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.

3/30/2004

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.