Walz faces test results in second term
Minnesotans hoped that Tim Walz would become governor of education. He spent two decades in the classroom as a charismatic high school teacher and coach, and he’s married to an educator.
Certainly, Walz was committed and ready to deal with the emerging crisis in Minnesota schools.
What is the crisis? The state’s once-vaunted schools are stratified, with some boasting the highest ACT scores in the nation, while other schools leave students without basic literacy or numeracy.
The stratification is racial, with Black and Indigenous students being particularly vulnerable to system failures, even as students of color become a larger proportion of the student population each year.
Results of standardized tests published this week show no improvement and some declines, even compared to the historically bad year of 2021, when so many students were disadvantaged because they spent most of the school year at home. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the proportion of students proficient in reading has increased from 59% to 51%, while in mathematics, we have increased from 55% to 45%.
And our racial disparities are shameful: 20% of black students are proficient in math, while 31% are proficient in reading. The problem is equally severe among Native American and Latino students.
Here’s what Walz told me in 2019: “It is a reality that I understood well and said during the campaign that I would be judged and that I should be judged on how we close [those disparities]as long as we are given the tools, and I take that responsibility,” he said.
Well, here we are, Governor.
To be sure, there are mitigating factors: the pandemic has taken its toll on families, who face housing instability, food insecurity, rising crime in some places, racial trauma.
We struggle to recruit and retain teachers of colorwhich is likely hurting the academic performance of our black, indigenous, and Latino students.
The decision to keep children out of school during the worst of the pandemic was a failure. I have no doubt that Walz’s bona fide motivation was to keep students, their families, and teachers safe, and to prevent a worse epidemic from flooding our hospitals.
In retrospect, however, that was a mistake.
Admittedly, the evidence was mixed on the effect of school closures on transmission rates. In a COVID-19 school safety study, transmission rates among students in 11 North Carolina districts in person were lower than those among all people in those school districts and the state as a whole. In other words: keeping children out of school had no effect on COVID-19 rates.
A later study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that counties that opened with in-person learning saw an increase in case growth rate of 5 percentage points on average.
What is not debatable, however, as evidenced by proficiency exams, is that distance schooling has been an academic disaster for many students, and a social one as well.
Teenagers out of school, with nothing to do – how did we think that would turn out?
The academic and social damage caused by pandemic school closures will be felt for years, if not decades, to come.
My biggest concern right now: there’s a reason the first step of the famous 12 is to admit you have a problem, and I’m not sure it’s there yet.
Rather than stand at a podium and tell Minnesotans these results are unacceptable and that he’s going to focus on them, Walz was doing it at the State Fair the day the results came out. He didn’t make a statement at all. Walz’s Department of Education released the results the day the state fair opened. Their heavy jargon Press release on test results omits actual test results.
(I found it relatively straightforward to determine the proportion of my son’s elementary school students who are proficient in math: 27%).
Walz’s spokesperson sent me a statement on Friday: “As a parent and teacher for 20 years, education is and always has been my top priority. This report lays out what we already knew: that COVID presented immense challenges for students across the country,” he said.
He bragged about signing the biggest increase in education funding in 15 years and blamed inaction this year on the GOP-controlled state Senate.
Walz concluded, “I will continue to push for these investments because I know our schools can and should be the best in the country.”
Luckily for Walz, his opponent didn’t come up with a better plan. In fact, Scott Jensen has proposed eliminating the state income tax, which would leave him with no choice but to make drastic cuts in school funding, because Reformer journalist Michelle Griffith reported last week.
I don’t know what the solution is. Our teachers have endured two exhausting years, and we need to spend more money recruiting and retaining.
But I’m as sure as more money only won’t.
Walz’s most important legacy will be preparing the next generation of Minnesotans to lead the state into the future, and that will take a foundation of literacy and numeracy. We need to build citizens who understand our democratic birthright; educate them in problem solving and critical thinking skills that will help them meet the challenges that will plague a future Minnesota; and create lives full of meaning, hope for the future and empathy for their fellow human beings.
It is a political challenge of dizzying complexity. If Walz fails, however, his term as governor should be judged harshly.