In the Spotlight

News & Features
Forums on Basic Skills and Higher Standards: North High School
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.)

North High School - Sophomore Students Forum held October 19, 1999

Themes, key issues and questions

North High School - The Students
North High School - The Parents
North High School - The Teachers

Return to top of page

More implementation time needed
The student theme at North High School in North St. Paul was one echoed by parents, teachers, and students at all the high schools when they spoke of the new higher standards required for graduation. The state simply didn't give the teachers enough time to implement this new way of presenting material. One student said, "Last year a lot of the teachers didn't know how to explain it to us. It has gotten a little better this year, but it is still kind of overwhelming for both us and the teachers. It's stressful right now because it is so new." Another student said, "They should have had like a year or two to look over their standards before they actually are teaching them to us. Then we would have been able to understand them a lot better."
Return to top of page

Who knows best: The state or districts
One student was quite emphatic saying, "The state is forcing them to teach stuff the state thinks should be taught instead of what the teachers think that they should be teaching."

And another student got closer to the crux of the issue of the state imposing its standards when he said, "I don't think it should be a state decision. It should be a district or a school decision because usually a school or a district knows what is best for its students."

As for this being the first class ever that needs to meet the standards in order to graduate, one student said, " My English teacher said we are like guinea pigs."
Return to top of page

Favoring the higher standards
But at North High there were students who liked the higher standards. One said, "I just did a project in health and it was a drug project. I enjoyed it. I got to learn a lot of stuff . I worked with two good friends and it was a lot of work and that was stressful, but overall I enjoyed it and I learned a lot. In fact, most of the class enjoyed it too. "

Another student added, "I do like them because for people who are not good test takers it is a good chance for them to show what they know." But even she thinks 24 performance packages needed for graduation are too many.

Another student said, "I have gotten way more comfortable standing up in front of people. All of them require you to make a huge presentation in front of the class." But alas even this student had a caveat saying, "But I don't think you can learn that much when you are doing one certain topic for half the quarter when you could be learning a lot more."

Finally, one student who had her fill of hearing others complain about the difficulty in understanding the packages, said, "They are suppose to be a challenge for us. We are not going to be told in life every step what we are suppose to do by someone."
Return to top of page

Negative tradeoffs
For some students it is not the difficulties of the process that turn them off to the higher standards, but rather the tradeoffs which they require them to make. One student said, "High school is a time where you explore your interests and graduation standards are taking away your time to explore. I wanted to take more science classes, but the graduation standards are holding me back. Some science classes don't have graduation standards so there is no point in taking them when you can't graduate."

Return to top of page

North High School - The Parents - Forum held October 19, 1999

Basic Skills Test discussion
Before they started talking about the higher standards, the North High parents wanted to spend some time talking about the basic skills test in math and reading that is given first in eighth grade.

Parent Lori Olsson said the basic skills test allow you more "concrete evidence of whether the child should get his diploma or not. It is no longer subjective as far as seat time. You either have the skills or you don't. It allows for more intervention because you can literally see: can they do it or can they not?"

But other parents worried about the outcomes. Bill Sweetman said: "I don't think anybody has developed a game plan within the education community for what you do when you have significant number of kids failing to graduate. We already have a tremendous amount of special ed programs. Do we want to take on a big, new open-ended commitment which we might end up being saddled with as a result of the basic skills test? Someone should have thought about that before implementing it."

Another parent said : "We have a really large population of immigrants which is growing. It takes six to eight years for a child who is coming into this country without speaking English to be on par with native speakers academically. Are we going to say. `I'm sorry you don't get a diploma because you have to wait six or eight years.' This needs to be considered, and we have to make some accommodations for this."

Return to top of page

Give me the three R's
As with the other school forums at Roosevelt and North high schools, the discussion on the higher standards and Profiles of Learning often focused on two areas. One was if the standards are the best educational plan for the state to impose on all Minnesota schools and the other areas dealt with implementation. The parents opposed to the standards on principle were in the three-R's, give-the-students-more-facts school of thought. Their argument is fundamental as expressed by one parent who said of the standards, "It is a large waste of time. We are seeing a lot of busy work and a lack of good foundation and facts."

Cathy Arkell, who defines herself as "pretty much a three R's kind of person," agrees saying, "So much of the profiles is group stuff. It frustrates my kids to the nth degree to have to do that over and over again. They hate that."

Another parents, who has three kids working on the standards, said, "My kids know how to make games and write directions. They know how to make copies, they know how to make brochures, they know how to do instructions."

Yet another parent said the team approach doesn't work for her son, who says he does the bulk of the work and other kids get a free ride.

Nancy Kopesky said: "I have had three older kids go through math and learn the facts and now my youngest one, who is a good math student, is having a horrible time with it. I am confused as a parent." She added that spontaneous learning is waning. "They used to let history be fun. A lot of learning wasn't meant to be part of the curriculum that day, but kids had an interest and they started talking." She heard one teacher say, "That doesn't go on any more. You go in and this is what you got to do and you just put a lot of the incidental learning on hold."

Return to top of page

We like the new higher standards
The very things that got these more fact oriented parents so angry caused other parents to see beneficial learning instead. One parent said, " I really like the standards." She had a son who just graduated from high school and one who is a sophomore. In science classes she said, "They have to do more. It is more hands on. It is a lot more where they have to follow through with an entire project." Her son now in high school had to build a topography map and write about the topography. Whereas her older son built a volcano where he added vinegar and soda water. "That," she said, "was his hands on experience."

Another parent said in the past her son might learn, for example, the resources and how many people lived in Romania. But doing a graduation standard performance package "helped him tie all this information together and helped him understand maybe there is a reason behind learning all of this because it is part of our world."

Return to top of page

Standards and accountability
LaLinda Egerstrom said, "Every individual and every community and every institution has to have some kind of bottom line standards to be successful and the profiles are a start in that direction and they are also a mechanism that is very important for accountability. We can't implement high standards and have great expectations of our children's learning if those who deliver it are not held accountable for meeting out standards."

Return to top of page

A flawed implementation
One parent said: "We need to differentiate between the concept of high standards and the implementation of the high standards. The concept is a very good one. I think the implementation has been flawed partly because there are too many performance packages in too many areas. Some of them are not very good. And another reason the implementation is flawed is because it is insane to be asking teachers to do two sets of grading--one the traditional grades and one grading on the performance packages. I am a college professor and the thought of doing at the college level I can't imagine. "

Nancy Kopesky said, " I just think 24 standards are too many to implement, too many for kids to keep track of, certainly too many for parents with two or three children going through it at once, and teachers, it must be a nightmare trying to keep track of all that."

Bill Sweetman said : "I was on a committee that spent tens of hours looking at profiles last year and I was not surprised that there was confusion out there. Some of these standards are written in educator jargon that is so thick that whoever put it out should have been ashamed. They are not easy to read, they are not easy to understand. And when you do get in there and take them apart you see that what happened was a whole bunch of special interests wanted to be represented in writing in the standard. The result is something very, very complicated and difficult to understand—and to implement. Furthermore, he said, "How do you expect anything to succeed and be accepted if the kids first impression of it is the teachers don't like it and the colleges that they are aiming at aren't going to take any notice of it anyway."

Return to top of page

College admissions problems
Another parent Libby Goodsell said the confusion goes beyond the high schools, adding: "I went to a college admissions information seminar. The person who was putting that seminar on was a U of M admissions counselor and he admitted that the U of M didn't seem to know what to do with the graduation standards as they came in on high school transcripts. Well that sent chills up my spine. If the U of M does not know what to do with a Minnesota student's high school transcripts what if one of our kids wants to apply to an out of state school. Have we taken 12 years of schooling and made it all for naught because their transcript is so confusing. We need to think way beyond graduation from high school to how does this affect them as they continue on with their schooling. "

Return to top of page

More support needed
One parent said, "We need to give more support and help to the people who have to implement this. The teachers, the school administrators, the guidance counselors, whoever is going to have to keep track of this thing is going to need more help, more time, more money."

Return to top of page

North High School - The Teachers - Forum held October 19, 1999

A time for change, but do it more slowly
The North High teachers forum was compelling because it was hard to dismiss the passionate plea for the higher standards as put forth by Minnesota Teacher of the Year Ellen Delaney. She teaches math at this school, which is shared by North St. Paul, Oakdale and Maplewood. But at the same time it was just as difficult to dismiss the pleas from the teachers of grammar and Spanish, who have seen the higher standards deconstructing what they had helped build over the years.

Delaney said, "How can it (education) be viable if we don't look at what we are teaching, why we are teaching and how we are teaching it. In mathematics literally you could have walked into my classroom five years ago and walked into it when I was in high school and you couldn't tell the difference. 1973 was when I graduated and I literally could pick up some of those text books and move them into my classroom five years ago and no student would have been able to tell. And I think that is a crime. We were in trouble and I don't think for any fault of our own. We haven't had the time energy or resources to look at curriculum, to really look at what we are doing and to evaluate whether or not what we are doing is appropriate and because of that we created a stagnate system and one that literally has not changed. "

However, even she, who is a big proponent of the higher standards, is not letting the state off the hook. She says, "If we would have implemented these by department over a series of years where we could have had funding, training, and materials chosen that would actually match what we are doing, you would not have nearly the anger that this created. Its because they tried to fit something in three months that takes seven years. It does take seven years to change curriculum in a K-12 school."

Return to top of page

More resources are needed
Administrator Dagny Waldeland said, "The teachers are more than willing to implement standards and to work for the betterment of kids' education, but I don't think they are given the kind of support that they need. We have done the best we can in our district with the money that we have, but quite frankly that is not enough. And people just get plain tired and frustrated. There are not enough answers, there are not enough file drawers, there are not enough hours to do all the bookkeeping, and I think that that is bringing the high standards down in terms of the commitment the teachers have to it. "

Return to top of page

Grammar classes in trouble
Joan Segner said: "Three years ago I started teaching grammar as an elective and we had three sections and it has grown to eight sections this year. And as I look at the future I am really worried because there is no standard for grammar. I was told by the higher-ups that that is just a bunch of facts, we want process. I think grammar is valuable. I have had kids come to me after they have taken the ACT and tell me that I am so glad I took the class because I did well on the verbal section. As I look at the future I see that the grammar classes will just go down to probably nothing because as kids go they'll have to take more and more classes that offer the standards. And it will disappear and it makes me very sad. I think it is a valuable thing to keep." An interesting aside here is that at Hills/Beaver Creek High School, where Minnesota Public Radio also held forums, the kids were worried that they would be getting less grammar in the future.

Return to top of page

Language classes in trouble
Jennifer Cook said: "I teach French and Spanish and this is not a required standard even though I consider that being part of an educated literate, cultured adult."

Spanish teacher Katherine Weber said, "We have noticed that our second years are just plummeting. Their requirements are bogging them down so much that they're not making the time for the electives any more. `My God I got to get a standard, I got to get a standard.' In fact the first day of class I had one of my sophomores come in. `Do we have a standard in this class?' And when I told him no, there was relief yet anxiety. Relief that there wasn't going to be all this performance package, performance package, performance package, but anxiety that what am I doing in this class then because I am not going to graduate on time."

Return to top of page

We're being pigeonholed
Teacher Karen Vidlock said: "One of the problems with the standards is that they try to make everything fit into a certain schedule or with all the teachers. We all have such a variety of teaching styles, the students have a variety of learning styles, and that is one of our strengths and then when we have to do the standards we're kind of pigeonholed. We can't all fit into the same hole. I am glad that we have this variety, but it seems like the standards stifle that. "
Return to top of page