Former MN education commissioner decries ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’

Alice Seagren didn’t mix words in her criticism of the back-patting over the news this week that the high school graduation rate in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 83 percent in the 2014-2015 school year.

In a letter to the editor, published in the Star Tribune today, the former commissioner of education in Minnesota wasn’t buying it.

The Associated Press article praising the rise in graduation rates in the nation and in Minnesota (“More teens getting diploma,” Oct. 19) is no cause for celebration. Buried in the article is the admittance that test scores are falling even as more students graduate. Why? We are moving back to a “seat time” system where students show up for class, get minimal passing grades and then are allowed to graduate.

When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tried to tie test performance to academic “know-how,” a backlash ensued. Unfair! Cries of “one test does not demonstrate what a student really knows” began. But we need a “plumb line” by which we can be guided to help students achieve at a level that, when graduating from high school, will assure them and their parents that they can begin postsecondary education or begin a job that is a steppingstone to work that pays more than minimum wages. We are going back to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

That’s a reference to the phrase speechwriter Michael Gerson coined for President George W. Bush, who used it in his speech announcing his intention to run for president.

The solutions for raising academic achievement seem obvious. But few of them seem to work.

During her time as education commissioner, Seagren didn’t have any more success at closing the achievement gap than any of her predecessors or contemporaries.

  • By the time the kiddos enter school, they are already far behind if they come from a family situation that includes poverty, parental disengagement (for whatever reason), or non-English speaking environment. The schools cannot solve this problem, but so far the best efforts include early childhood education, breakfasts and lunches, and early engagement to solve problems like lack of clean clothing and medical care. Any resources put into fixing the “achievement gap” will always be far more effective in the very early years, when it is possible to set the trajectory of the child’s life.

  • Mike

    When I was teaching part-time in the MnSCU system 15 years ago, I would estimate that only about a third of my students were truly prepared to do college-level work. Granted, there are plenty of students in the community college system who are pursuing vocational training, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I was still surprised at how few students could write an essay exam, or read and comprehend a high school/undergraduate-level textbook.

    People today are amazed when I tell them that, in my rural high school (nothing special academically), I had an English teacher who would give you an automatic “F” on a paper for either a sentence fragment or a run-on sentence. She was prickly and kind of mean, but one thing was true about her: she made you learn grammar. This was in the 1980s.

    If my anecdotal experience is an indicator, Ms. Seagren is probably correct.

  • Will

    Where did this mentality of “I’m not a good test taker” come from? I’ve never understood that, now we bend over backwards to accomidate that idea…it’s one thing if you have a learning disability but outside of that there’s really no excuse. You’re going to have high pressure situations in college with finals or high stakes professional tests or even job interviews where you have to think quickly and solve problems. We should teach all people to experience high pressure tests with consequences and we need to give people the ability to handle those situations; maybe we need a test taking course for those “bad test takers” giving them strategies and methods or even different ways to think about test taking. In the end, the solution is to change the culture, make education a priority in the lives of all students and create an environment where there is peer pressure for kids to do well in school. There are many charter schools that have been able to do this (I realize charter schools everywhere is not necessarily THE solution) so we should take their methods and/or attempt to import their culture to public schools where it is needed.

    • Kassie

      I’m a very good test taker. I can fly through a test and make decisions quickly and recall information fast. I don’t second guess myself when taking tests. I know how to study for tests and am good at predicting what is on them. And none of these things make me any better at my job or in my real life.

      Test taking is not a skill that translates to real life benefits for most people. Teaching people how to take tests is a waste of time. Instead, teaching people to research and collaborate and draw on tools around them is what makes good citizens of the world and good employees and good parents.

      • Will

        I agree that test taking doesn’t reflect actual life situations but it does create a high stakes situation that many of us face in our lives. I would like to see tests move towards “open book” or open laptop todau where you have all resources available to you to solve the problem or where you use critical thinking to analyze the issue at hand. On top of that we should see more collaborative projects being used in place of traditional tests.

        • Mark in Ohio

          Engineering school teaches one that an open-book, open-notes test can be FAR harder than a closed book test. Given the choice, we learned to take the closed book version every time.

          On the issue of collaborative projects, as one of the smart but unpopular students, I shudder at the thought of more collaborative projects in school, especially pre-college. I bet those thinking that they are great ideas weren’t in the unpopular percentage of their classes. Group projects were nightmares, even up through college, and their use should be VERY limited. I’m not against group work leading into individually completed (and graded) reports or other outputs, but grading a group is extremely unfair, especially given the stakes present in school.