What are the strengths and shortcomings in public education that most need attention in 2013? Students, families, educators and others who read this column in more than 200 communities from Stillwater to Elk River and Waconia, from Little Falls to Caledonia, will have their own answers. Here are five key areas that I think should be priorities.
1. How will Minnesotans make greater use of the most effective district and charter public schools, to help other schools and students? Minnesota has public schools that have closed achievement gaps between students of different races and income levels, schools where students save themselves and their families thousands of dollars by earning two-year college degrees before graduating from high school, schools where students are developing a positive sense of hope, as they learn to set goals and persist in working toward them. Will colleges of education use these schools to help train the next generation of teachers and administrators? Will the state make use of “succeeding schools” to help others?
2. Will the Minnesota Legislature revise the state’s funding formula to equalize funding between schools that have and have not been able to obtain taxpayer support for property tax increases? A statewide task force has proposed ways to do this. Their proposals would increase state funding by several hundred million. How will legislators deal with this issue?
3. How will the legislature deal with research on the value of high quality, early childhood education? Studies show that all early childhood education programs are not equally effective. We also know that starting earlier than age five, and continuing to provide extra help for students from low income and limited English speaking families through third grade, has a major positive impact through at least the late teenage years. But there are many competing lobbies in the early childhood area. Some want all-day kindergarten to be a top priority. Others want to focus on programs that meet just once a week, for two-three hours. Others want to provide more dollars for day care. The 2013 legislature will face tough questions about priorities here.
4. Will we find and use strategies to work more effectively with students having special needs? In a survey of more than 40 Minnesota district, charter and union leaders last year, the single most frequently cited priority was the issue of funding for these students. The federal government has extensive requirements in this area, while providing far less funding than was promised when these rules were adopted. This sets up many frustrating conflicts between families and schools.
5. Finally, how will foundations, the legislature and community groups encourage the development of new, innovative and potentially more effective schools? One of the keys to growth in America has been our willingness to encourage innovation. Consider medical advances, cell phones, computers, and cars, as just a few examples.
Thanks to readers, and responses are welcome. I wish each of you a healthy, fulfilling 2013.
Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.