Debate the standards, but trust the teachers

A lot of fuss is being made over the Minnesota Department of Education’s proposed social studies guidelines, as well it should. Some look at the proposed guidelines as filling a gap in our teaching of social issues, while others see it as the first step in creating an “extremist boot camp.”

As with most issues in America these days, there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.

But the draft guidelines are only the tip of the iceberg. The big problem, the part of the iceberg that ripped open the side of the Titanic like a knife going through butter, is that such guidelines should have such sway. Since when in Minnesota did a top-down approach yield quality education?

I can speak to that question with some experience. In the prior century, I served on the Minnesota State Board of Education for seven years. During that time the board did some wonderful things, particularly in pushing the boundaries of postsecondary school options and in creating and encouraging charter schools. The board also did some pretty silly stuff, particularly in pushing something called outcome-based education.

A problem, a big problem, was brought to the board during those years. We were graduating kids whose math skills didn’t equip them to make change at the convenience store, or whose reading and writing skills forced them into remediation classes before they could go to college, or whose knowledge of democracy and history was so limited as to make them unqualified citizens.

After some study, it was determined that there should be a standard of some kind before a kid could cross the high school stage with their diploma in hand. There had to be outcomes. There had to be a test they needed to pass in order to join the adult world.

And so the state school board flogged outcome-based education for years, trying to convince educators in Minnesota that a standardized test was the only way to fix the problem. The educators were not impressed.

There was a saying at the time that it was difficult to create meaningful change in education for the same reason it was difficult to move a graveyard — you didn’t get a lot of internal support. The real problem, though, was that we gifted few at the top who had all the answers weren’t convincing the people who actually taught our young people.

The year after I left the board, the Minnesota Legislature, which we always called “the big school board,” made the Minnesota State Board of Education disappear. Slam, bam, it was gone. I thought at the time that there was some reason for a state board, particularly as a place where ideas about education could be debated and brought to the general education conversation in the state. Ideas could be talked about on their own merit without the political filter of the lawmakers. On the other hand, the need for another top-down institution for education did seem dubious.

When the state board visited schools in those days, and we did that a lot, I began to notice something. At first, I thought it was just me, but then other board members talked about the same thing. You could walk into a school building anywhere in Minnesota and almost instantly know whether it was a high-quality school or not.

There was an aura, a vibe, a non-definable assemblage of a thousand details that seemed to hit you the moment you walked in the door. I wonder if some of it was because good education has that creative base, and you could just feel it in some schools.

Here’s the point. Good education in a Minnesota school doesn’t come from the Legislature passing a law, and it doesn’t come from a group at the Department of Education cooking up social studies guidelines. It comes from the educators who work in the buildings. Mainly, I’m talking about the teachers.

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where our accumulation of human knowledge, history, culture, spiritual and ethical qualities, and the rest gets passed on to another generation. This is where young people can be rewarded for their curiosity, where they can be challenged, prodded, pushed and allowed to think for themselves. This is where they can be inspired. Many of us can think back to our school days to some of the great teachers we had who showed us the way.

So, that’s the big part of the iceberg. We can’t be sitting in our ivory-colored papier-mâché tower trying to tell local schools what to do. Sure, there must be some governance and guidance, but mainly we need to create a place where teachers are supported to do the best job they can.

As citizens we can push that agenda by paying attention, by going to school board meetings and by participating in local education groups. We can volunteer.

Teachers are an incredibly diverse group. Even in my days at Edison High School in Minneapolis, there were teachers who everybody in the building knew were on the extreme left wing and others who would have made Attila the Hun blush. It all works out somehow.

The debate about the guidelines is good for Minnesota. Our nation is going through a remarkable period of change these days, and we need to talk that through. But when those social studies guidelines are approved, they can be put on a shelf where they are easily accessible.

In the end, we must let our local schools, and by that I mean our highly qualified teachers, do the heavy lifting about how we can best teach our children about a changing America.

Al Zdon, of Mounds View, is a retired newspaper editor.


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