- Associated Press - Monday, March 5, 2018

Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 4

Minnesota’s modest graduation rate gains are deceiving

Minnesota high schools reached a milestone last year: Nearly 83 percent of students got their diplomas on time - a record high graduation rate. According to the state Department of Education, that’s an improvement of just over 4 percentage points from 2012 to 2017.

For the same period, the number of graduates taking remedial, catch-up courses during their first two years at state colleges and universities dropped by 26 percent, suggesting that more Minnesota students are leaving high school prepared.

Those trend lines are slowly moving in the right direction, but too many state kids are still too far behind. Other measures show that even as more Minnesota teens finish K-12, unacceptably high numbers of them are not mastering the basics. Statewide test scores have remained flat in recent years, and the stubborn achievement gap between white students and those of color persists.

As former Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Peter Hutchinson argued in a Star Tribune commentary, the National Assessment of Educational Progress assessments, given every four years to a sample of state students, have shown no significant improvement in the past decade. Only 40 percent to 50 percent of Minnesota students taking those tests were considered proficient in both reading and math. And though Minnesota regularly has among the highest ACT college entrance exam scores among the states, only 30 percent of students taking the exam here meet all of the ACT’s benchmarks for college readiness.

The graduation data showed varying levels of improvement for all groups and some districts where disparities have narrowed. Still, a difference of almost 19 percentage points remains between the two groups. More that 88 percent of whites graduated, compared with about half of American Indian students and about two-thirds of black and Latino students.

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Superintendents Joe Gothard in St. Paul and Ed Graff in Minneapolis were pleased with the limited progress, but acknowledged the pressing need to do more to improve academic achievement for more students.

“While we recognize these accomplishments, we must be sure (Minneapolis Public Schools) graduates leave school fully prepared for college and career,” Graff said in a statement. “We know what we’re doing right - but what can we do now to see the same gains in achievement that we’re seeing in graduation?”

To address that question, the Minneapolis district is focusing on literacy, expanding student support systems and increasing credit-recovery opportunities. In St. Paul, the district recently announced a plan for improving literacy and math skills as well as kindergarten readiness. And Cassellius says her department will send support to high schools with low graduation rates to address school-specific needs.

Those are worthy initiatives, but they’ll require sticking with instructional models that work and letting ineffective programs go. It will take focused instruction and support from families and communities. The state has set a goal to have a 90 percent graduation rate statewide by 2020, with no student group falling below 85 percent. With students of color still below 70 percent, that target will not be met given the current rate of improvement.

Steps must be taken to speed up the use of strategies that work for struggling learners. Unless that happens, higher graduation rates won’t necessarily translate into well-educated students.


St. Cloud Times, March 2

Public pressure as good (or better) at bringing about change

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the outrage of the day was whether the star of a redneck reality TV show should lose his gig over expressing an opinion that homosexuality (and heterosexual promiscuity, and lying to boot) are sinful.

He didn’t lose his job, although the comment sparked a national shouting match. He was suspended from “Duck Dynasty” for a time and a national restaurant chain stopped selling associated products. Still, the show lasted until March 2017.

At the time, the debate went like this:

“He is entitled to his opinion. Plus, the First Amendment.”

Conversely: “The First Amendment is about government interference with speech; it has no power over the public’s right to denunciation. Plus: He’s entitled to his opinion, but not to be free of consequences.”

Ah, 2013 was a simpler time.

The “Duck Dynasty” dust-up was a relatively minor one compared to other times when public - not political - pressure was put on a business or organization to change.

It happened in the 1990s when the Boy Scouts of America struggled with its history of disallowing gay members and leaders and suffered the loss of donations and some supporters. It has happened when countless TV shows ran afoul of audience interest groups and suffered advertiser boycotts. It happens when small investors seek out mutual funds that don’t run afoul of their personal ethics.

Every time it happens, some folks on the side of the embattled business or organization cry foul. You can’t do that, they say. Or, you shouldn’t do that. Even, it’s un-American.

As the nation takes sides (again) over our national gun policies and politics (again) and interest groups put pressure (again) on gun retailers, the National Rifle Association and businesses associated with it, here we are. (Again.)

Airlines, including Delta and United, have cut ties to the NRA. Car rental companies - including Enterprise, Hertz, Alamo, Avis, Budget and National - said they’ll stop offering discounts to NRA members. MetLife, Symantec, First National Bank of Omaha (the bank behind NRA-branded credit cards), SimpliSafe, Paramount RX and Starkey (the hearing aid company) have all announced they’ll be ending discount and benefit programs for NRA members.

We name them here for a reason, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, this editorial board wants to go on the record:

This kind of social and economic pressure is exactly what people with strong beliefs should do. It’s the most American thing we can do, short of voting.

In a nation that has built its economic consciousness on free market mythology and tells itself that we - Americans - stand up for what we believe it, this is exactly how it’s supposed to work. When we codify money as speech in the context of campaign donations, we cannot be surprised when economic pressure comes to bear on political and social questions.

This is just another way - and an extremely powerful one - for people to be heard.

Back to companies that have pulled away from the NRA so far. Why do we name them? So consumers who disagree with those decisions have a chance to let their money do some debating, too.

When the people are savvy enough to use all peaceful means of protest at their disposal - including economic - to make societal change, we avoid the messy conspiracy theories and campaign-donation fueled doubt that can come from purely legislative solutions.


Mankato Free Press, March 4

U.S. park land needs to be restored soon

Our national parks and monuments are looking haggard, including those in Minnesota. Congress needs to take action to restore these public treasures and stop them for further degradation.

The estimated cost of the deferred maintenance at the sites across the country is $11 billion. The longer the federal government puts off funding the repairs, the more that figure will grow - just as is the case with roads and bridges.

U.S. House and Senate proposals this session will attempt to tackle the maintenance backlog on the national lands. The good news is that movement on this issue appears to have bipartisan support.

The key to solving this problem is to make sure the funding is long term and sustainable. A proposed restoration fund would be removed from appropriation cycles and instead use revenue the government gets from oil, gas, coal and other mineral subsidies. That method of support should be thoroughly examined and considered.

In Minnesota alone, the costs to renovate the sites are mounting, according to the National Parks Service’s 2016 estimates: Voyageurs National Park needs $17.3 million in work; Grand Portage National Monument $1.3 million; Pipestone National Monument $1.2 million; St. Croix National Scenic Riverway $1.4 million; the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area $1.1 million.

Besides providing unique, natural and historically significant destinations for the public to visit, parks and monuments provide economic benefits. In far northern Minnesota, 237,250 people visited Voyageurs in 2017. Those are tourism dollars that the region and state gets because it is home to a natural wonder. Research done by Pew Charitable Trusts determined that 1 million people who visited national parks in 2016 spent $56.2 million and supported 897 jobs.

As caretaker of these precious public lands, the federal government needs to make sure the funding for restoration is available soon - before irreparable or astronomically costly damage is done.

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