a car manufactured in our graduation year won’t serve all of our 2010 mobility needs, the same is true with education. Don’t let conservative ideologues fool you. Minnesotans have good reason to feel frustrated—unemployment remains high, roads are crumbling, healthcare costs are skyrocketing—but the solution is to invest in infrastructure that grows our economy, not cut it off at the knees.

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