Date: November 17, 2003
Subject: The long knives

The debate over the Academic Standards has gotten even more bitter and polarized over the past week.

On Saturday, the U.S. History subcommittee met and restored some of the specifics from the "examples" column into the benchmarks. On Sunday, Norm Draper of the Star Tribune, in his news report (not opinion) "Rewriting history is proving to be tricky," stated in the lead paragraph, "Minnesota teachers won't have a choice about whom and what they can teach now." Talk about a call to arms; I can almost see the letters to the editor this week. Yet later in the article, committee member Todd Flanders was quoted, "This whole thing is a process, and there is a give and take. There is reflection. There is deliberation."

Friday's Twin Cities Public Television show, "Almanac" featured American Indian activist Clyde Bellecourt repeating his comment that Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke is "scholastically retarded," and again called for the Senate to deny her confirmation next year.

Former Governor Arne Carlson crowed over Minnesota's outstanding National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in math, claiming vindication for the Profile of Learning, as everyone including the Department of Education fails to report the details about how the Profile of Learning was aligned with fuzzy national math standards and therefore the NAEP, so of course Minnesota's students score "high" on this test — look at what was measured (for more on the NAEP, see http://www.edwatch.org/ and click on Federal issues).

Liberal/progressive vs. conservative. Rote memorization and parroting of trivial factoids vs. higher order thinking. Slave-owning aristocratic white men who didn't want to pay their taxes vs. the conquered, subjugated, exploited, and enslaved.

I would expect and was prepared for the 2004 legislative hearings to be contentious, partisan, and even bitter. But the citizen standards writing process until then should be lively, interactive, and as Flanders said, characterized by give and take, reflection, and deliberation. Instead of coming to the table with constructive criticism and suggestions, opposition groups have brought out the long knives of identity politics, polarizing rhetoric, broad brush generalizations, and false dichotomies, starting with Rep. Jim Davnie's media appearances in September, when the first drafts were released.

As President John F. Kennedy said, "Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us." I dare say Kennedy would mourn the passing of the days of the "happy warrior" Hubert Humphrey and the nonpartisan Minnesota legislature.

I also wonder whether the Commissioner, a former history teacher who stands by her standards admirably and unequivocally, should be quite so out in front at the public hearings and in the media, when members of her quite capable staff could be deflecting the brickbats and taking a few of the lumps. As Christine Jax said famously, it's not her job to advocate for education, it's her job to implement the governor's education agenda. Yet what if she used her bully pulpit to gather together Education Minnesota, superintendents, principals, and school boards, present a ten-year vision for public education in Minnesota, and enlist their support in making it a reality? And what if in return she offered to go to bat for them at the legislature?