Policy Brief on S.F. 639

By Katherine A. Kersten, Distinguished Senior Fellow for Cultural Studies, Center of the American Experiment

Minnesota needs clear, rigorous and measurable education standards. High quality standards are necessary to prepare students for informed citizenship, higher education and work. They are also important for educational equity, because they set the same high expectations for all children. Recent federal legislation requires such standards, and makes them the foundation of a strong accountability system.

Minnesota students will be best served by standards that have a strong academic, as opposed to vocational focus. Today, around 80 percent of Minnesota high school graduates go on to some form of post-secondary study. Yet approximately one-third of students who enter the state’s public universities and colleges require one or more remedial courses. Challenging, well-organized standards can ensure that graduating seniors master a common body of knowledge, thereby reducing the need for costly, time-consuming remedial work.

Currently, the Minnesota Legislature is considering two bills that would repeal the failed Profile of Learning, and replace it with new standards. The bills are very different. The first, H.F.2 (which has been incorporated into the House Omnibus K-12 Education Bill), would authorize Education Commissioner Cheri Yecke to replace the Profile with rigorous, measurable, content-based standards in core academic subjects. The second, S.F. 639, which was authored by DFL Senator Steve Kelley and has been incorporated into the Senate’s omnibus K-12 education legislation, claims to technically repeal the Profile. But this bill would substitute standards based on the failed philosophy that produced the Profile’s shortcomings.

Though the S.F. 639 standards have been touted as new, they grow directly out of the Profile. In 2001, the Ventura administration began to revise the Profile in response to criticism from parents, teachers and national education organizations. CFL Commissioner Christine Jax set forth the plan for revision in her “Commissioner’s Action Plan for Refining the Profile of Learning,” dated March 2001. There, she stated that the revised standards would retain the Profile’s discredited philosophy, which is based on a “strong emphasis on applied learning” and a “minimal emphasis on content.”

The standards that resulted from the Ventura-era revision – now incorporated in S.F. 639 — are a wholly inadequate foundation for the education of Minnesota students. Though they include new content in some areas, these standards – like the Profile — are broad and vague, and emphasize process over specific content. They neglect core academic subjects, and have a strong applied and vocational focus. Many of the standards are not testable. In some cases, the S.F. 639 standards resemble the Profile so closely that they repeat it almost verbatim. (See attachment.)

The S.F. 639 standards’ flaws are summarized below:

(I) The standards give short shrift to vital aspects of core academic subjects.

  1. The standards are weak in reading, writing and literature. Reading challenging, high quality literature is an important foundation of good performance in higher education. Both the quantity and quality of literature that students read are crucial. Yet S.F. 639 would permit students to graduate without reading one novel in high school – much less any of the classics of American and British literature. The proposed high school writing standards are also inadequate to prepare students for college; they focus on technical, not academic writing. In an egregious omission, the standards require no formal study of the basics of English grammar.
  2. In many cases, the math standards are ambiguous or omit important material. The standards are weak in vital areas like high school algebra — the gateway to competence in subjects ranging from calculus and economics to engineering and biological sciences. In some areas, material is not well-integrated from one level of schooling to another. In others, like intermediate level chance and data analysis, standards are so ambiguous that teachers will be unsure what to teach for a high stakes test. The standards omit some important topics and under-emphasize others. For example, division of fractions is not mentioned explicitly, though addition, subtraction and multiplication of fractions are addressed. Conversion between measurement systems only appears in optional high school standards. S.F. 639 does not include standards for topics that are essential prerequisites for many post-secondary courses (higher algebra and trigonometry), though it does include optional standards for discrete mathematics and technical operations.
  3. The standards neglect the basics of American citizenship and history. To become responsible citizens, students must understand both American history and government. But S.F. 639’s social studies standards focus on vague processes (i.e., “how technology influences historical change”), not specific content. The standards do not require students to study fundamental principles of American democracy like federalism, the three branches of government, and the evolution of the Constitution. Likewise, the standards include nothing specific about America’s important historical leaders and events, or the ways in which our democracy compares to other systems of government around the world. Students can graduate knowing little or nothing about the American founders, the Civil War, the Great Depression or World War II.
  4. The standards neglect world history. Today’s students need a broad, integrated grasp of world history in order to understand the forces that have shaped the modern world. Yet the standards require the study of world history only in high school, and focus exclusively on process (i.e., “processes of change within societies including reform and revolution”). As a result, students may learn nothing about the ancient civilizations of Greece or Rome, the industrial revolution, or Islam and its influence on the contemporary world.
  5. The standards require almost no knowledge of geography. Given America’s role in the world, its citizens need a strong grasp of geography. The proposed standards — phrased in general terms — require no specific knowledge at all.

(II) The standards emphasize non-academic subjects, favoring applied learning and frequently adopting a narrow vocational focus.

  1. Students must spend an inordinate amount of time studying non-academic subjects like dance.S.F. 639 includes approximately 33 required standards for K-8 students in the area of dance. For instance, students in grades 7-8 must demonstrate understanding of choreographic principles like repetition, pattern, or unity, and choreographic structures like theme and variation. They must also understand “the connection between a work in dance, its purpose and its cultural and historical contexts.” By contrast, S.F. 639 includes only 10 standards for core subjects like world history and 13 for high school literature.
  2. Students must perform many vocationally oriented projects, including the following:
  •  Middle school students must work in teams to produce a product or service. Among other tasks, they must conduct a market survey, test their product’s cost-effectiveness, and evaluate their team’s effectiveness in managing human and non-human resources.
  •  Middle school students must also develop a “technological product.” This task includes developing procedures for “automation, tooling, safety and quality controls.”
  •  High school students must study business management in depth. Among many other tasks, students must demonstrate the ability to “analyze human resource functions, for example, recruitment and selection, employee development, employee evaluation, compensation, promotion, benefits and incentives, separation and transition, labor relations or work related laws.”
  •  High school students must also develop many other business-related skills. The following is typical: “A student shall demonstrate the ability to utilize information and technology tools to conduct business effectively and efficiently, for example, select appropriate technology tools for specific business applications, information management, marketing, organizational or environmental costs and analyzing the impact of e-business on profitability.”
  1. This heavy emphasis on applied and vocational learning is likely to handicap some college-bound students. Because of time-consuming vocational projects, students may find it difficult to take advanced courses in math, English or foreign languages or to specialize in art or music.

(III) The standards have an ideological agenda, and focus inordinately on “diverse perspectives” and environmental issues.

  1. The S.F. 639 standards require students to view people through the prism of race and sex. For example, high school students must “demonstrate an understanding of how race, culture, gender and disability may influence beliefs, actions, and world view.” Similarly, they must understand “how cultural diversity affects conflict and cohesion within and across groups and institutions.”
  2. While S.F. 639 neglects many aspects of core academic knowledge, it emphasizes the study of environmental issues in many disciplines. For example:
  •  Social Studies  Primary students must “identify, investigate, discuss and plan, based on wants and needs, how to improve the school, community, or environment.” Students in grades 4-6 must understand “how people of different regions and cultures interact with the environment.”
  •  Science – High school students must develop and give a rationale for “a personal action plan” designed to promote a solution to a “local or regional environmental issue.”
  •  Economics – High school students must “develop a resource management plan involving natural and managed systems,” prepare an environmental impact statement, and communicate their plan “to a jury of peers by simulating a public hearing and defending an evaluation of the proposed system.”

(IV) Many of the S.F. 639 standards are so broad and vague that they are untestable. 

Because the standards lack specifics, teachers will inevitably interpret them in different ways. As a result, consistent measurement of student performance will be impossible. Standards that can’t be measured are standards in name only.

The following standards illustrate the problem:

  1. Economics and technology – S.F. 639 requires students in grades K-3 to “demonstrate the ability to use tools, materials and equipment to explore medical technologies, agricultural and related biotechnologies, energy and power technologies, information and communication technologies, transportation technologies, manufacturing technologies or construction technologies.”
  2. Social Studies – students in grades 4-6 must “demonstrate an understanding of conflict, cooperation and interdependence among individuals, groups and nations through time.” High school students must “predict changes or trends in physical or cultural landscape based on changes in spatial patterns or other geographic information.”
  3. Arts and literature – High school students must “demonstrate an understanding of the connections between literature and other disciplines outside the arts, for example, mathematics, science or history.”
  4. Math – students in grades 4-6 must demonstrate the ability to “design an investigation to address a question” and “propose and justify conclusions and predictions based on data.”

(V) Measurement problems will be compounded by S.F. 639’s organization: its standards are clustered (K-3, 4-6, 7-8, 9-12), rather than clearly set forth grade by grade.

  1. Education organizations like the American Federation of Teachers have stated that standards should be organized grade by grade, so that knowledge builds from year to year in a coordinated way. With S.F. 639’s clustered K-8 standards, teachers lack clear expectations of what students are to learn and when they are to learn it. In the resulting confusion, both repetition and omission of material may occur.
  2. Without grade by grade standards, Minnesota education authorities will have difficulty developing the annual tests (grades 3-8) required by the federal government’s No Child Left Behind law. If the state’s new assessments fail to align well with the standards, Minnesota students and schools may be unfairly penalized.
  3. While S.F. 639 requires the education commissioner to supplement the standards with grade level benchmarks, these will do little to solve the problems that clustered standards pose in teaching and test development. The S.F. 639 standards were not designed to coordinate with grade-level benchmarks. As a result, it is unclear which of the benchmarks that have been proposed should go with each standard. Because of this mismatch, the suggested benchmarks are unlikely to be of much value in guiding instruction and assessment.

In sum, Minnesota needs education standards that serve two purposes. The standards should establish clear, rigorous expectations in core academic subjects for all the state’s students. They should also ensure objective and consistent assessment of students’ knowledge and skills, so that parents, colleges and employers can reliably assess students’ accomplishments.

The standards in SF 639 do neither of these things. The standards are broad and vague, focusing on process rather than content. In many cases, they do not set measurable expectations. As a result, these standards cannot form the basis of the educational accountability system that Minnesota needs.