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Change in the Right Direction

November 16, 2004

The thousands of parents, teachers and taxpayers who fought for six years to defeat Minnesota's Federal Curriculum, the Profile of Learning, may take credit for sticking to their guns and making a positive difference in Minnesota's schools. Thank you to their spirit of faithful resolve. Much remains to be accomplished, but this article truly reflects a successful beginning for positive change in Minnesota.


New standards open new books in Minnesota schools
Norman Draper
Star Tribune
Published November 15, 2004

Authors Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens and Aldous Huxley are some of the new picks for the juniors at Burnsville High. The freshmen at North High School in North St. Paul will have to get three more terms of math than the Class of '05. And the new direction in math -- more equations and fewer word problems -- means the Robbinsdale district's middle schools had to get new textbooks at a cost of $147,000.

The state's new rules for what students need to know in language arts, math and arts -- plus new course credit requirements -- have brought a host of changes to many schools. More kids will have to take more math and science. More will be reciting poetry and studying Latin and Greek root words.

The new requirements are the first wave of fact-based state academic standards meant to ensure that students statewide are learning the same things. Part of the national swerve toward more knowledge-based, testable education, they are replacing the old performance-based standards that were trashed by critics as too fuzzy. At the same time, the Legislature set specific numbers of credits students must have in various subject areas before they can graduate.

A year and a half after their adoption, the new standards are introducing fresh subject matter into many Twin Cities classrooms and making schools adapt to changing graduation requirements.

These aren't revolutionary changes. Few parents have complained about the new rules. While there are costs involved, they won't be busting any school budgets. Teachers say the new standards mostly involve moving the existing pieces around, not throwing them away and making new ones.

In elementary schools, in particular, the transition appears to have been mostly painless.

"They've had absolutely zero impact on us," said Tom Lee, principal of Bloomington's Normandale Hills Elementary School. "Reading is reading, and math is math."

Making a difference

Still, many students are seeing the difference.

At North High, for instance, kids who might steer clear of band, choir, ceramics or painting now have to take a year's worth of art classes, said North High guidance department chairman Tom Schmit.

In St. Paul, the new standards have cost about $30,000 each for math and language arts in the high schools, according to Micheal Thompson, assistant director of secondary education. That includes the costs of printed materials and additional teacher workshops.

Robbinsdale administrators saw last year that the middle school math textbooks they were using wouldn't cut it for the new standards. They bought 2,806 new textbooks offering more "drill and practice" at a cost of $141,997.32.

The state requirement that students study Latin and Greek root words means many teachers have to bone up.

"I think we have some very young teachers who didn't have anything like that in their education," said Ellen Delaney, curriculum and staff development coordinator for North St. Paul/Maplewood/Oakdale schools.

The new emphasis on English literature means what was once 11th-grade world literature at Burnsville High School is now World and British Literature. So the new books for the high school include works by Chaucer, Wilde, Huxley, Dickens, and James Hilton, as well as more Shakespeare and Renaissance poetry.

More math and science courses are being phased into Minnetonka schools. Last year's graduating seniors needed two credits each in science and math. This year's seniors must add a credit in science. The class of 2006 will be the first one required to carry the full science and math load: three credits each in math and science.

Phasing out the old standards to make way for the new ones means "we've got two graduation systems going on," said Mark Parr, director of secondary education for Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools. "One for the 10th-through-12th-grade students, and one for the ninth-graders and lower."

Burnsville High can trump that: Each grade -- 10, 11 and 12 -- has different graduation requirements, according to counselor Jeff Marshall.

"Is it more confusing and cumbersome? The answer is 'yes,' " North High's Schmit said.

Future requirements

And more confusion is on the way: Schools must have additional requirements in social studies and science in place by the 2006-07 school year. Educators say those are likely to be more troublesome.

Some teachers and administrators think tougher requirements are overdue. But they also increase the risk that more kids will fail those courses.

"I think kids need three credits in math and science," said Claudia Risnes, Minnetonka schools executive director of teaching and learning. "But the challenge will be to make it meaningful and to make kids successful at them."

Many teachers are seeing a shift back to a purer numbers approach from the problem-solving way of teaching math that stresses real-life applications.

"Now, it seems like we're a lot more into traditional math, where it feels like we're teaching more the way I was taught," said Matt Mullenbach, a Richfield High School math teacher.

And how do teachers who are caught on the merry-go-round of changing state education requirements react?

Said North High School English department co-chair Bob Hackney:

"Whenever you have new standards come in, you make a few adjustments to satisfy people and basically teach the way you have in the past."

Norman Draper is at ndraper@startribune.com
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