Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

Minnbest is a non-partisan, broad based coalition of parents, educators and school advocacy groups who believe excellent public education is a foundation of democracy in America.


Noel Schmidt:Minnesotans Deserve Better Educational Leadership

Posted on Tue, Mar. 30, 2004

In November, Minnesota will host the 31st Annual National Middle School Association Conference and Exhibit. More than 10,000 middle-school educators from across the United States will descend on the Convention Center in Minneapolis to learn how to create vibrant and strong middle schools.

They will learn about the foundations of excellent middle schools: smaller learning communities; a curriculum grounded in standards that are relevant to the learning needs of students; exploratory courses, such as family and consumer science, art, band, choir, technology education and foreign language; and the role of parents and communities in the healthy development of student learning. The conference attendees will spend millions of dollars in Minnesota hotels, restaurants, shops and tourist attractions during their stay.

The National Middle School Association Conference and Exhibit will be Minnesota's opportunity to shine in the national spotlight and to highlight Minnesota's excellent reputation as a leader in middle-school education.

Recent events, however, have tempered that reputation.

Several months ago our commissioner of education, Cheri Pierson Yecke, published "The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America's Middle Schools." In the book, the commissioner blasts middle schools as ineffective institutions. Essentially, she believes that middle schools should be reverse-engineered into old-fashioned junior high schools, especially for talented and gifted students.

Yes, that's right, the same old-fashioned junior high schools that we know are not as effective as middle schools. (For a better opinion on what really works in middle schools, reference these excellent books loaded with research on effective middle schools: "America's Middle Schools," by Dickinson, Jenkins, and McEwin; "This We Believe," by the National Middle School Association, and "Turning Points 2000," by Davis and Jackson.)

It is ironic that Minnesota will be host to the National Middle School Association Conference and Exhibit and yet has a commissioner of education who has gone out of her way to paint a negative picture of middle schools. As part of my job as president of the Minnesota Middle School Association, I talk with people from all over the United States. No matter where I go or whom I talk with from other states, the question inevitably comes up: "What is going on in the commissioner's office in Minnesota?"

Many times I don't have an answer.

The commissioner's book is a reflection of her thoughts, ideologies and clear political agenda. At no point in her 267-page book does she even give one example of a successful middle school operating according to the National Middle School Association guidelines. Not a single example. Apparently, according to the commissioner of education, very little good is occurring in middle schools around the nation and in Minnesota.

The role of the commissioner of education is to promote the good that is occurring in Minnesota schools and to start conversations that result in improved schools for students. The commissioner's job is not to use hyperbole, political zealotry and mystification to confuse, bewilder and obfuscate the truth.

Soon the state of Minnesota will have to decide whether she should be confirmed as education commissioner. This is not a decision that should be taken lightly.

It is clear from her book that she plans to dismantle the good that is found in many excellent middle schools throughout the state. Her ideas on middle level education will not serve to advance the quality of education that our students receive. Instead, her ideas will set middle schools back 30 years and throw out volumes of sound educational research.

The people of Minnesota deserve better.
Schmidt is president of the Minnesota Middle School Association. He is principal at Central Middle School in the White Bear Lake Area Schools. E-mail him at nnschm@wbl.whitebear.k12.mn.us.


Hannah Larson: Social studies standards would take state back to the '50s

Posted on Tue, Mar. 23, 2004

Warren Anderson claims that opponents of the new social studies standards are "hypocrites defending educational mediocrity" because, according to him, they believe that "facts don't count and memorization is evil" ("Taking Exception: New standards will strengthen Minnesota schools," Feb. 12).

Besides putting hyperbolic, ridiculous words into the mouths of the opponents of the standards, Anderson is also wrong in stating that opponents believe that facts don't count. Most of the standards' opponents would agree that facts are important and are the basis of critical thinking. They know, however, that fact-based standards cause an overload of names and dates to memorize, boring students and de-emphasizing critical-thinking skills, which are much more important than simple facts.

With the emphasis on knowing facts like names and dates, history classes will most likely return to a traditional lecture format where students have no chance to discuss or analyze facts and ideas. The teacher will have to cover the material in the standards quickly, making sure to include everything that is on the state tests and leaving no time for class discussion or a more detailed investigation of one topic. Students will feel no interest in these bits of information, having no knowledge of what they mean or how they relate to modern life; they will simply memorize them in order to pass the test and then forget them.

Under the new standards, real understanding of the topics may also be shortchanged. Most people would agree that understanding why Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation is more important than knowing that it was issued in 1862 and that it freed some slaves, or that understanding how Nat Turner's rebellion changed race relations in America is better than just knowing that a guy named Nat Turner led a rebellion in 1831.

Students under a fact-based curriculum will also be forced into the passive role of listening to the teacher and memorizing facts. Ironically, since one of the goals of the proponents of the standards is stopping activist teachers from "telling students that oil companies are bad" or that "Castro's Cuba is good" (in Anderson's words), there will be no time when students can think critically and develop their own ideas about a topic.

There is no reason why Minnesota should return to the failed, uninteresting, 1950s style of teaching history. The world is quickly becoming smaller. To deal with the complexities of America's position within the global community, students must have a good understanding of the social and political undercurrents within countries. The new standards not only do not ensure this, they threaten students' interest in the world and America's competitiveness in the global economy.

Larson is a sophomore at Minneapolis South High School.


More Excellent Minnesota Scholarship!

Greg Gaut: When history is held hostage to tests

March 17, 2004

If the proposed K-12 social studies standards are approved in their present form, someday soon a bright high school senior will face an exam question about the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. The student will consider her dilemma, and then write something like this:

"I know that the current Republican administration which controls how history is taught in Minnesota requires me to answer that the United States won the European war when it stormed ashore at Normandy in June 1944, fought the Battle of the Bulge, and then pushed on to liberate Paris and Germany. This is my official answer, and whoever is grading this need not read further. I add, purely for my own sake, the following.

"Although the D-Day campaign was an important part of the allied victory, the real turning point of the war came earlier. In January 1943, Field Marshal Paulus surrendered more than 100,000 German troops to the Red Army at Stalingrad. Six months later, the Soviet Union finalized its rout of the Nazi army with its victory at Kursk, the biggest battle of the war. Although U.S. armed forces fought courageously, the Nazis sustained about 80 percent of their total casualties fighting the Soviet Union. Honoring the important contribution of American forces to the victory does not require the creation of a self-centered myth that ignores the decisive contribution of another country."

The student will write this answer because the revised standards of what students in grades 9-12 should know present a myopic view in which the United States must appear as the hero of every tale. The standards are divided into U.S. and world history standards, but remarkably, only the U.S. standards mention what happened in World War II. The benchmark states that students should "identify and understand the major battles in the European and Pacific theaters, including the Battles of Britain and Midway and the Normandy invasion." The examples given for this benchmark are the "Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Paris and Germany, Okinawa and the Philippines." As a benchmark for understanding just the U.S. involvement in the war, this might suffice. The problem is that the world history standards make no mention of how the war was fought (hence no Stalingrad or Kursk), or even who fought. As a result the standards are completely silent about the Soviet role in World War II, including that the Soviet Union was a member of the "Grand Alliance" against Germany with the U.S. and Britain. This omission is breathtaking, given that more than 8 million Soviet soldiers and 17 million civilians died in the war.

This same pattern can be seen with respect to the momentous events involving the Soviet Union later in the 20th century. If asked to explain the demise of the Soviet Union, our bright high school student will have to write an essay like this:

"I know the 'correct' answer is that the Soviet Union came to an end solely as a result of U.S. policies, and especially those of Ronald Reagan. But for my own peace of mind I would add that U.S. policies were not the only or even the most important factor. Beginning in the Khrushchev era, a reform movement began to grow within the Communist Party. Mikhail Gorbachev, a product of that tendency, finally came to power in 1985. By then the Soviet Union was stagnating economically, but it was militarily strong and politically stable, and could have muddled along for decades. Gorbachev, however, hoped to democratize and revitalize Soviet communism. His programs of perestroika and glasnost had the unintended consequences of weakening the party, which was the glue that held the country together. As a result, the Soviet Union broke into its 15 constituent republics. Many factors were involved, but surely Gorbachev must be at the center of any explanation of the collapse of communism. I can't wait to finish high school so that I can learn real history and not one-sided explanations of complicated processes."

This answer would be required because the world history standards omit any mention of the end of the Soviet Union. You won't find Gorbachev there. As far as those standards are concerned, the Soviet Union might still exist. However, the issue is covered in the U.S. standards. There you find a benchmark that requires students to "know and describe the political and economic policies that contributed to the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War from the Truman Doctrine to the administration of Ronald Reagan." In effect, the remarkable story of the end of the Soviet Union is reduced to a kind of footnote in U.S. history.

As a college history teacher, I sympathize with those who want students to arrive in college classes with a deeper knowledge of U.S. and world history. However, there are better ways to accomplish this than forcing students to memorize and parrot a narrowly nationalistic worldview. For example, we can better prepare high school social studies teachers by requiring that they take a wider selection of history courses as part of their teacher training than is commonly the case today. We can also strengthen programs like History Day, which provides incentives for schools, teachers and students to make historical study a priority. All the standards do is create a barrier to learning. Teachers will be forced to teach, and students will be forced to learn, against or around their curriculum instead of through it.

Greg Gaut teaches European and Russian history at St. Mary's University of Minnesota in Winona.


"Texas is the National Laboratory for Bad Government" Is this our fate?

Posted on Sun, Mar. 14, 2004

Maybe we're on the Black Pearl

By Molly Ivins
Creators Syndicate

AUSTIN - Gosh, we are having such a swell time here in Texas. For starters, once again the speaker of the Texas House is under investigation by a grand jury. We're so proud. We have nothing against this guy personally -- we're just rooting for an indictment as a matter of Texas tradition.

You must admit, we've got some record. Consider Gus Mutscher, Billy Clayton, Gib Lewis … and Price Daniel Jr., who was not indicted, but rather was shot to death by his second wife. However, she was indicted -- although not convicted, because in Texas we recognize public service when we see it.

Also adding to the je ne sais quoi at the old corral is our only governor, Cap'n Goodhair Perry. Cap'n Goodhair, who is from Haskell and went to school at College Station -- both decidedly landlocked -- has shown an unexpectedly nautical flair of late.

Combining his hitherto unknown passion for the briny deep with the exigencies of the school funding crisis, Cap'n Rick decided that the thorny problem could best be resolved at sea. He decided to hold a seminar on school finance at Abaco, in the Bahamas, aboard a 54-foot yacht.

This "working retreat" over the Presidents Day weekend was paid for by the governor's campaign and "private donations." Abaco is also noted for great bonefishing.

House Speaker Tom Craddick, who was unable to go because of recent neck surgery, didn't get the word about the "working" part, and his spokesman said: "He didn't feel like doing scuba diving with a neck brace. There isn't anything he could have done with that neck collar." Such as, for instance, discuss school financing.

Scouring the nation for the finest financial minds of his generation to go along on the retreat, Cap'n Goodhair took two major donors, James Leininger and James Nau, with wives, and Grover Norquist, the anti-tax nut from Washington. And there they sailed on the good ship Voucher Plan.

Actually, I just made up the boat's name, but it seems apt, since Leininger is a passionate advocate of school vouchers and has given literally millions to state candidates in hopes of getting them to vote for that very thing. Brooke Rollins, head of the extremely right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation, largely funded by Leininger, was also along.

Norquist is just the sailor you want in the crew when contemplating the disaster about to engulf the public schools. He is behind the national anti-tax movement, and 38 Texas Republican legislators have now signed his pledge to never, ever raise taxes, without exceptions, including for catastrophic emergencies.

Norquist himself is a noted contributor to the sweet science of state governance, saying last year: "We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship. … Bipartisanship is just another name for date rape."

Now, I don't want to be alarmist, but there is a new study out called "Voucher Veneer: the Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education" by People for the American Way. Unfortunately, all the authors had to do was read think-tank papers and policy proposals normally circulated only among the right wing to notice that vouchers are simply a stalking horse.

Not that it takes a lot of insight to realize that a plan consisting of "Let's take a lot of the tax money that goes to public schools and give it to private schools instead" is not a plan designed to help public education.

Texas is the National Laboratory for Bad Government, and think what a splendid opportunity we now have to completely ruin our public schools by doing absolutely nothing. Our schools are funded by the Robin Hood plan adopted in 1993, which arrives at an approximate level of fairness between rich and poor districts by taking money from rich districts and giving it to poor ones.

Local property taxes have skyrocketed, while state lawmakers complacently brag that they haven't raised taxes. The state's share of the cost of public education has dropped from 52 percent in 1980 to 38 percent today. The state, which has an infinitely larger tax base than local districts, may not have raised state taxes, but they have sure raised your local taxes.

This cannot continue. More than half of the school districts are already within 1 percent of the top tax rate allowed by state law. They can raise local taxes no further. They are cutting programs and firing teachers and administrators.

More and more are applying for waivers to get their districts exempted from the state requirements that there be no more than 22 pupils per teacher in the first elementary grades, and that was the great triumph of years of school reform efforts. As we have all learned over the long struggle to improve the schools, smaller class size is the one improvement that we know works no mater what the other variables are.

We need at least $10 billion in new taxes to fix this without harming the schools. The alternative is a $2 billion fix patch on the old system that will further decay the schools. So attention, all Americans -- the case study begins, right here in Texas, home of so much bad public policy: how to destroy the public schools.



Another Teacher who is a True American Hero

Mass. Teacher Snubs Paige Honors Over Union Remark

Join the Petition to Fire Rod Paige!

Associated Press
Monday, March 8, 2004; Page A17

The Massachusetts teacher of the year refused to attend an event in Washington honoring the nation's top educators because U.S. Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige called the nation's largest teachers union a "terrorist organization."

Jeffrey R. Ryan, a history teacher at Reading Memorial High School who lost a friend in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said he could not accept Paige's apology for his Feb. 23 comments about the 2.7 million-member National Education Association. Ryan has taught for 25 years.

Paige said the remark was a "bad joke." But Ryan said: "Nazi death camps aren't funny. Lynching people isn't funny. . . . And terrorism isn't funny. I just couldn't show up and shake that man's hand after he made those remarks."

Forty-four teachers of the year attended last Monday's conference, which the department had arranged weeks before Paige's comment.

Paige had made the comment in a private meeting with governors. He later apologized for his choice of words, but maintained that the union uses "obstructionist scare tactics." "I can assure you, I have nothing but the highest esteem for teachers and the teaching profession," he told the teachers last week.

Ryan, 49, said his refusal to attend the conference was also a protest of the No Child Left Behind Act, which he called a "stealth tactic by the Bush administration to undermine public schools."

Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said the administration has pumped billions more dollars into public education. Had he attended the conference, Ryan could have expressed his opinion directly to Paige, she said.

Pennsylvania's representative was Joyce Dunn, a first-grade teacher in Shanksville, where United Flight 93 crashed during the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I thought it was a very poor choice of words, and he did apologize," she said. "I felt it was important to go to the forum because of the issue of No Child Left Behind and the implications of how it affects children were so much greater than Secretary Paige's comments."

So Much For the Golden Age of Historical Knowledge

'Greatest Generation' Struggled With History, Too

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2004; Page A12

When the U.S. Department of Education reported that in 2001 nearly six out of 10 high school seniors lacked even a basic knowledge of the nation's history, Bruce Cole was indignant and concerned.

"A nation that does not know why it exists, or what it stands for, cannot be expected to long endure," said Cole, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It is a sentiment repeated often, part of a torrent of distress over the state of American history education. The 2001 report said most 12th-graders did not know that the Gulf of Tonkin resolution led to the war in Vietnam. Most eighth-graders did not know why the First Continental Congress met.

Yet, according to recent papers by two researchers, it turns out Americans have been deeply ignorant of their history for a very long time, while still creating the strongest, if not the brightest, country in the world.

A test administered in 1915 and 1916 to hundreds of high school and college students who were about to face World War I found that they did not know what happened in 1776 and confused Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis. A 1943 test showed that only a quarter of college students could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, leading historian Allan Nevins to fret that such a historically illiterate bunch might be a liability on the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

And still, Americans won both wars, and many of the 1943 students who said the United States purchased Alaska from the Dutch and Hawaii from Norway were later lionized in books, movies and television as "the Greatest Generation."

"If anything," writes Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University education professor in a new Journal of American History article, "test results across the last century point to a peculiar American neurosis: each generation's obsession with testing its young only to discover -- and rediscover -- their 'shameful' ignorance. The consistency of results across time casts doubt on a presumed golden age of fact retention.

"Appeals to it," the article continues, "are more the stuff of national lore and wistful nostalgia for a time that never was than a claim that can be anchored in the documentary record."

Richard J. Paxton, an assistant professor in the Educational Foundations Department of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and a former Wineburg student, makes a similar point in the December issue of the Phi Delta Kappan. Frequent articles about historically challenged U.S. students, plus public displays of ignorance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," "propagate the impression that today's students are educational midgets standing on the shoulders of giants," Paxton wrote. ". . . More important, they spread the false notion that the biggest problem facing history students today involves the retention of decontextualized historical facts."

The earliest evidence of historical cluelessness that either scholar could find was a study by J. Carleton Bell and David F. McCollum in the May 1917 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology. Bell and McCollum tested 1,500 students in Texas and reported these percentages of correct answers on history questions: elementary school, 16 percent; high school, 33 percent; teachers college, 42 percent; and university, 49 percent.

It was particularly troubling that many of these sons and daughters of Texas could not state the significance of the year 1846, the beginning of the Mexican-American War, and had Sam Houston marching triumphantly into Mexico City rather than beating Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at San Jacinto 10 years before.

The next key survey cited in both the Wineburg and Paxton studies appeared in the New York Times on April 4, 1943, under the headline "Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen." Only 6 percent of the 7,000 freshmen could name the 13 original colonies. Only 13 percent identified James Madison as president during the War of 1812, and only 15 percent knew that William McKinley was president during the Spanish-American War.

Some commentators at the time blamed the results on then-controversial public school efforts to wrap history, geography, economics and civics into something called social studies.

A bicentennial survey in 1976, supervised by Harvard University historian Bernard Bailyn and published in the New York Times, tested nearly 2,000 freshmen at 194 colleges. On average, the respondents got only 21 of 42 multiple-choice questions right, although Bailyn's standards appeared to be very high. Wineburg said the professor called it "absolutely shocking" that "more students believed that the Puritans guaranteed religious freedom (36 percent) than understood religious tolerance as the result of rival denominations seeking to cancel out each others' advantage (34 percent)."

Many surveys and tests in the generation since have produced similar results, with high school students getting about half of the questions right. Neither Wineburg nor Paxton says so, but Virginia recently reduced the passing score on its American history test to about 50 percent, and some other states have similar benchmarks.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress history tests in 1987, 1994 and 2001 came out about the same. Slightly less than half of high school students scored at what the test makers considered a basic knowledge of U.S. history in 2001. Younger students showed modest gains, with 67 percent of fourth-graders and 64 percent of eighth-graders scoring at at least the basic level.

When asked about the Wineburg and Paxton reports, Cole, the National Endowment for the Humanities chairman, said: "I am surprised that any professor would suggest that it doesn't matter whether students know American history."

Wineburg and Paxton said their goal is not to place less priority on historical knowledge, but rather to advocate changes in the way it is taught. Wineburg said the history standards that teachers must cover are often so detailed that the main points of the American story are lost, and few schools teach the subject well in any case. Teachers skip quickly from topic to topic, he wrote, while "the mind demands pattern and form, and both are built up slowly and require repeated passes, with each pass going deeper and probing further."

Paxton said he is also bothered by scholarly ignorance of the century-old American performance on such tests. "Historians who shout like censorious Chicken Littles that our nation is in jeopardy but do not bother to inspect the historical record are terribly poor role models," he wrote.


Another Set of Experts Reject the Standards!

The Minnesota Council for the Social Studies
Statement on the Proposed Social Studies Standards

The Minnesota Council for the Social Studies (MCSS) supports rigorous standards for K-12 social studies education in all Minnesota schools and believes quality Social Studies education is the cornerstone of democratic society. One of the fundamental roles of Social Studies is to provide young people with the skills to be active and effective participants in civic life.

MCSS finds the process of creating K-12 social studies standards for the State of Minnesota is flawed for several reasons, including:

a. lack of political, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity on the standards writing committee
b. under-representation of active, licensed public school teachers on the standards writing committee
c. insufficient involvement of post-secondary education and subject-area experts in the standards
writing process
d. disregard of solicited and compensated feedback on the draft standards from national experts
e. disregard of overwhelming, negative public feedback about the standards
f. disregard of detailed critical feedback from the overwhelming majority of professors in the
Department of History at the University of Minnesota
g. clear evidence of ideological bias in the standards, particularly with regard to civics and government.

MCSS further finds the proposed standards are flawed because:

a. they are age-inappropriate
b. they, in effect, prescribe a specific curriculum that does not allow for additional content nor depth
of study
c. there is an absence of civic participation skills
d. they lack an overall rationale statement to guide the development and implementation of standards.

Therefore be it resolved that:

a new set of Social Studies standards be drafted by a diverse, multi-partisan committee of well-qualified stakeholders, a ¾ majority of whom are currently active, licensed K-12 public-school teachers.

professors of Education, History, Economics, Political Science, Government, Geography, Sociology, Psychology, and Anthropology from Minnesota's post-secondary institutions be included in the social studies standards writing process.

Social Studies standards not dictate curriculum, but be flexible and limited in scope to allow school district and teacher autonomy.

Social Studies standards include explicit language about skills and knowledge necessary for effective participation in civic life.

the State Legislature fully fund all aspects of implementation of Social Studies standards, including professional development, textbook adoption, and development of supplementary materials.

This resolution was passed by the membership of MCSS at the annual meeting March 4, 2004.


New Improved Resolution for Tomorrow Night!

A Resolution Concerning Minnesota's K-12 Social Studies Standards

Whereas: The Party supports rigorous standards for K-12 social studies
education in all Minnesota schools, and

Whereas: Quality social studies education is vital for a vibrant
democratic society, and

Whereas: One of the fundamental roles of education is to provide young
people with the skills to be active and effective participants in civic
life, and

Whereas: The existing process of creating K-12 social studies standards
for the State of Minnesota has been flawed for several reasons,
a) lack of political, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity on the
standards writing committee
b) under-representation of active, licensed public school teachers
on the standards writing committee
c) over-representation of individuals committed to private and
home-schooling on the standards writing committee
d) insufficient involvement of post-secondary education and
subject-area experts in the standards writing process
e) absence of civic participation skills in the standards
f) clear evidence of ideological bias in the standards,
particularly with regards to civics and government
g) disregard of solicited and compensated feedback on the draft
standards from national experts
h) disregard of overwhelming and negative public feedback about
the standards
i) disregard of detailed critical feedback from the overwhelming
majority of professors in the Department of History at the University
of Minnesota
j) K-6 standards that many well-qualified and experienced
elementary teachers agree are not age-appropriate
k) Standards that are so detailed and extensive that they would
allow for little additional content to be addressed in most K-12 social
studies classes,

Therefore be it resolved that:

1. Social studies standards should be drafted by a diverse, multi-
partisan committee of well-qualified stakeholders, a majority of whom
should be currently active, licensed public-school teachers.
2. Professors of Education, History, Economics, Political Science,
Government, Geography, Sociology, Psychology, and Anthropology from
Minnesota's post-secondary institutions should be included in the
social studies standards writing process.
3. Social studies standards should not dictate curriculum, and
should be flexible and limited in scope to allow sufficient school
district and teacher autonomy to tailor instruction to current events,
as well as student backgrounds and interests.
4. Social studies standards should include explicit language about
the skills and knowledge necessary for effective participation in civic
5. The state legislature should fully fund all aspects of
implementation of social studies standards, including professional
development, textbook adoption, and development of supplementary