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The Profile's Growing Pains
by Jim Bickal
February 10, 2000

The class of 2002 will be the first class required to complete 24 graduation standards in order to graduate from a public high school in Minnesota. These standards are collectively known as the Profile of Learning. Minnesota Public Radio has investigated implementation of the Profile of Learning by spending time in three high schools throughout much of this school year. While it's still too early to tell whether the graduation standards will improve public education in the long term, the task of implementing the standards is creating a lot of difficulties for students, teachers and parents.

Teacher Kari Johannesen learned the difficulties of implementing the new system when a state official said her lesson plan on "expanding democracy," was a "concept," not a "theme."
Photo: Jim Bickal
teachers must first interpret the educational jargon in which they are written. Kari Johannesen teaches history at North High School. She helped write a performance package, or lesson plan, designed to satisfy one of the standards which states "(a student shall) illustrate the influence of diverse ideals or beliefs on a theme or event in the historical development of the United States." Johannesen says, after writing the performance package, she spoke with a representative of the state Department of Children, Families and Learning who told her she had misinterpreted the term "theme."
Johannessen: My colleagues and I had chosen the theme "expanding democracy" as kind of an umbrella theme and then we could analyze that with other themes throughout our units. And I later discovered that expanding democracy, according to some, would constitute more of a concept rather than a theme so possibly everything we had done may not have met the requirements of the standard.
It is unlikely Johannesen's performance package will be challenged by the state, at least for now. The Department of Children, Families and Learning says it will not audit districts at this early stage of the implementation.

There is one aspect of the standards that the teachers at North High would like to hear from the state on: the grading. The grad standards work is graded on a numeric scale in which a "one" is passing and a "four" is exceptional. For grading purposes all work, no matter what grade it's done in, is supposed to be compared to what a 12th grader would do. Math teacher Ellen Delaney says that can be a tough comparison to make.
Delaney: Our teachers are trying to look at things and say, "this is a ninth-grade class and they completed this project. What would a good 12th grader have done to it?" We know what an "A" paper at the ninth-grade level looks like. What we don't know is, according to the rule, you're supposed to do the grad standard against what a 12th grader would do. Well, we don't have 12th graders doing this work. So we have no models.
"At a series of meetings to discuss the Profile, Legislators and officials grumbled that the ignorant masses were ill-informed about the new program. But they missed the point. It was the CFL's job to inform parents and other citizens about a radical departure in education. The Profile replaces a letter grading system that is part of the language. When you change the culture, you do so with care."

- Bill Sweetman
Father of two sons who attend North High School in the North St. Paul/Maplewood/Oakdale school district. He serves on the school district's Curriculum Advisory Council.

When the standards were launched in 1998, the state promised it would provide examples to the districts of what exceptional work should look like. Those standards are still being developed. As a result, the North St. Paul district requested a waiver from the state, which was granted this week, that will allow it to base scoring on the actual grade level in which the work is completed.

If the teachers are having a tough time understanding the new grading system, imagine what it must be like for parents who are now getting a conventional report card and a grad standards evaluation. Sophomore Ed Schaffer says his father wasn't aware of the philosophy behind the grading of the standards.
Schaffer: A freshman or a sophomore, they can't get fours and stuff like that 'cause that's like really really good work. And my dad, he was looking at my standard sheet or whatever and all my scores and they were all ones and twos and he thought that that was a bad thing, but it's normal.
Guidance counselor Stephanie Duckert says she frequently spends half an hour or 45 minutes on the phone with a parent explaining how the standards work.
Duckert: They don't understand the grad standards. We, as counselors, we're continually learning. We're by far not the experts on grad standards, but it takes... I have many parent phone calls. It takes a lot of time to educate people and we usually are the ones who get those calls first.
Time is a resource in short supply during this implementation period. It takes time to restructure courses to meet the requirements of the standards. Assignments have to be graded twice, once for the course grade and once using a checklist that relates to the standard. North St. Paul graduation standards specialist Karen Klein recently spent a good deal of time with a student who wants to get credit for a standard by applying what he learned on a trip to Guatemala.
Klein: What we did was we sat and we looked at the standard and said, "Which standards do you think might apply?" We eliminated all the standards except two which he felt were really good. So, now it's in his ballpark and what he has to do is come up with suggested ways as to how he will show us that he has completed the standard. Now, this first process took a long time. We were together for about 45 minutes. Obviously, if we have 500 kids wanting to do this we're going to have to streamline the process.
The process of integrating the standards into the curriculum may get streamlined over time, but North High principal Randy Zipf says for now his staff is suffering.
Zipf: I see the staff a little bewildered, a little confused, frustrated and I think we need to look at the impact of implementing the standards has had on some very good teachers and some very valuable courses that are now being structured to such an extent that we don't have quite the flexibility that we used to have in some of the those areas that made it more joyful for teachers to teach. And the paper trail is obviously something that needs to be tamed as well.
"I think in 10 years this might work out to be something good, but to use the old story of building a car going 70 miles-per-hour, building it as you're trying to drive it. That's what it's like and it's taking a lot of kids with it and I don't like that."

- Joan Segnar
North High School English teacher
Teachers say the standards were implemented too quickly and that they weren't given enough time outside the classroom to work out the kinks in the system. English teacher Joan Segnar says, as a result, students are not getting the education they deserve.
Segnar: I think in 10 years this might work out to be something good, but to use the old story of building a car going 70 miles-per-hour, building it as you're trying to drive it. That's what it's like and it's taking a lot of kids with it and I don't like that.
A negative attitude by many teachers could be the most challenging obstacle in the way of successful implementation of the standards. That negative attitude is picked up by students who will often emit a collective groan when an assignment is characterized as part of the graduation standards.

Sophomore Beth Newmaster is one of many students who say the work she is required to do for the graduation standards is a waste of her time.
Newmaster: I feel that my high school career is classes that I should be taking to get me ready for college and whatever career I plan to do. And when I'm taking classes that don't apply or I've already had somewhere along the line, the information in them, and I don't feel I need the class to learn, I only need it to tell other people that I'm okay at doing this. I don't feel I should have to take those classes.
Bill Sweetman is a parent of a North High student and he served on an advisory committee that the district organized to look at the standards. He says the problems with the implementation stem from a lack of communication between the state and teachers.
Sweetman: The thing that has utterly, utterly appalled me is the failure to sell this program to teachers, to the educational community before it was implemented. I think that's terrible. How do you expect anything to succeed and be accepted if the kids first impression of it is that the teachers don't like it.
Education Commissioner Christine Jax acknowledges there have been problems with the implementation of the standards and revising the standards is sure to be a hot topic again this year at the Legislature. Many teachers and administrators worry they will expend a great deal of time and energy implementing the standards and then the whole system will be retooled or eliminated.