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Teachers' union wants Minnesota plan

As Minnesota considers how to improve education in our state, it's important to distinguish between meaningful reform which actually helps, harmful reform which sets us back, and meaningless reform which makes some people feel good but doesn't accomplish anything.

Education Minnesota believes in any reform that truly helps children learn. That's why we're offering specific proposals to solve our state's biggest education challenge: the achievement gap. And that's why we're speaking out about certain efforts at the State Capitol which harm education in the name of improving it.

We all know true education innovation will not come from the top down. It will start in the classroom and work its way up. That's why Education Minnesota's Race to the Top proposal includes creating Centers for Teaching Excellence for our most academically challenged students. The task will be to focus on eliminating the achievement gap and spreading successes to every school in the state.

Minnesota still stands at the head of the class in American education. But we have a lot of work to do in eliminating the achievement gap. Smaller classes, targeted social services, longer school days, recruiting teachers of color and more outreach to parents are all classroom-proven methods to do that.

We created an achievement gap bill in the Legislature that includes all of these proposals. It's about priorities. It doesn't require a blank check and we don't call for one. Future budget realities demand we spend our money differently and wisely.

Teachers are the strength of Minnesota's education system. We see every day what works in the classroom and what doesn't. Teachers are the professionals who need to be included in a true partnership that keeps our state's education strong.

One of the key reasons our state is a national leader in education is that we hold our teachers to the highest standards. Our students deserve the best-trained teachers we can provide.

We support alternative pathways into the teaching profession, but not alternative standards and especially not lower standards. The alternative teacher licensing proposals currently in the Legislature drastically lower the standards for becoming a teacher. Research from Stanford University finds such programs don't help students achieve.

And schools must spend money training, supervising and mentoring the under-qualified instructors these measures produce (St. Paul recently saved $225,000 by halting the Teaching Fellows program).

We can't afford to steer a course that ultimately doesn't help kids learn, costs more money, and lowers standards for teachers.

Education Minnesota firmly believes in the goals of Race to the Top, which include ending the achievement gap. I've met in recent days with Minnesota's Education Commissioner and we'll be meeting again soon. I've encouraged the commissioner to reach out to various community leaders to get their input as well.

Minnesota challenges require Minnesota solutions. There is room in the spirit of the Race to the Top rules to make a second, more creative application successful. But simply copying Tennessee's application and letting the federal government dictate how we run our schools is not innovation. What works in Nashville won't necessarily work in Nashwauk. Minnesotans need to figure out what works best for Minnesota. It will require a creative approach, hard work and a team effort.

We support a rigorous system of evaluating teachers that uses multiple measures to gauge effectiveness, not just test scores. We also support a thorough re-examination of Minnesota's system of education funding. A demonstrated dedication to adequate, ongoing funding is one of the benchmarks of Race to the Top that few people talk about. Long after the Race to the Top program is gone, Minnesota will need a funding system that is equitable, sustainable, predictable and sufficient.

Education Minnesota is absolutely dedicated to the best interests of our students. We're committed to moving boldly, with proven methods, to close the achievement gap, and we're calling on everyone else involved to do the same.

Winston Churchill once said "it is no use saying 'we are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary." It's necessary for our state to eliminate the achievement gap. The question is whether Minnesota has the political will to do so.

Tom Dooher is president pf Education Minnesota, the teachers' union.