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COMMENTARY: Education needs reform

The new movie, "Waiting for Superman," is destined to bring renewed focus on American schools. As usual, the blame for failures and shortcomings falls on poor teachers, teacher training, unions, tenure and parents. The movie does suggest some changes and solutions. Perhaps the best suggestion is to find those things that work and give them broader use.

If we look at these areas more closely, the analysis is not always accurate or complete. Colleges and universities can do more, but they have been making changes and improvements in teacher training. Recruiting teachers from the upper levels of students could also improve the quality of the teachers entering the profession.

Unions are often blamed for protecting poor teachers and blocking reform. In fact, unions are often in the forefront of educational change and reform and primarily work to protect the rights of the teachers they represent. Finland, a country where teachers are nearly totally unionized, ranks above the US and the states with the best performance on our tests are the states with the strongest unions.

As for tenure, teachers have no protection in most states during their first three years. During this period they can be released for no reason. After they earn tenure, they can be released for cause, such as failure to meet standards, follow improvement programs and show improvement, or on moral grounds. In addition, they can be released based on reduced enrollment or need. If poor teachers are retained, the cause is usually poor supervision, in-service training, or lack of a program of evaluation. Often the failure is due to overworked and undertrained supervisors. Principals are charged with being educational leaders, but spend most of their time on paperwork and discipline. In addition, many schools lack personnel charged with curriculum development and teacher training.

One of the suggestions often made is the use of charter schools. Because there are fewer rules and more freedom of staffing and instruction, they are often cited as being outstanding choices and a good option to give opportunity to students "trapped in poor schools." Interestingly, the lack of rules and supervision of charter schools has led to many abuses. The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes found only 17 percent did a better job than comparable public schools, while more than a third did significantly worse. In Texas, for example, 80 percent of the public school students passed the state achievement tests, but only 37 percent of the charter school students passed.

One major problem facing schools in our area is the lack of broadband and the ability to share instructors and courses. Nearly a thousand households in Hubbard County do not have broadband available and where it is available, it is only 11 percent of recommended upload speed and less than 50 percent in download speed. In other areas, speeds are as much as 20 times faster than what is available to our schools and businesses. Brita Sailer has been active in the fight to bring adequate broadband to us.

Senator Rod Skoe, who chairs the tax committee, Senator Mary Olson and Representative Brita Sailer represent some of the neediest schools in the state and have worked to provide necessary support. Meg Bye shares these priorities. Mark Dayton has made educational finance a keystone of his campaign. They all understand that reform and improvement require funding to be successful. Now is not the time to cut 1.8 billion dollars from our schools, nor to delay the repayment of our education funding until 2014. This would continue the increases in property taxes to make up for lack of support in the governor's office.

Norm Leistikow is chair of the Hubbard County DFL.