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The Debate Within
by Jim Bickal
February 9, 2000

Much of the public discussion about the state's new graduation rules has taken place at the state Capitol, where lawmakers debate whether to scrap, modify or retain the portion of the standards known as the Profile of Learning. A similar debate is also going in school districts around the state where the standards are more than a political issue, they're a fact of life.

A YEAR AGO, when a Minnesota House committee was contemplating a bill that would have eliminated the Profile of Learning, three administrators from the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District testified on behalf of the Profile. One of them was curriculum director Joe Wemette.
The View from the Parents
"I have seen significant differences between the content of courses taught with and without the standards. The standards have improved the quality of learning in the classroom."

-Lori Olsson
Parent of a sophomore and eighth-grader in the North St. Paul-Oakdale-Maplewood school district.
Wemette: Some say the Profile is too complicated to understand. You're being encouraged to go back to basics. I believe, in fact, the Profile is basic, however, a basic set of rules and guidelines for our students who are going to live in the world of the 21st century.
Many teachers in the district say public statements like that give the impression that everyone in the district supports the Profile of Learning. The profile, sometimes called the high standards, is designed to complement the high-stakes basic- skills tests. It requires students show achievement in 24 of 48 standards through a variety of assignments.

Away from the Capitol, in the more private setting of the North High teachers' lounge, opinions on the profile are a bit more contentious. Grant Pylkas, who teaches industrial arts, says the Profile of Learning is based on the flawed premise that a curriculum can be standardized.
Pylkas: All of a sudden I have somebody reaching into my classroom and telling me how to teach, without any knowledge of what my students are or who they are or what they can accomplish. Each student brings to the classroom the best they have to offer and it's up to us as teachers to determine how best to approach one of those students and it doesn't happen with a nice set of standards set by somebody who isn't in that classroom who doesn't understand what each one of those students has to offer.
"I feel that someone has suddenly handed me something and said, 'Here, wear this and make it fit.' And it doesn't fit," says teacher Joan Segnar.
In another part of the school, Joan Segnar is preparing her students for a grammar quiz.

Segnar's grammar class is not a required course, but it has become so popular with students that it fills eight sections a year. Segnar says the imposition of the Profile of Learning assumes she doesn't know what she's doing.
Segnar: I guess I feel in a way almost insulted because I think I've been fairly successful in my teaching and I think I've been giving kids what they need to know. And I feel that someone has suddenly handed me something and said, "Here, wear this and make it fit." And it doesn't fit.
Segnar says the graduation-standards project that she is required to teach in ninth grade isn't appropriate for those students.
Segnar: They are told to research some non-fiction material and then choose a two-sided issue and put it on a poster, having read extensively about it. I know they're not reading the articles, but they're making the posters and presenting them to the class and I know their reading hasn't happened. I've asked them later and they admitted, no, they're not doing the reading and it's that the reading is not appropriate to their age level.
Part of the problem for the English department at North is that the district decided to try to fit the graduation standards into an existing curriculum. The math department, on the other hand, was in the process of switching to a new curriculum known as integrated math at the time the graduation standards were adopted. Teacher Ellen Delaney says the standards came along at just the right time for her department.
Delaney: The grad standards matched our thinking and it said we want kids to perform. We don't want them to just memorize a bunch of facts; we want them to know what they're doing, when they're doing it and it gave us, I guess, a further push I would say but I think we were already there.
Ellen Delaney is the chair of the math department at North High and was the Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 1998. Delaney says she supports the Profile of Learning because it forces teachers to re-evaluate how they teach.
Stan Rosen says he likes the standards because they make teachers accountable for what goes on in the classroom.
Delaney: I think that it's helping us because there's been more conversation about curriculum, kids, teaching and learning than has happened in the other 20 years of my teaching, more has happened in the last two than ever before. And I think just that fact alone makes them worth all of the struggle that they have created.
Stan Rosen teaches in the business education department. He says he likes the standards because they make teachers accountable for what goes on in the classroom.
Rosen: Somebody has to hold educators accountable, just as they do in business. School is a business; it's million and millions, billions of dollars. Somebody has got to hold people accountable and whether it's the public holding us accountable or the Legislature; I feel there has to be accountability there. And so I think as a result of the grad standards we're not only holding students accountable, but we're also holding teachers and educators responsible and I think that's good.
But others, like social studies teacher Tom Hagel, say they were accountable before the graduation standards came along.
Hagel: As I walk into that classroom, first and foremost I'm accountable to that student. I mean I have a moral and ethical obligation to make sure that I'm doing my job correctly. Second of all, I'm accountable to the parents and, hence, the reason that we are contacting parents constantly, either by phone or by mail or we have parent-teacher conferences. We're accountable to the school board. We're accountable to the administration. We're accountable to our colleagues. And all of a sudden it's as if there's been this vacuum where we haven't had a sense of accountability. That's wrong.
Union Members Oppose Profile
A poll conducted in October 1999 by Cooper & Secrest Associates shows attitudes of Education Minnesota members toward the Profile of learning shifted only slightly in the second year of the graduation rule.
Where do teachers stand on the graduation rule?
Answer Jan '99 Oct '99
Keep it as it is 9% 9%
Improve it 48% 51%
Abolish it 41% 39%

How do teachers' views differ by sex and age?
Favor Oppose
Women 43% 51%
Men 20% 74%
Age 18-34 42% 54%
Age 50+ 32% 64%
The division over the profile at North High reflects the difference of opinion among teachers across the state. Polls conducted last January and October by Education Minnesota show about 40 percent of the union's members would scrap the new system. About half would improve it and nine percent in both polls said they'd keep it as it is.

State education officials say they're working to improve acceptance of the Profile by teachers. Teams from the Department of Children, Families and Learning have been visiting districts this year to help with implementation. CFL standards specialist Diane Cirksena says teacher complaints seem to be down.
Cirksena: I honestly can tell you that I'm hearing no objection to statewide standards. There's still a corner to turn on some of the implementation issues, but I think the hard political part is behind us in the sense that people have accepted that it is the role of the state to spell out what a diploma in Minnesota should like.
But the implementation issues are turning some educators against the standards. Several teachers at North High say they were initially enthusiastic, but have since changed their minds. Social studies teacher Kari Johannessen says she looked at the Profile of Learning as a way to improve her teaching, but after seeing how it worked in her classroom, she was disappointed.
Johannessen: I'm having a lot of difficulties with it and I don't see the benefits. So, I don't feel like we're more rigorous now than we were. I think we had a pretty good program to begin with and we had to make a lot of changes for logistics sake.
Johannessen says the record-keeping logistics are a nightmare for teachers and need to be simplified.