here for PDF format
for participants' responses to this interview.
Minnesota State Senator
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437
August 12, 2011
Verne Johnson (chair), Paul Gilje, Joe Graba,
Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz (phone), Tim McDonald, Clarence Shallbetter,
Kristin Schulte, Wayne Popham (phone)
Summary of meeting:
Minnesota's longest currently serving Republican state legislator and a
co-author of the nation's first charter schools law, Senator Gen Olson
describes those characteristics that have set Minnesota apart in education
policy in the past, and ways that the state can again become a leader.
Opportunities for progress in the coming year are discussed, including
federal and foundation interests, as well as the 2012 legislative session.
Welcome and introductions
Gen Olson is a
Minnesota State Senator from District 33 in the Western Twin Cities
suburbs, and is the longest currently serving Republican member of the
legislature, having been first elected to the Senate in 1982. Olson is
currently chair of the Senate's Education Committee. In 1992 Olson was an
original author of the Minnesota charter schools law, the first of its
kind in the country.
Olson has taught,
worked in vocational education administration and the Department of
Education, and has served on the Minnetrista city council and as that
city's mayor. She was Senator Norm Coleman's running mate in the
gubernatorial race of 1998. She served as a member of the
delegation to the Education Commission of the States. She graduated from
Minnehaha Academy High School and the University of Minnesota, with an EdD.
Addressing the need to innovate our way out of the Minnesota's difficult
financial situation, Senator Olson opened her remarks with an example of a
successful innovation she helped to bring to fruition. The Minnesota
Reading Corps is a timely illustration of the state's successfully taking
advantage of an existing federal program, some grassroots energy,
bipartisan cooperation and executive leadership to develop an effective
and economical public service.
thing about this business is you never stop learning," the Senator said,
introducing the focus of her conversation this morning, " and I've done
some fresh learning even this week." The previous few days she had taken
part in the instructor training for the Minnesota Reading Corps, an
AmeriCorps program aimed at reading proficiency for all students by the
end of third grade. This program, which incorporates a cost-effective
means of getting extra reading tutors into the schools, was supported by
one of the few provisions in the state budget increased this year-in fact,
the program allocation tripled.
Corps tutors are paid a modest stipend for an 11-month service commitment
and may qualify for an additional education credit that may be applied
toward college tuition. Tutors, who can participate in the program for up
to four years, come from a wide range of backgrounds: students, retirees,
active classroom parents, and people in career transition.
Senator said that she had not at first realized how much the program had
grown. "I was blown away. The program began with 20 Reading Corps members
(tutors) six years ago with a small state contribution matched $3-4:1 by
Federal and private dollars. This year more than 200 Reading Corps members
were working in the schools. This week, a joint session of coaches and
members in training had 1,200 people in the room, almost 800 corps members
(tutors) and 350 coaches (local staff that oversee and work with members).
The program has had many more applications than member positions for the
coming school year. This growth does not reflect the additional state
funding provided for the 2012-2013 biennium. The Minnesota Reading Corps,
a key component of the literacy/reading proficiently by 3rd
grade package in this year's Education Bill, was one of few provisions
that received an increase in funding-triple the current level-for a
program that works.
Minnesota Reading Corps is now AmeriCorps' largest program in the state,
and I believe in the country. It is funded through Serve Minnesota, an
independent non-profit that is funded by state, federal, and private
funds. National leaders in AmeriCorps are impressed with the progress
measures built into the program and the evidence of growth and proficiency
achieved by the students.
is notable for addressing problems at their root.
Minnesota Reading Corp began in 2006 when Senator Olson and Democratic
Senator Kathy Saltzman, then in the majority, were working with parents to
seek ways to help their children who were struggling readers learn to
five reading components: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary,
and comprehension, were already in statute as requirements for teacher
preparation but were not reflected in syllabi of courses provided in
Minnesota's twenty-nine institutions preparing teachers. When you looked
at the reasons why children have trouble learning, this-reading-was at the
root of it. The focus of much of our effort thus far was assuring that
teachers were being prepared with all the tools they need to bring all of
their students to reading proficiency by third grade.
bottom up kind of person," Olson told the group. "This was a program for
digging down and finding solutions. This process has made us different in
Instead of adopting the policy of holding third graders back if they
haven't achieved proficiency when their reading instruction has been
inadequate, we were successful this year in being the first state to add a
revenue stream for literacy that pays for results, recognizing reading
proficiency and significant growth toward that end.
Innovation comes from outside the system.
dawned on me that the way the Reading Corps component of our strategy is
an example of a 'disruptive innovation'," Olson said, "because it came in
from outside the existing education system. The program has grown only by
going to schools that ask for it. There's no marketing effort or public
been a fan of the disruptive innovation notion. Now with the Reading
Corps, it's happening already, right here in Minnesota. They are using
scientifically-based reading instruction methods and progress monitoring
and achieving results that are catching the attention of teachers. An
expression commonly heard is, 'How come we didn't learn that?'"
change the education system from within, or do you have to go around it?
"We're working on that," the Senator replied. "We've been trying to open
the system from the outside through chartering, strengthening the role and
responsibility of authorities within the current system to improve results
recently passed Education bill lifted the limit on single purpose charter
school authorizers, trying to focus the bureaucratic oversight on the
authorizers which the Department of Education approves and hold the
authorizers responsible for overseeing performance of charter schools.
That's been a key change.
Ted Kolderie is the first to say, not all the charter schools are
innovative. The traditional idea of everyone coming together in a room to
be lectured to is pretty ingrained."
noted that large systems have difficulty changing: "If you could have seen
the people in the room during negotiations over the final legislative
package this past session-with key executive and legislative branch
negotiators around a big conference table into the wee hours of the
morning-and you heard the interaction and could see how things are being
done, 'oh my,' you'd ask, 'how can anything change in this system?' "
system needs to change, especially regarding the finances. "We're on a
track that's financially unsustainable."
Fortunately change is possible, she added. There are some schools now that
operate on half the money each year that most traditional schools require
and are achieving better results.
to penetrate the traditional education system to get real change," she
continued. She cited her experience working to improve teacher licensure
requirements, which work ultimately had no effect on performance. "Now we
do have a stronger cohort of teachers out there, and the education
performance needle still isn't moving. There is more work to be done."
Bi-partisanship can produce good results.
participant observed that a major lesson of the Reading Corps experience
is that the program came in during Democrats' tenure, and was grown during
the Republicans', showing the value of Senators Olson and Saltzman working
together across party lines.
"Education is a prime example of what should be a non-partisan issue," the
Senator replied. "I didn't run for this office to play political games.
Obviously you've got to know what's going on politically and do some
political analysis, but if you can't do something positive, then how is
the public interest being served?"
The Governor can lead.
confess I made an appeal to the Governor during the final weeks of
negotiations this summer. I walked him through my years with Perpich (I've
served with 5 governors) and described how Perpich bucked the norm to do
things with real impact like Post-Secondary Enrollment Options and Open
Enrollment. And when you look at the legacy of that program, you see it
has driven a stronger, more rigorous curriculum in the district schools
sector. If the districts didn't want students going off to take college
courses somewhere else, then they had to address their own course
offerings and linkage to college credit."
Recalling the Perpich approach, the Senator further commented that she
observes some similar qualities in Governor Dayton. He supported our
literacy "package," signed the bill and has made public comments of
support since that time. His willingness to "buck the norm" leads her to
believe that we may see similar actions going forward.
New approaches may result from the 2012 session.
Do you see technology at the center of what needs to happen?
It isn't about adding more personnel, the Senator agreed; it's about
freeing people up to do a better job. Unfortunately in our current system,
with the way we finance, if you don't have enough money you just scale
down. That means letting the newly hired teachers go.
discourages young people, she said. Since the system's incentives
prioritize maintenance of the same structures and processes-only less of
it-schools need to increase class sizes to meet the rising costs. Yet
since they have not been able to achieve the desired goal of personalizing
student learning the call is then to decrease class sizes. That model is
Unsustainable, as the book by
Senator said that 2012 might bring about more systemic change. "There are
two bills coming along, Senator Hann's MNovate bill and my Education
Boards bill. There are other options that we need to explore very
thoroughly. The point is to open doors around the current system. You get
pushback with ideas like these. But we need to recognize that the
generation coming into it doesn't have a problem with performance
evaluation and increased accountability.
haven't got the further specifics on other potential bills right now, but
let's keep talking because the work done by Education Evolving and others
can help put
at the forefront. I think the time is right for doing something serious
about this. The session won't be long, but we'll be meeting with our staff
in the House and Senate soon to see if we can coordinate an effort. The
Governor wants more individual bills, which I like."
MNovate bill would establish a commission to provide leadership for
creation of new and innovative models of public schools and schooling.
Olson's Education Boards bill would allowing school boards to reorganize
as education boards.
Prospects are good for a Minnesota waiver from NCLB.
participant asked about the recent announcement by US Education Secretary
Duncan that he would allow state waivers from the federal No Child Left
Behind (NCLB) law. The participant said it appears Governor Dayton is open
to requesting a waiver, and that the federal government is open to what
Minnesota might propose. The Secretary is not interested in just lowering
the bar, but if the state can come in with definitions of achievement that
are defined differently than NCLB, and if they have mechanisms to assess
this, would that have an impact on innovation? What should
process be-should the state wait until the commissioner proposes a waiver
never been a fan of the federal government getting into education at this
level," the Olson said. "Most of us in Minnesota weren't, both at the
federal and state levels, from both parties.
sat on the stakeholders' groups for working on waivers. I'm glad a broader
waiver opportunity is coming. Minnesota is not behind in standards. We
haven't had low standards."
the legislature want to be involved in designing the state's alternate
know Education Commissioner Cassellius well enough to know what her
process would be. I think though we've been successful in bringing her
along on the literacy issue.
backed off during the session to the Governor's desire that the
Commissioner write the rules, but we've been a legislature that's been
pretty engaged. We don't have a State Board of Education, and the power
for giving unelected officials authority to write rules that have the
force of law should not be taken lightly. We'll want to be involved."
The country may be getting ready for an alternative governance structure
for education, a participant observed. One of the trends throughout recent
years has been the growing centralization of decision-making processes.
From the schools to the districts; districts to states; states to federal
government. This is a regulatory approach to government and education.
the major innovations of the chartering sector was the switch of
governance from process control to governance through performance
agreement, the participant said. Think of the number of person-hours spent
trying to learn and understand the regulations of NCLB. Think about all
the regulators and staff-billions of person hours spent trying to
understand the regulations. Shouldn't we now switch to outcome-based
performance measures, trusting the public to use good information to
regulate the schools instead of regulating the schools?
We do need to be asking what outcomes schools will have, the Senator
replied, and what assessments they will use. It's hard to be as 'cut and
dried' in your measurements as NCLB is. "I don't know if there are good
alternative models out there; if you're trying to cultivate a child's
talents and interests it's difficult to know what the appropriate measure
should be. That students ultimately demonstrate mastery of a standard can
be a rather subjective thing."
Improve professionalism by pushing management decisions down to schools.
What can be done to improve the quality of teacher professionalism?
think there are a lot of teachers chafing under the present system. I do
believe that the creation of site-based management schools through
chartering and Site-Governed Schools has been a significant first step.
That was one of the initial options for getting chartering started. It
didn't begin that way, and instead we've gotten pushback from the state
teacher's organization seeing it as an encroachment into their domain. I
wonder if the times will bring more teachers to the fore that want to be
professional, and are committed to their profession, but would welcome
greater freedom to innovate their practice and be recognized for the
results they achieve."
Achievement gap results from low expectations.
The Civic Caucus recently heard that African American students in
Minnesota perform at levels lower than states often thought to have much
lower proficiency. And, that our large achievement gap is not just the
result of particularly high-performing white students. What do you think
is the cause of this?
"To be overly simplistic," the Senator replied, "I'd say we've bought into
the discrimination of low-expectations. Students of color are seen as not
being able to achieve." This manifests itself in the way students are
advised, taught, counseled, routed.
schools that work tend to have higher expectations," she continued. "Teach
is known for emphasizing high expectations. Yet when they approached St.
Paul and Robbinsdale as potential partners, they got turned down. Why
would people who are trying to raise expectations get turned down?"
Senator said that many of the students labeled as requiring special
education for learning disabilities are "instructional casualties." There
are bright kids that get swept into special education classifications and
almost never get out, she said. There is a strong incentive in the way the
system is set up to classify a student as special education providing
incentive to get more money. But you can only spend a dollar once. Since
Special Education is a mandate not fully funded, cross subsidies are
required from general education funds.
Gates foundation brings reform efforts to Minnesota.
question arose regarding interest the Gates Foundation has expressed in
Minnesota, and in city and state policy. Officials from the foundation
have met with the Governor and other state leaders.
know too much at this point," the Senator said, "but when the Governor and
Gates personnel were having their first meeting this spring I was near the
Governor's reception room waiting for a bill signing and the Governor came
out and asked me to join the meeting. I did have a chance to visit with
them briefly. When I left for the bill signing the Governor said that he'd
like for me to work with them."
Gates Foundation is thinking about supporting cities and states that
demonstrate a "compact" of supporters for reform. They are asking
Minnesota to draft a letter that explains what
might do to connect the charter and district sectors. This would be the
foundation's first attempt to replicate at the state level the compacts it
has engineered in nine cities, aimed at identifying and resolving 'issues'
in the two sectors to the benefit of both.
another angle that such a proposal could take, participants observed.
There is a coming crisis in secondary education in non-metro Minnesota. To
date the response has been to hold the model of school constant and to
change the financing-to reduce costs through consolidation or to add
revenue through aids or excess levies. Yet there are models in the charter
sector in Minnesota and elsewhere that show it is possible to maintain
educationally and economically viable high schools with only 20 students
per grade level. This just is not possible with the conventional district
Olson wondered about the next step for the Gates effort; a participant
said he understands a first meeting will be held yet this month to begin
planning for a statewide meeting the foundation would like to have late
this year. The Senator and participants concluded that the state must not
wait to start on a proposal if there is going to be something useful by
the next legislative session.
Olson agrees with those who feel the system needs to foster more parental
involvement. "I'm the 'grandmother of home schooling' and have watched
that grow. I don't think I've ever heard of a home school student that had
to take remedial courses once they got to college. We have a staff member
in the Senate who went from home school to law school, and passed the bar
in multiple states.
is coming. Technology is coming. I've reminded the Governor that
Dayton-Hudson was a survivor because of 'disruptive innovation.' They
created a new division out there called Target with a different brother in
charge of it and that's what enabled them to survive discount retailing
when so many others didn't. And I think that's what led Ted Kolderie to
apply the concept to public education. The day may come when the system as
we know it may not exist anymore."
Thank you Senator Olson for the visit.