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.


From The Pioneer Press

Posted on Fri, Mar. 25, 2005

Schools must foster social skill, not just academics

It is a mistake to think that the darkest day in the history of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation is a failure of the Red Lake schools. Red Lake teachers, administrators and community members who toil so hard there to provide education (in an area where perhaps 40 percent of adults are unemployed) are not to blame.

Early media reports about the tragedy reported that Red Lake has "some of the lowest test scores" in the state. That stilted characterization of the Red Lake schools points to the real problem. For reasons of "political accountability," some government officials have decided that the way to close the education gap in low-income/ethnic minority communities is to push for higher test scores: As though educators in these communities, who work against tremendous odds, are shirking and only need the prod of public scrutiny to get learners to perform. (Certainly, the prospect of increased testing is not what made teacher Neva Winnecoup-Rogers choose to return to Red Lake.)

In Minnesota, No Child Left Behind has forced teachers to become information-crammers, rather than the educators most want to be — educators who can perhaps head off mass killings in high schools, and certainly less terrible, less obvious, failures in "invisible" troubled students.

In Minnesota, there is not the time and the support for the teacher to individually greet students in the morning, easing them through conflicts since the previous day that may be getting them down. There is not the time and support for every teacher, every day, to teach the meaning of a community of learners, of an encouraging classroom, in which cooperative communication is used and the need for rejection and bullying of individual students is eliminated.

Many European schools, and virtually all quality early-childhood classrooms in Minnesota, teach for social-emotional competence, the democratic life skills that every citizen needs. The research shows that when teachers are given time and support and actively teach to prevent school-based oppression, such oppression goes down. And individual students vulnerable for the enduring stigma of bullying and victimization are helped to find an acceptable social place in the class.

But what of the student who has lost a father to suicide and a mother with a brain injury to a nursing home, who feels isolated from the school community, who has serious psychiatric difficulties, who harbors deep hostility and jokes about it?

From the beginning — from a well-funded, coordinated preschool system and full-time kindergarten classrooms straight on into college — we need mental health professionals in our schools. These professionals would work with teachers to make their classrooms bullying-free learning communities. They would provide individual screening, assessment and treatment for the sizable number of Minnesota's learners with tangible mental health problems. The mental health professionals would work with other school personnel to build helping, trust-based relationships with families. (Starting with families in preschool would make this task easier than it is now.)

What will it take for our schools to teach for social competence and authentic citizenship, instead of feeling the pressure to teach only for academic performance?

It will take the state actually learning from the spiritual dignity shown by the grieving but courageous residents of Red Lake.

It will take weighing the need for new taxes against the lives of all Minnesotans lost in schools and finally recognizing that new taxes are indeed needed.

It will take reducing state emphasis on academic test scores and fundamentally realizing that schools are here to educate our children for life in a complex, culturally diverse democracy — a multi-dimensional citizenship of which narrow academic skills are only a part.

It will take replacing the current political accountability some officials cling to with a more enlightened 21st century educational accountability.

We believe Minnesota educators would willingly accept this more valid accountability: to optimize the chances of every student to succeed not just in the "academic classroom" but also in everyday life. The hard lesson of the tragedy in Red Lake is that what happens in school is life. Let us hope our political leaders can become more open to what so many citizens now so painfully understand.

Gartrell is a professor of education at Bemidji State University and a former Head Start teacher at Red Lake.