Date: January 29, 2004
Subject: House Education Policy Committee Hearing, Part III

Here are the remainder of my notes on the January 27 meeting.

Glenn Gruenhagen, member of the Glencoe-Silver Lake School school board, spoke in support of standards, making points in favor of memorization and knowledge as a foundation for higher-order thinking.

Jason Sellars, a social studies teacher at Eagan High School, supports standards in general, but also pointed out various areas for improvement in, and withheld support for, the draft standards. Sellars's Advanced Placement government class was present to observe his testimony.

Ellen Delaney, curriculum director for the North St. Paul/Maplewood-Oakdale school district, and Jenni Norlin-Weaver, curriculum director for the Edina school district, reprised their objections to the standards in the Senate for the House committee. Academic Standards committee member Holly Dunsmore refuted the claim that no curriculum exists for the geography approach used by the new standards, but it was unclear whether Dunsmore was referring to supplemental materials or textbooks.

I was not able to stay at the hearing long enough to hear the remaining scheduled speakers, which included:

  • Lisa Norling, University of Minnesota professor of history, who signed the history professors' letter that is critical of the standards
  • Eunice Slager and Ellen Young, from Parents United for Public Schools
  • Dr. Jean Lubke, director of curriculum and instruction for Eden Prairie Schools
  • Michael Chapman, EdWatch
  • Wendy Swanson-Choi, Eagan parent and education activist


Date: January 28, 2004
Subject: House Education Policy Committee Hearing, Part II

Here is the second installment of my notes on the January 27 meeting.

Peggy Smith, Minnesota PTA, said that the standards are “unacceptable,” claimed that the standards would result in “civic disengagement,” there is too much content, and diversity is missing. Rep. Wardlow said that he agreed with Smith’s and others’ assertion that not enough public school teachers were included in the process – until he discussed the concern with teachers in his House district. He concluded that the process was sound, and has in fact taken into account the legitimate concerns of teachers.

Tiphanie Copeland, public high school student, humbly and sincerely delivered perhaps the most insolent comments of the day. Although it was awkward, everyone seemed to chalk it up to youthful indiscretion. After co-witness Alexandra (no last name given) made an appeal to include people of color in the standards, Copeland proceeded to call Commissioner Yecke and the entire Academic Standards Committee “ignorant,” citing David Buller’s earlier use of the term “oriental (Asian, please)” and criticizing the use of the term “African slaves” instead of “enslaved Africans” in the standards. She also promised that the voters will “hold you [the Legislature] accountable” for the academic achievement of Minneapolis public school students. (Memo to the Legislature: please add Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People somewhere in the Examples column!)

Rep. Davnie led the witness by recalling the night of the public hearing at Saint Paul Central High School, during which a racial census was taken of the Academic Standards Committee in attendance. Rep. Davnie asked Copeland what she thought of the statement by a committee member who identified himself as a person of color: “pink with brown spots.” The committee member in question, Colin Wilkinson, was seated in the line of sight of Rep. Davnie, and rose to comment. Wilkinson said that his comment that night was a joke, directed to Rep. Davnie personally, to point out that skin pigmentation is a ridiculous and irrelevant criterion for members of the committee. Wilkinson said we should judge each other not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Rep. Sykora and Rep. Carlson praised and thanked Copeland and Alexandra for their testimonies.

James Tracy, professor of history at the University of Minnesota, presented his letter and the letter circulated by English professor Daniel Ritchie of Bethel College in support of the standards.

King Banian, economics professor at Saint Cloud State University, provided a lively testimony in favor of the standards in general and economics education specifically. “Just as we economists believe that students understand history and social science better with greater economic literacy,” wrote Banian in his prepared remarks, “so too should we admit that students who understand history, mathematics, English and the rest of the social science spectrum will be more economically literate. I therefore not just support the economics portion of these standards but the entire content-rich benchmarks laid out in all the areas of these standards.”

Mark Western, a social studies teacher at Hayfield High School, supported the standards cheerfully and enthusiastically, proudly citing his membership in Education Minnesota. “For the past decade,” he said, “teachers have been pulling their hair out and saying to the state, ‘Don’t tell us how to teach, we are professionals. Tell us what to teach and we will do our job.’ These proposed standards do just that.”


Date: January 28, 2004
Subject: Correction

I misreported Paul Seeba's comments in the previous posting. I regret the error. Here is the message I received from him today:

Mr. Abe:

Please do not misquote me. My words were that, "Providence Academy wound up in the back of the pack." You stated that Providence wound up in 4th place on your website (1-27). This is your invention and it is a lie. I hope your are an honorable individual and clear this up. I think I clearly stated that the top schools in the debate style I coach were public. It has been this way for a number of years.

Paul Seeba

Date: January 27, 2004
Subject: House Ed Policy Committee Hearing, Part I

Like its Senate counterpart, the science session of the hearing went overtime, so the social studies session began a little late (around 12:30 pm). Unlike Friday's gloomy overcast sky, today's clear arctic blue sky provided a striking contrast for the bright white Minnesota Capitol dome and its golden Quadriga sculpture.

The House hearing room in 200 State Office Building is very different from the Senate hearing room in 15 Capitol. The latter is round and elegant, the former is square, with a small extra seating area behind the witness table. The Senate room has a semi-circular arc for a table, the House room has a square U-shaped table. The Senate room is on one level with moveable upholstered chairs, while the House version features fixed theatre-style seating for the observer and witness galleries. The Senate room is lighter and more spacious, with a dome ceiling that sweeps to the M window, while the House room has a conventional ceiling, and its much larger committee is seated closer together, at some places on both sides of the table. The ten-member Senate Education Committee is chaired by Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, while the 31 members of the House Ed Policy Committee are led by Barb Sykora, R-Excelsior. Even entering the House hearing room, with its "air lock" set of solid doors, has an immediately different feel from entering the windowed doors of the Senate hearing room.

These contrasts foreshadowed an intense afternoon of testimonies and questions.

There were about 30 in the observer gallery, plus a large class of AP politics students from Eagan High School who accompanied their teacher, one of the witnesses. There were 10 or 12 committee members seated in the small witness gallery, including Commissoner Yecke and MDE staff. The audience dwindled as the afternoon wore on, and a few of the DFLers were absent during much of the mid-afternoon testimony. Most of the committee appeared to be in attendance.

Rep. Sykora called the meeting back to order after the lunch break. She warned committee members and witnesses about the large number of scheduled testimonies (24), and stated her intent to keep things moving. Later in the afternoon, she moved up the testimonies of out-of-town witnesses, and asked for volunteers to postpone their testimonies until the committee's next hearing, lest the meeting last "until ten o'clock."

Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke opened the session by presenting the January 15 draft of the social studies standards, which incorporates "technical changes" such as typographical corrections, from the December "final draft." Four Academic Standards Committee members followed the Commissioner:

David Lanegran, chair of the geography standards writing committee and Macalester College professor of geography, endorsed the standards with an emphasis on the geography portion.

David Buller presented a thorough rebuttal to the major objections raised by opposition groups to date.

Colin Wilkinson spoke off-the-cuff on the importance of teaching the history of our country, in order to preserve our liberty.

Todd Flanders, headmaster at Providence Academy, spoke in favor of the content-heavy standards, providing evidence that he has seen it work at his school. When asked whether he would implement the standards at Providence, he replied that Providence is already teaching much of what is in the proposed standards.

The social studies minority report was presented by signers Paul Seeba, Mark Doepner-Hove, and Jack Brady. It was announced that two more committee members have signed the letter, Joe Trepanier (teacher) and Amy Davis (parent), and that one was ill and could not attend the hearing. Doepner-Hove reprised his emphatic pragmatic objections to the volume of standards, saying that the standards as written are more suitable to an Advanced Placement class (which he teaches), and/or a two-year period of time. Seeba's most memorable comment was an irrelevant cheap shot at the fourth-place Providence Academy debate team, which was received in shocked silence by the committee. Brady thoroughly condemned the standards as developmentally inappropriate and having too many benchmarks. He also defended the Expanding Horizons framework for geography, which is not used in the standards.

Rep. Seifert asked Doepner-Hove for specific suggestions about what to add, change or delete. Doepner-Hove replied that he would scrap the entire standards document and start over. Rep. Sykora replied that doing so would be pointless, simply producing another document that various groups would have objections to, which is the situation today.

Rep. Jeff Johnson spoke to the group's assertion that teachers were not sufficiently represented or included in the process. He said that some teachers he has spoken with love them, and others hate them; therefore, he is dubious that bringing more teachers into the process would necessarily bring us closer to consensus on the standards.

Rep. Buesgens, whose brother, a public school teacher, served on the Academic Standards Committee, asked why the minority report was not signed by more of the teachers on the committee. Seeba replied, in essence, that the committee was stacked with sympathizers to the Commissioner.

The main event turned out to be the testimony of Paul Spies, co-founder of Minnesotans Against Proposed Social Studies Standards. Spies was well-prepared with a "report card" handout for the proposed standards, which he presented with large flash cards. When Rep. Sykora called "time," Spies asked for and received additional time to finish the report card, which he did. Then he started to present his case for how the composition of the Academic Standards Committee was stacked toward conservative Republicans, even presenting a study of the campaign contributions of the members of the committee. At this point Rep. Sykora interrupted Spies, "We are discussing the standards. We are not bringing politics into this, you are," and asked Spies to restrict his remarks to the standards themselves.

Rep. Jeff Johnson observed that the name Minnesotans Against Proposed Social Studies Standards indicates bias, and suggested that a failing report card from the group is a foregone conclusion.

Rep. Seifert again asked for specifics to add, change, or delete, saying that they need to begin looking at the standards in detail, "the train is leaving the station" with the legislative session beginning next week. Rep. Sykora reiterated this point, saying that report cards and general complaints are well and good, but the committee needs specific solutions to the alleged problems.

Rep. Sykora thanked Spies for appearing before the committee, acknowledging that he had "quite a long ride." I didn't notice how long his "ride" was, but it seemed like he was in the hot seat for at least 20 minutes.


Date: January 23, 2004
Subject: Senate Hearing

I arrived at the Capitol complex and made my way through the catacombs between the State Office Building and the Capitol in time to meet the people coming out of the morning (science) session of the Senate Education Committee hearing on the Academic Standards. Supporters of the minority report seemed satisfied that their case was heard and points made. Since they adjourned late for lunch, the social studies session was moved back 30 minutes to 1:30 pm (it was called to order at 1:40 pm).

Sen. Kelley presided over the hearing, with Senators Skoe, Olson, Ranum, Michel, Stumpf, and Wergin in attendance. In addition, several members of the new Youth Advisory Council sat at the committee table and were given the same opportunity to ask questions as the Senators on the committee.

The hearing room in Capitol 15 is the large circular room directly under the rotunda. The glass "M" design in the rotunda floor appear as windows in the ceiling of the hearing room. The center of the room features a full-color state seal design in the carpet. It is a relatively plain yet elegant room, and as Sen. Kelley mentioned, the largest Senate hearing room at the Capitol. The Senators on the committee sit at a large semicircular table, as many city councils do, facing the testimony table and audience. The session is recorded on video and audio, in addition to any media present.

I mention all of this because this was the first legislative hearing I have ever attended in person. It must be intimidating for just about any first-timer, especially when you know that the committee chairman is noparticularlyry friendly to your cause, and has stacked the agenda with like-minded testifiers (his prerogative, incidentally). I forgot to count heads, but the audience area was about filled to capacity, with several dozen seated.

After Commissioner Yecke's presentation, which basically followed her summary of the December 19 draft last month, the members of the committee introduced themselves and were allowed to give statements. Committee members speaking were:

David Lanegran, a geography professor who spoke to the geography standards' alignment with national standards

Denis Biagini, an assistant principal at Wayzata High School, who gave a general statement of support

John Brady and Holly Dunsmore, classroom teachers who disagreed about the grade school benchmarks (Brady opposed, Dunsmore supported)

David Buller, chairman of the social studies writing committee, who testified that as writing committee chair he subjected all benchmarks to reality checks ("Can you teach this?") by classroom teachers on the committee.

Marc Doepner-Hove and Paul Seeba, who presented the new social studies minority report signed by the same four teachers who signed the minority report on the first draft

Next to offer testimony:

Sen. Steve Dille spoke on concerns about a lack of microeconomic education in the standards.

The Association of Metropolitan School Districts was represented by Ellen Delaney and Jenni Norland-Weaver, who opposed the standards.

The Education Minnesota teachers' union was represented by its president, Judy Schaubach, who urged the legislature to "do it right" and pointed out that there is no federal deadline date for adopting the social studies standards.

The Minneapolis Public Schools were represented by its interim superintendent and former Speaker of the Minnesota House, Dave Jennings; and Dana Carmichael-Tanaka. The latter has been a vocal critic of the standards, saying on WCCO-TV that "Too many benchmarks in the proposed [first draft] standards tell us the Declaration of Independence trumps the Constitution...I see it [the Declaration of Independence] more as a divorce document. But it's not where we should take all of our guiding principles from—the Constitution is." Sen. Olson challenged Carmichael-Tanaka's strong assertion during testimony that civic participation was missing from the final draft standards, even citing the page number where it is in fact covered. Carmichael-Tanaka was momentarily speechless, then made a vague statement about objecting to the tone of the standard.

The Saint Paul Public Schools were represented by Toni Carter, who gave by far the most eloquent and respectful criticism of the standards, praising the geography and economics standards while recommending that their adoption be postponed pending concerns about the history and government & citizenship strands.

Mike Chapman spoke for EdWatch (formerly Maple River Education Coalition), urging adoption of the standards because they raise academic expectations, they are knowledge based, and they remove anti-American bias compared with the Profile of Learning (not "hate speech" against America, but a more subtle endorsement of socialist-style governments).

I had to leave around 4:20 pm, just as James Tracy from the University of Minnesota began his testimony in support of the standards, and before other standards opponents (Mankato Public Schools, Edina Schools, Parents United, Minnesota PTA, Mahmoud El-Kati, and Michael Boucher and Paul Spies from MAPSSS), and standards supporter Dan Ritchie from Bethel College, spoke. I am trying to obtain Tracy's and Ritchie's testimonies; they were two of the professors who circulated letters supporting the standards, ultimately signed by 50 college and university professors from across the state.

Rep. Barb Sykora's Ed Policy conducts its hearing on Tuesday.

With Education Minnesota, individual teachers, and school districts opposed to the standards in their current form, it will be a big challenge for the commissioner and standards supporters to find a politically-acceptable way get them through the Legislature, to say the least. That's just the cold reality at the Capitol. More on this later.


Date: January 23, 2004
Subject: Professors' Public Praise

Almost immediately after posting the entire text of the letter of support from history, economics, and geography professors, it became the most popular page on my web site, even more popular than the home page or this blog. Until now, the home page and this blog have always been the most popular pages on the site. I am not sure how everyone found this page, but welcome everyone! Yesterday the letter was linked to from two blogs from "The Northern Alliance," Fraters Libertas and SCSU Scholars. The latter blog also linked to the second letter, from professors outside the social sciences.

By the numbers:

Number of history, economics, and geography professors who signed the letter of support: 24
Number of professors outside the social sciences who signed the letter of support: 26
Number of U of M history professors who signed the letter opposing the social studies standards: 32

Today Sen. Steve Kelley (DFL-Hopkins) holds his hearings on the science and social studies standards. Details later; as of morning rush hour, the highways that criss-cross the Twin Cities are creepin' and beepin' under a light snow, so just getting the Capitol in time will be interesting. I have posted the science minority report on the web site, in case you missed it. Science standards writing committee member Dave Eaton will be presenting it to Sen. Kelley this morning. (There is no minority report for the social studies standards.)


Date: January 9, 2004
Subject: Limbo

The Academic Standards in Science and Social Studies were released to the public last month as reported on my main web site. The announcement occurred in the press conference room on the first floor of the State Office Building, across the hall from the Secretary of State's office (speaking of whom, Secretary Kiffmeyer made a brief appearance to check up on us before the conference started). Conveniently for the press, this room is equipped with built-in TV lights, which were turned on as we stood beside Commissioner Yecke during the conference.

The big question now, during this state of limbo before the legislative session begins in February, is whether the Legislature will vote the standards up, down, or in between (tinker with them before passing them). Tinkering would be a mistake. It's a short session. If the House or Senate opens up the standards, they open up a can of worms, a political hot potato, a Pandora's box, pick your metaphor. The standards documents (science and social studies) are consensus documents in their current form. They will be subject to review in four year cycles. The Legislature should approve them as written, and put them to the test in the schools.

As you may have heard, Sen. Kelley will be convening a hearing of his Education Policy Committee on Friday, January 23 to discuss the standards. There have also been rumblings about the Senate confirmation of Commissioner Yecke's appointment (as well as the appointments of other Pawlenty commissioners) being less than a sure thing. Throw in the debates over funding for not one, not two, but three stadiums, and it will be a busy "short" session.