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.


Rod Skoe: Standards need facts plus analysis

April 30, 2004
Star Tribune

I relish a good debate, but the Star Tribune got it wrong in its social studies standards editorial (April 18). The piece oversimplifies the issue and creates a nonexistent either/or situation between competing social studies standards.

If you read only the editorial and study nothing else about the social studies standards now under discussion in the Legislature, you would conclude the only options are the Department of Education's "fact-heavy" standards and the Minnesota Council for Social Studies' analytical, "fact-lite" version. The Senate Education Committee supports the council's standards because they go one step further than just the facts: They help students apply those facts while giving teachers and school districts latitude in what specifics they teach. The devil is in the details, but that level of detail makes all the difference.

Let me state the obvious: The Senate Education Committee has not given up on facts. Students need to know the facts if they are required to apply their knowledge. Students can't be expected to analyze the Declaration of Independence if they haven't read it and don't understand the basics. However, having students not only know the Declaration but also be able to explain it and how it fits with our country's other founding documents is essential to broad knowledge. Facts give a solid basis but provide only half the equation.

Within both sets of proposed standards are "benchmarks"; the difference between the two versions lies mainly here. The department's benchmarks include specific details students need to know and teachers have to teach. They leave very little room for deviation. The council's benchmarks don't insist that the state dictate which details of U.S. history should be taught -- partly because it assumes that for students to explain the impact of emancipation, they have to know the who, what and when of emancipation. The council's standards trust that schools and teachers can make the best decisions about what details to teach our students. That's their job, not the job of state legislators or the Department of Education.

Following is a short example of what the Council's benchmarks require for students in U.S. History, Civil War and Reconstruction:

• Students will identify and explain the economic, social and cultural differences between the North and South.

• Students will identify key turning points of the war and analyze how the differences in resources of the Union and Confederacy affected the course of the war.

• Students will describe and explain the political impact of the war and its aftermath in Reconstruction, including emancipation and the redefinition of freedom and citizenship.

Attached to these benchmarks, not within, are suggested, but not required, discussion topics that include the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address. Conversely, the department's benchmarks include specifics students need to know, such as the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and Frederick Douglass. The distinction is subtle, but important.

The average American worker will change jobs nine times in a lifetime. This means that workers must be able to learn new things and apply their knowledge in a range of situations throughout a varied career. That is what the council's social studies standards prepare students for -- to master essential facts but also to be able to analyze data and come to logical conclusions so that they can be successful far after their formal education has ended.

This important and complicated debate will have a profound effect on students and the future of Minnesota education. It's not to be taken lightly. We must do better for our students.

Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, is a member of the Minnesota Senate and vice chair of its Education Policy Committee.



Below is the Governor's response, but here is the reality.
The Comissioner is not qualified to do the job she was asked to do.

The Brian Sullivan camp had been promised a bone in return for Pawlenty's nomination. Schools were that bone and Yecke was their choice.

Yes, she has a doctorate and yes, she followed her friends to Washington and worked with the DoE for a little while but the proof is in the pudding and she is in over her head.

1. She has no clue what standards are, how they are used or what they should look like.

2. Her distrust of the "educational establishment" is based on paranoia and misinformation.

3. She has displayed no knowledge of the curriculum in Minnesota that has led to extremely high ratings on national tests. (Creationist science standards, weird Declaration of Ind. Theories and the whole Columbus thing)

4. Her management skills were acknowledged by the Governor and many others as "poor."

5. She cannot handle criticism without resorting to attacking people's patriotism or their scholarship.

6. She is in the back pocket of wacky theorists like the Maple River Coalition.

7. Do you really hate teachers so much that you would choose an educational leader with an Anti-teacher bias?

8. The policies that she was initiating are unsustainable because of the massive civil disobedience that would follow by teachers.

9. She is not a "reformer." She is a reactionary that wants to go back to the 1950s

She needs to go. Hopefully our smart Governor is just putting up a good front for the cameras and the nuts like the Maple River Coalition.

Hopefully, he will put up someone qualified to do the job.


Saint Paul -- The following is a statement from Governor Tim Pawlenty in response to the Senate Education Committee's confirmation vote on Commissioner of Education Cheri Pierson Yecke:

"Today's vote by the Senate Education Committee was a vote against innovation, accountability and reform in education. Dr. Yecke has been taking on the status quo -- and winning -- which is why Senate Democrats voted along party lines to reject her.

Throughout Minnesota history, confirmation of commissioners has been based on qualifications and fitness for service. We have never had a Commissioner of Education with better qualifications, experience and vision for reform. In just fifteen months as commissioner, she has led the overhaul of the maligned Profile of Learning and replaced it with new learning standards, established school evaluation tools so that parents can know how their schools stack up, and undertaken many other reforms.

Imagine what the Senate Education Committee could have done if they had invested the same time and energy in improving education that they've spent tearing down a reformer.

Today's vote had nothing to do with qualifications. It had everything to do with a Democratic Party that is void of ideas and afraid of the future."


John Gunyou: Why has state stopped investing in education?

April 21, 2004

Nicole Gunyou is a teacher. Like her great-grandmother four score and seven years earlier, my firstborn has chosen to make a difference in the lives of children.

Not so her father. Thirty years ago, I learned firsthand that teaching is not a profession for the faint of heart. That earlier epiphany was recently reconfirmed when I prepared Nicole's tax return.

My pride for her commitment quickly dissolved into a concern that she barely makes enough to support herself, much less a future family of her own. And even more troubling, I discovered that Nicole had spent $1,512 of her own money to buy classroom books and supplies.

There's something very wrong about that. Why should a person entrusted to guide our next generation into responsible citizenship find it necessary to dip so deeply into her own shallow pockets?

Perhaps the more troubling question is: Why has Minnesota stopped investing in education?

Generations of our political and business leaders have understood that education is a sound investment. To compete on the world stage, Minnesota needs highly educated entrepreneurs and workers. It's the ticket to our individual and collective futures.

Over a decade ago, during the state's last budget crisis, the Carlson administration respected that reality. While permanently solving a 12 percent budget gap, we also provided the largest funding boost for early childhood education in our state's history, and continued our commitment to K-12 education with 4.5 percent annual increases. As the economy recovered, we also restored our investments in Minnesota's colleges.

Returning financial stability to Minnesota and continuing those critical investments enabled a decade of quality public services, job growth and tax rebates. In short, our strategy worked.

And now, that's all changed. Instead of continuing to invest in our state's future, we're sacrificing it.

Minnesota's long tradition of responsible stewardship is being replaced by an ideology of disinvestment. We've abandoned the moderate fiscal and economic policies that have served our state so well, and have replaced that successful strategy with a single-minded allegiance to the god of lower taxes.

Taxes aren't some inherent evil to be exorcized. They're simply the price of government. Taxes pay for everything from investments in our schools and colleges, to police and fire services, to the public infrastructure we need to support a healthy economy.

To keep that price affordable, taxes must stay in line with our personal income and community needs. The fact of the matter is, the price of government has been going down over the past decade. That's right, even before all the no-new-tax pledges, our state and local governments were taking a smaller share money out of our pockets to provide all those essential investments and services.

Taxes are not out of control. We can afford to invest in Minnesota.

In fact, we can't afford not to invest in our state's future. Minnesota's leaders didn't follow a high-tax, high-investment strategy for the past century and a half because they were screaming Socialists. They used that formula because it worked. It enabled our frozen flyover state to prosper.

Unfortunately, we're now disinvesting in our state's one true competitive advantage -- education. And worst of all, we're not even having an honest debate about what's happening. Instead of courageously confronting the real challenges, our state leaders are consumed with a passel of social issues that won't make a whit of difference to Minnesota's fiscal and economic future.

Even more troubling, our leaders are pandering to the lowest common denominator by placing individual interests over the community good. The same people who graduate from tax-subsidized colleges hypocritically sign no-tax pledges, and then shamelessly play to the people who vote against school referendums as soon as their own children are no longer in school.

Two years ago, our state leaders negligently promised to take over school funding without any way to pay for that huge future commitment. Then they promptly doubled the crisis by making irresponsible short-term decisions to temporarily plug the resulting gap. Last year they froze state funding, rather than increase taxes to pay for their past indulgences.

The implications for education are staggering. For the first time in our state's history, funding for both schools and colleges will go down for the next three years in a row. Despite all their hollow rhetoric, our state leaders didn't "protect education," they sacrificed it on the altar of no-new-taxes.

And here's the dirtiest little secret of all: Even after all those cuts, they still haven't fixed the state's budget problem. Minnesota still faces a billion-dollar deficit, right after this fall's elections.

That means, even with a strong economic recovery, the cuts in education will have to accelerate. It's not the economy that's threatening Minnesota's future; it's a systematic policy of disinvestment.

Nicole Gunyou hopes to still be a teacher next year. Like thousands of teachers, parents and students throughout our state, she's waiting to see who survives the latest round of layoffs in what's now become a perennial ritual.

It's a simple question that deserves an honest answer from our state leaders: Why has Minnesota stopped investing in education?

John Gunyou is Minnetonka's city manager. He was Minnesota's finance commissioner under Gov. Arne Carlson.


StarTribune Editorial: Yecke & Molnau/Outside the mainstream

April 11, 2004


In more ordinary, more civil times, we might be tempted to question, even deplore, the DFL's threat to use the confirmation process to jettison two of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's commissioners. But these are not ordinary times. And Cheri Pierson Yecke and Carol Molnau are not ordinary cabinet commissioners.

While each is clearly qualified, Yecke's views and policies on education and Molnau's on transportation lie well outside the mainstream. Nothing in Pawlenty's campaign led voters to expect the extreme course these commissioners have steered. In Minnesota, as in Washington, Republicans ran campaigns from the center, won elections without getting a majority of votes, and now are governing from the extreme right.

This is an arrogant formula that invites rage from opponents and encourages the confirmation tactic now employed against Yecke and Molnau.

Start by understanding that the Senate has legitimate advice-and-consent powers meant to check a governor's excesses. To a wide range of Minnesotans, not just to Democrats, the policies of these commissioners are excessive. Few imagined that Pawlenty would select an education commissioner whose views and management style would so thoroughly antagonize teachers, administrators, parents and educational experts. Few knew he would hand the transportation portfolio to his lieutenant governor, who for years led the Legislature against any long-term commitment to a balanced roads/transit solution to metro traffic congestion. Pawlenty's thin mandate -- 44 percent -- allows for a right-of-center administration, certainly, but not a radical one. Properly seen, this is not a Democratic-Republican confirmation battle but one that pits pragmatic, mainstream Minnesotans of both parties against the ideological right.

This is made clearer by the radio talksters and taxpayers groups whose mission is to spread venom and misinformation in ersatz support of the administration. Their definition of "fact" is creative at best, cynical at worst. The Taxpayers League's suggestion, for example, that the state buy used cars for poor people rather than settle the transit strike, and its assertion that nearly as much is spent on transit as roads (actually the ratio is 14 to 1 for roads) are only two of many examples that drive the DFL to its confirmation tactic. The party is tired of being sucker-punched while playing by the Marquis of Queensbury rules.

Until Republican leaders renounce in public and aloud -- not in whispers -- these distortions, then Democrats and the wider voting public must assume that the administration and these groups are joined at the hip. Only when civic-minded Republicans disavow their own Taliban can a civil debate proceed.

Yecke's agenda

Despite Yecke's hard work and obvious qualifications, no other cabinet appointee in memory has become such a polarizing force. A parent-teacher group collected 4,500 signatures to block her confirmation. More than 20 University of Minnesota professors took issue with her approach to standards.

What has caused such an uproar? Not a single action or comment, but the cumulative effect of Yecke's expressed beliefs, policy choices and interpretations of state and federal law. Though she stresses inclusivity, scores of parents and others did not feel they were heard during the school standards or ratings processes. Her evasive manner and her directives on some issues have damaged relations between the department and the wider community. She is perceived as an ideologue with an agenda, not a fair-minded leader.

On social studies standards, for example, an early draft she approved set off a firestorm because of its biased bent. At one point, before revisions were made, she characterized critics as "hate America" types.

On the Minnesota survey of adolescent behavior on sex, drugs and other matters, she unnecessarily alarmed districts and those who rely on the research by directing districts to seek individual parental permission. Parents had always had the right to opt out.

The commissioner's new book -- "The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in Middle Schools" -- suggests a conspiracy to dumb down curricula, dilute gifted programs and promote group rights over individual achievement in order to achieve liberal "social engineering." It criticizes collective, project-based learning and middle school leaders generally for promoting "coercive egalitarianism." That's an extreme view not representative of Minnesota's middle schools.

Yecke's response to critics is that she's caught in a "perfect storm" that would put any commissioner on the hot seat. She refers to the tasks of developing new standards to replace the defunct Profile of Learning and of implementing federal requirements for the No Child Left Behind law -- all within tight time and budget constraints. She's right about having to orchestrate "a lot of change in a compressed period of time."

Yet effective management of change is a commissioner's job. A good commissioner must unite disparate elements to achieve common goals. On that score Yecke has failed. Given the amount of controversy she has generated, it is hard to see how she can effectively move the department forward.

While Yecke has focused needed attention on the racial achievement gap, her broader direction is out of step with the Minnesota mainstream. Reform is surely needed, but Minnesota voters did not endorse the radicalism Yecke represents. Nor should they tacitly accept a schools chief who lacks the temperament and management and people skills needed to improve an already good system.

Roads-only Molnau

The case against Molnau is more difficult. She is personally popular and a capable leader with a superb staff. But her arrival at MnDOT has seemed to prompt not a broadening of her views to fairly reflect all Minnesotans, but a reversion to the inbred ideology of the House Republican caucus. This narrow stance is best described by a poetic verse often recited in transportation circles: When the subject was rail, she was for buses; when the subject was buses, she was for roads; when the subject was roads, she was for tax cuts. Molnau and her colleagues have spent much energy over the last two decades finding excuses not to solve the metro's mounting traffic problem.

Even now, she dodges the only realistic remedy for a region that has fallen far behind on transportation investment: a dedicated stream of new revenues devoted to systematically expanding the roads and transit system. Instead, she offers a spasm of short-term borrowing for roads that looks impressive to the unschooled, but vanishes after 2007.

For transit, Molnau offers nothing beyond her personal opposition to Northstar, a commuter line favored by her boss, the governor. Indeed, the public has heard nothing from Molnau as the transit strike lingers and as the Legislature prepares to cut transit funding for the third straight year. At heart, Molnau is a roads-only ideologue isolated from the mainstream of Republican thinking -- in Washington, D.C., and in GOP-led states like Utah, Colorado, Georgia, Arizona and Texas, each of which has launched long-term initiatives on roads and transit, including rail. It's this isolation, and Molnau's continued pretending that Minnesota can have the transportation it needs without paying for it, that's so worrisome.

We are less compelled by the DFL's other objections to Molnau: her push toward privatized toll roads, her cuts in snowplowing and road maintenance, her emphasis on southwestern suburban freeways (near her home district) at the expense of rural roads, her attempts to weaken local control. These are legitimate matters of debate, not grounds for rejection.

Still, the narrow, ideological paths charted by each of these commissioners should bother all Minnesotans. Yecke and Molnau made themselves targets for the rigorous scrutiny to which the Senate is properly subjecting their nominations.