In 1976, the Legislature enacted a law that required districts to make written plans about their goals, strategies, instructional objectives, and curriculum review. It also required that state standards be developed and tests of these provided to school districts.
"These were moves in the right direction, but there were still no requirements for student results as the criterion for graduation," testified CFL's Beth Aune before the House K-12 Education Committee on Feb. 4. "There was no guarantee that the awarding of a diploma signified that the student had mastered or even experienced specific learning. It is precisely this lack of information about actual mastery of skills that motivated the public to demand increased accountability for results in education."
According to the department, by the 1980s business people, parents, and the public were asking for reform and that graduates would be better prepared for employment and further education.
A CFL outline to the House Education Committee summarizes the development. The Essential Learner Outcomes were adopted in 1988 by the State Board of Education. In 1990, the state board established the Graduation Standards Executive Committee, representing business, education, and citizen groups.
By 1991, the first draft was written and was presented at 23 public hearings and 20 public meetings. A second draft was ready by 1992 and given additional public hearings. By then, the Legislature had supported implementing the standards.
"The first assumption of the standards initiative is that we should move away from a credit-based system to a results-oriented system," Aune's testimony continued. "Our goal is continuous school improvement."
"In order to improve, we need to measure how we're doing. In order to measure, we need something to measure--the "something" is clearly defined knowledge and skills, or standards."
The approach for the standards was to be "learner-centered," not "teacher-centered." The Profile of Learning is the high standards requirement of the graduation standards eventually passed by the Legislature.
"This approach recognizes the compelling research on human learning and the brain that indicates students learn best and remember more when they are actively involved in their learning," Aune continued.
To learn, students are to construct knowledge and to use disciplined inquiry. "Instead of focusing on reproducing knowledge, students are asked to organize, synthesize, interpret, explain, or evaluate information. They construct knowledge instead of merely reciting it back," testified Aune.
In 1993 and 1994, 14 schools were used as pilot sites to develop the standards. Urban, suburban, and rural schools were used. In our area, St. Cloud and Annandale were pilot schools.
More public hearings were held in 1994, and another set of nine pilot schools was established. Charon Tierney, a Lake Koronis resident and teacher, was the pilot site director for the Willmar public school system. "Our job," Tierney said, "was to try out the programs written by the first pilot sites."
Tierney said it's a misconception that the standards were created without public or teacher input. "This is really teacher driven," she said. "It's not the state or administration."
Tierney is on loan this year from the Willmar school system to the CFL It's the third time she has worked for the department, which likes to bring teachers from the classroom, she said.
This year, she is revising packages. The department has a new website with revised material for students, parents, and teachers. Its Internet address is http://mecr.state.mn.us.
The Department of Children, Families, and Learning's official website is at http://cfl.state.mn.us.
Changing teaching methods
Tierney had several concerns about the previous Profile of Learning articles in the Press.
She pointed out that the problem the second graders in Madonna Leimer's class had with the difficulty wasn't the result of the standard itself. Rather, it was the result of where it had been placed. (It should have been reported last week that the inquiry standard at the primary level has already been moved to third grade science this year.)
Tierney also stressed that the standards need to be put in the curriculum where students have the best chance to complete them and not just in the most convenient places. "If a kid is struggling, it's probably because it's at too low a grade," she said.
Tierney also was alarmed that her daughter hadn't been assigned more of the standards and that teachers were using the wrong approach to teaching them. Treating them as a one-shot deal, as an extra class requirement, is not ideal.
Middle school principal Deb Gillman agreed that the Profile of Learning required a fundamental shift for teachers. Often they assign step-by-step projects with identical outcomes, which makes it easy to compare the results.
Take an art project, for instance, where each student's artistic ability can be judged by comparison. But if you allow them to create their own art project, you need to judge their creativity and artistic ability.
"That's a different way to think about things," said Gillman. "It's a big step."
High school teacher Rebecca Hoey agreed, "Frankly, a lot of teachers are comfortable with pen and paper testing."
Hoey actually is not very happy with the basic skills testing. Most teachers interviewed for this series expressed support for the tests. A January survey by Education Minnesota, the major teacher union in the state, found that 87 percent of teachers supported the tests. (A total of 603 teachers were surveyed.)
"(The tests) are used for judging schools and they don't help schools at all. I think they're a total waste of time," Hoey said. "I think standardized tests judge how well students take tests."
Voice in the Wilderness
"I have been a clear opponent of this during its inception, its evolution, and its present form," said middle school teacher Randy Ziemer.
The Minnesota Education Association, a predecessor of Education Minnesota, backed the development of the Profile of Learning until qualifying their support in recent years, leaving Ziemer feeling like a voice in the wilderness.
"All along I've argued that national test data shouldn't influence K-12 education," said Ziemer. He quickly pointed out that the January survey by Education Minnesota reported that 63 percent of the teachers opposed the current graduation rule.
Data showing American education slipping in the 1980s should never have concerned us, he said, because Minnesota consistently ranks on the top nationally in graduation rates and test scores.
"We're not in Alabama. We're not in Mississippi," he continued. "The whole concept was flawed from the beginning because no one took time to say these are national figures."
Ziemer does support the basic skills testing, but thinks teachers had high standards, did curriculum review, and devised alternative methods of testing and teaching without the state requirements. "We've done it without the Profile of Learning," he said. He fears the experiment jeopardizes our current educational results.
"I'm glad my childrenÉdid not have the Profile of Learning," Ziemer said.
Better use of funds
The cost of the Profile of Learning for the first two years is projected to be just below $200 million.
Mention money around a school and a number of potential uses is bound to present itself. Last summer, every school district in Minnesota agreed in writing to voluntarily adopt the full Profile of Learning this school year. In return, they receive extra state aid.
"There has already been a tremendous misallocation in the development of all this," said high school teacher Jeff Youngs. "Teachers lament the time, dollars, and energy wasted because of lack of focus."
Middle school teacher Jane Leitzman said the money could have been used to reduce class sizes, develop gifted programs, add higher mathematics, social science, or English classes, or to add a foreign language. "I think you'd get quite a wish list," she said.
Pros and cons
Let's take a final look at a high standard, or Profile of Learning in action. Today we will hear about the high school band and choir, and the mixed effect it has had.
High school band director Bryan Mara said his problem is the packages are very demanding, requiring students to play two solos at a certain difficulty level and one ensemble piece. All the performances need to be recorded.
Mara used to require kids to play in an ensemble, but some kids are frightened to play a solo, he said.
"This year's ninth graders won't be able to complete their package until at least the eleventh grade," he said.
With tight schedules, completing a package in three years will discourage students from taking band.
"You're eliminating the student who just wants to be in band and who enjoys music," said Mara.
High school choir director Cheryl Bungum said eliminating the student who sits in their chair, sings, and expects an "A" has an upside.
For the choral package, students are required to sing an ensemble piece and a solo, to conduct research on their song, and to evaluate their performance. That has intimidated some students, and her enrollment has dropped from nearly 100 to 50.
While her choir might be smaller, it is also superior. The solos have helped strengthen weaker voices and given them confidence. "In that way the choir gets better because they don't hide behind others," she explained. "They sing out."
Bungum said she gave her choir difficult music this year and they picked it up immediately.
The choir is definitely being held to higher standards, but fewer students are experiencing it. Bungum misses students who wanted a musical experience but have now dropped her class, but doesn't miss the kids in it for a grade who were scared away by the extra requirements.
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