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Forums on Basic Skills and Higher Standards: Hills Beaver Creek
by Leonard Witt
Executive Director, Civic Journalism Initiative
Minnesota Public Radio

In October and November of 1999, Minnesota Public Radio's Civic Journalism Initiative held forums at Roosevelt High in Minneapolis, North High in North St. Paul and Hills/Beaver Creek High School in Southwestern Minnesota. The idea what was to learn first hand from teachers, parents and students how they felt about the higher standards and basic skills tests. The schools were purposely chosen because one was an urban school (Roosevelt), one suburban, (North) and one was rural. (Hills/Beaver Creek.)

The students were primarily sophomores. They are in the first class of students that will need to complete the 24 profile packages in order to graduate in 2002.

What we heard helped to inform and frame the February 7. 11, 2000, MPR news series The Guinea Pig Kids. The forums were also the model for the 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., February 10 Midday live radio broadcast from Roosevelt, North and Hills/Beaver Creek high schools.

The following information was put together by Leonard Witt, executive director of the MPR Civic Journalism Initiative.

Themes, key issues and questions from:

Hills/Beaver Creek - The Students
Hills/Beaver Creek - The Teachers
Hills/Beaver Creek - The Parents

Hills/Beaver Creek - Sophomore Students - Forum held October 13, 1999

One thing was certain about the introduction of the higher standards at Hills/Beaver Creek High School: The sophomores were confused. And the confusion came on many levels, beginning with trying to decipher directions that go with the profile of learning packets. One student said: "A lot of the math ones are really long and they use really big words, and it's hard to understand what they are talking about" another said, "The teachers have to explain it to us and they don't even hardly understand it. How are we suppose to learn when we don't understand it?"

The abstract concepts move some of the students to feel the higher standards are a waste of time and have nothing to do with real life. For example they had to do measurements with a pinwheel and another dealing with snowflakes. One kid asked, "When are you going to count snowflakes in daily life."

Later at North High in North St. Paul, Minnesota Teacher of the Year Ellen Delaney, who teaches math, had quite a different opinion. The same lessons that these kids were damning she was praising as wonderful tools to help students think about using math in new and creative ways. Perhaps there is just a simple failure to communicate.

Indeed when asked about the purpose of the new profile of learning, the kids professed they did not have a clue. But they did know that "you have to pass this or you don't graduate." Which to the majority of students at Hills/Beaver Creek was not a sufficient enough reason in impose the higher standards.

College Admissions

The Hills/Beaver Creek sophomores also worried that doing these packets was taking them away from more focused studies like grammar that they believed would help them do well on their ACTs. After all, one kid said his brother graduated from Hills/Beaver Creek before the standards were instituted and did well on his ACTs. Now this kid asks: will these new packets help or hurt him? He didn't know. And further adding to the confusion was: What will out-of-state colleges think about the graduation standard packets? How will they evaluate them? And one girl asked: "You know you take these in Minnesota, but what if you go to a college in South Dakota or Iowa? Do they look at these?" Another student asked: "What if you did really good on your packets, but you were so worried about the packets you don't do so well in school, and they don't even look at the packets, then what are you going to do?" How can you explain it to college admissions officers? she asked.

These are all legitimate questions that someone in the state system might have answered, but one thing was certain, at Hills/Beaver Creek these answers were not filtering down to the kids.

Individual angst
For individuals the angst level was further amplified by their personal concerns like the girl who transferred in from South Dakota. She had absolutely no idea what was going on and was visually and audibly stressed to the edge of tears saying, "I just transferred here and I don't even understand what these things are. It's not really fair. If I don't understand how to do them, how am I going to get them done?"

This question is coming from a very stable school environment where most students have spent their entire school years; what happens in a place like Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis where five new kids transfer in every day with all kinds of other life challenges. Is it really fair for them?

Another area of concern was about electives. One student said: "It is making a lot more classes seem required for our junior and senior years because we have to take them to get the packages done. So we can't pursue our own interests." Steering kids away from what most interests them seems to defeat the purpose of the higher standards themselves, which is to build a greater love of learning.

Although at each school there was a majority of the students who didn't like the standards, there were a few voices that spoke in favor of the higher standards and preferred them over the older systems. At Hills/Beaver Creek the one girl who spoke in favor of them was met with a jocular chorus saying: Oh sure, you like them. You are the best student in the class.

Of course, the jury is out on how well these Profiles of Learning are succeeding. But one thing is clear: The graduation standards are causing a lot of worry at a school, that according to the teachers, students, and parents, worked extremely well in the past. As proof of how well they are doing, they point out that 100 percent of the kids will pass the basic skills test. So these are good students, but even they feel overwhelmed by the new graduation standards. Of course, these kids, mostly sophomores, are caught in a major change in the way they have been taught in the past. Younger kids in Hills/Beaver Creek will grow up with them. But that is little consolation for these sophomores who are caught in this sudden sea change.

Hills/Beaver Creek -- Teachers Forum Held October 13, 1999

If it ain't broken
Hills/Beaver Creek is a community that seems pleased with its schools. On the basic skills test, which the teachers see as a good thing, the teachers say nearly 100 percent of the kids will pass it. However, they see the higher standards, which requires students to complete 24 or 48 performance packages to graduate, as problematic. "We have been doing a good job all along," one teacher said, "which is what upsets me about having the profiles. Our kids scored well without the profile so they are obviously acquiring the skills that they need." Janet Knoll said , "The point the teachers want to make is if it ain't broke, don't fix it. They had a wonderful curriculum in place here already. " Teacher Cyndi Ebert recommended "the state could look at what we have done in the past and say you are okay here; keep doing what you were doing." And others wonder if what might work for improving failing city schools made sense for successful rural schools.

However, not all the teachers were ready to cast the new standards off, one third grade teacher said the tests bring about a much higher level of thinking skills. She was countered by teachers like Leon Pick who said of the profiles: "If I could wave a magic wand, they would be gone. I think they are way too much work for what we get out of them."

The paperwork burden
Even the teachers who liked them were not in favor of all the paperwork they generated. Almost all the teachers said they had to start off by rewriting each package to meet their students needs. Since it is a small school, the teachers often teach various subjects which means they had to rewrite several performance packages. One teacher said, "It took two weeks to rewrite one package." One veteran teacher said this was the third major curriculum change dictated by the state in 10 years. He said, "You cannot constantly keep switching things and expect great results."

Different districts
Teacher Kathy Johnson asked, "How can every student in Minnesota get the same kind of education. We have different demographics. There is just not one way." The approach for the kids in urban Minneapolis, should be different from the approach in rural Hills/Beaver Creek.

Trade offs: Romeo and Juliet or Great Expectations
Teacher Cyndi Ebert said, "In order to fit my package. I made the choice of giving up Romeo and Juliet or Great Expectations." She decided Great Expectations would have to go. However, she said that compared to the required performance package "reading Great Expectations would have been far more valuable."

Hills/Beaver Creek -- Parents Forum Held -- October 13, 1999

If it isn't broken
The "If it isn't broken, don't fix it" theme we heard earlier in the day from the teachers was echoed again by the dozen or so parents who came to talk about the basic skills test and the higher standards. The parents felt that the schools and the teachers were always held accountable and performed well. The old system was a success. One hundred percent of the kids graduated. They will all pass the basic standards test. Kids go on to good colleges and do well on their ACT tests, so why make major changes to the curriculum. The other worry was that the new standards took away from proven practices in the past and even if the new standards do work for their kids, one parent said, "They are so busy that it is really hard to have an extra thing dumped on their plate."

A finite amount of time
One parent added, "If you spend a lot of time on one grad standard and the child got nothing out of it, think of all the time they could have been teaching that child other things they need to learn too."

The finite time factor was mentioned by another parent who said forcing the students to finish 24 high standards, "is not hurting their education, but it is taking away from other interests they might have. It is taking away from something else the teacher had real good luck with and the students are maybe more motivated by." And the parents were worried about the staff too. One said, "I was involved in some staff meetings when this was first coming out, and I felt very sorry for the staff because they were totally overwhelmed. It is overwhelming for them to make these profiles which were dictated by the state to fit in to our process of learning which was excellent to begin with."

Rural vs. urban
The concept of rural vs. urban came up too. One parent, referring to the state administrators who established the profiles said, "We are definitely outstate. Sometimes I think they don't know we are in the state. They do center on the metro area and that's fine, but they sometimes forget to see what we are doing for our kids and we are doing very well."

Another parent who was opposed to the profiles for Hills/Beaver Creek said, "Because we are rural, and because we are smaller, and because we do a good job, I don't think the profiles are necessary. We are very, very satisfied with the education that Hills/Beaver Creek has given our kids." One frustrated parent simply asked, "What was the purpose of this; was there a concern that the schools weren't all teaching at the same levels or were they saying some schools were doing it right and some schools were doing it wrong?" Just like their children, the parents were not sure what the reasoning was for making these major changes.

Central messages
Finally, the parents at the forum were asked what was the central message they wanted to be heard by the Minnesota Department of Children, Family and Learning that instituted the profiles. Here is a sampling of what was said: Glenda Kuehl: "The ideology behind the thing is probably sound, but they implemented them too quickly and without a lot of thought to it. There are too many, too quick." Bonnie Baker: "My idea is if it's not broke, don't fix it. I mean, things were going great why change it."

Starla Scholten: "I am worried that kids aren't going to get the basic things they need because I think teachers are going to have to change what they are teaching to fit the profiles instead of teaching what they taught before." Lois DeHaan: "It is not fair for the kids to miss out on things in order to accomplish the standards." Lois Leenderts "The idea of the standards isn't all wrong. I am just not sure if it is for the right purposes. It needs to be for the kids and not for the state."