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At Issue: Hopeful education goals in a dismal year

Published (4/3/2009)
By Kris Berggren
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Members of the House K-12 Education Finance Division listen to testimony from Farmington Schools Finance Director Jeff Priess, from left, 
Superintendent Brad Meeks and Assistant Superintendent Christine Weymouth during a March 31 hearing at the Farmington High School Little Theater. The division went on the road to discuss education funding in growing school districts. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)In this dismal budget year, the House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee crafted its omnibus bill with an eye to a more robust future.

Committee Chairman Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), who sponsors HF1179, said the state’s changing economy characterized by new energy technologies, globalization and changing demographics “begs for us to deliver science, math, language and cross-cultural competencies in new ways with all kids, not just those who are already performing well.”

The committee approved the bill March 26. After adopting some amendments, the House K-12 Education Finance Division laid the bill over April 1 for possible inclusion in its omnibus bill.

Incentive for innovation

The bill proposes “incentive revenue” for school districts to accomplish those goals. Starting in fiscal years 2014-2015, they would be required to use 5 percent of any increased basic revenue for research-based practices or curriculum shown to improve learning across the student spectrum. Mariani knows it’s an unusual action and that there won’t be extra revenue this year.

“For me it really has more to do with the policy of placing expectations. We’re not going to simply put more money into K-12, we’re going to drive new policy that attempts to catch up with the changing nature of our student demographic and the changing demands of our economy.”

Calming testing anxiety

Lots of time and money is invested in testing, such the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment series. Such “snapshot” tests capture some useful data, including performance in a given year in a school or within a certain group or grade of students and create system-wide benchmarks, but other kinds of assessments capture data that’s more useful to classroom teachers.

Proposed is a five-year grace period on the math Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma and an alternative path to graduation for the projected 38 percent of 11th graders who could fail the math GRAD they’re scheduled to take this month. That would buy time for lawmakers to study the value of high stakes tests and to hammer out a long-term solution, such as end-of-course examinations, acceptable to all parties, including the governor, who opposes the alternative path.

Rep. Randy Demmer (R-Hayfield) unsuccessfully sought March 26 to strike the provision.

“I was concerned about us veering away from our resolve to get assessments of our kids that had meaning,” Demmer said later. “I honestly believe that if we don’t give tests meaning and purpose, make these tests high stakes, we’re not going to get good data because students won’t take them seriously.”

The bill would also implement computer adaptive testing starting in the 2010-11 school year for grades 3-8, which uses interactive technology to adjust a test to the ability of the test taker and allows results to be quickly used by a classroom teacher to identify and correct instructional gaps. The proposal could save school districts money by eliminating duplicative testing.

Schools could expand their use of growth model assessments, in addition to those measuring proficiency and yearly progress. Students would be measured against their own performance and growth between two or more points in time which can show they’re making progress, even if they’re not fully proficient.

Boosting teacher quality

The bill calls for teacher professional development for re-licensure based on job-embedded, reflective, evidenced-based methods of improving classroom practice, not just on logging a certain number of hours. It also links Q Comp to evidence of effective practice, which Mariani predicted could prove thorny as the bill progresses, as the governor strongly prefers to link Q Comp to student outcomes.

Special education

State special education provisions would align more closely with federal laws and rules. For example it would shift the burden of proof in a due process consideration from the district to demonstrate it is complying with the law to the party seeking relief. It would also repeal the requirement that school districts provide special education services for nonpublic school students, as well as the use of some restraint and isolation procedures, replacing them with updated interventions that trained staff would use to manage aggressive student behavior.

Rep. Carol McFarlane (R-White Bear Lake) had moved March 26 to strike that provision, but was pleased her amendment prompted stakeholders to hammer out a compromise.

“I would suggest that after amendments that were made today we’re heading in the right direction,” she said after the April 1 hearing. “I appreciate that people have been willing to come together to make good policy.”

Capacity building

Other provisions involve capacity-building and policy analysis with a wide view of education policy across the educational spectrum. One would add four legislators to the P-20 Partnership, an existing think-tank on education policy involving stakeholders beyond K-12 silos. Another would direct the independent Office of Educational Accountability to report to the Legislature on statewide educational accountability information.

Not included in the bill is charter school reform legislation, introduced separately as HF935, sponsored by Rep. Linda Slocum (DFL-Richfield), nor education mandate reductions, the subject of HF920, sponsored by Rep. Tom Tillberry (DFL-Fridley).

A companion bill, SF1253, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Wiger (DFL-Maplewood), awaits action by the Senate E-12 Education Budget and Policy Division.

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