Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Education Minnesota's Real Problem

Today's debate on MPR's Midmorning took an interesting turn. For the first time that I can recall in this election cycle, a candidate chose to call out a specific person outside of the elections as the poster child of the problems our schools face. Who was this newly appointed poster child?

Tom Dooher
courtesy Education Minnesota
This morning Tom Emmer decided to name names and in doing so publicly declared that the problem in our educational system is Tom Dooher.

Blaming the union isn't anything new. Especially during elections, pointing to an alleged source of the problem is much easier than finding solutions for extremely complex problems. But this is the first time I've heard a candidate try to pin the state's problems specifically on the president of the state's largest educators' union. Emmer literally said "I think the union boss, Tom Dooher, is the problem."

Dooher sent MPR the following response:

"There is no place in the debate about education for personal attacks. The futures of our students and state are at stake and all Minnesotans deserve better.
Education Minnesota has vowed repeatedly to work together with anyone who is truly interested in improving education in our state. Minnesota’s biggest challenge in education is eliminating the achievement gap. Education Minnesota proposed a detailed plan in the last legislative session that relied on research-proven methods to help struggling students learn. We proposed bringing health, nutrition and dental services directly into the schools. We proposed smaller class sizes, longer school days or longer schools years when appropriate, as well as new methods of evaluating the performance of teachers.
Personal attacks do nothing to solve the broken system of education funding in Minnesota. Our state  is now well below the national average when it comes to per pupil spending. These are the kinds of true education challenges that get masked or ignored when politicians resort to personal attacks instead of policy solutions to deal with our problems.
It is the responsibility of Education Minnesota to stand up for what teachers know will work in the classroom. We will continue to champion research-proven methods that will improve Minnesota’s many excellent public schools. And we’ll continue to speak out against meaningless policy changes and gimmicks that serve political purposes but do nothing to help children learn.”

I don't think that the union is perfect by any means, but I also don't think they are the beast that is standing in the way of improving our state's schools. And Emmer's comments do little to actually address the challenges in our educational system. Tom Dooher is correct that many of the proposed educational reforms have not shown proven results and he does well to point out the types of initiatives they've been supporting. Yet, I do think that Education Minnesota does have one major problem. A PR problem.

In the past few years, many stalemates on educational policy in the legislature have been blamed on Education Minnesota. They've been maligned in political press conferences as the roadblock to real solutions. My issue with the union is that I often don't feel that they do enough to portray the positive work they do to find new solutions to improve education in our classrooms. Their opponents have been winning the PR battle and as such many in the public now believe that the union's primary mission is to ensure that your school has bad teachers who are overpaid and don't care about students at all.

In the interest of full disclosure, I came to this belief due to my experiences growing up in a family that contained a number of public school educators including a few that also worked for Education Minnesota. Because of that, I discovered that Education Minnesota provides a number of grants to teachers in order to explore new solutions in their classrooms. Over the years they have funded 915 projects through grants totaling $2.4 million. You can find more information on these projects here. There's a great story from WCCO this past spring about how a teacher used one of these grants to design a new type of desk to help her students stay focused in the classroom. These desks have gained a lot of attention throughout the world and the story was also featured in the New York Times.

Ironically, the grants cover everything from early education intervention, classroom behavior management, student learning methods, mentoring, better engaging kids in science, and so on. Many of these are the very issues that Emmer himself suggests we need to invest in.

 In my opinion, it may be in the best interest of Education Minnesota to highlight more of these projects publicly and in doing so start to peel the target of their back.

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