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Minnesota Poll: Even Split on School Standards

Minnesotans are split down the middle about whether the state should mandate specific facts that have to be taught to students.

The latest Minnesota Poll shows that 45 percent of 821 Minnesota adults polled by telephone Jan. 15 to 20 think the state needs to tell teachers that there are certain things they must teach Minnesota's kindergarten-through-12th grade students. Another 43 percent said the state's involvement should be restricted to setting general guidelines for what students should know. The remaining 12 percent had no opinion.

Just how much the state should be involved in what gets taught in the schools is a question being debated in the classroom and the Legislature. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires testing of children in several subject areas at many grade levels. To prepare for those tests, the state must draft learning requirements for all children in those subject areas.

Already approved last year by the Legislature are new requirements for what students need to know in language arts and math. The Legislature has just started to debate proposed new learning standards for science and social studies, even though there are no federal testing requirements for social studies.

A part of the debate involves how specific those standards need to be. Does the state need to make a detailed list of what kids need to know? Or should state education officials leave the specifics up to the schools, and merely set general guidelines?

Ann Moore, a 39-year-old housewife from Zimmerman, comes down on the side of facts. "The more facts they can learn in school, the better off they're going to be," she said.

Ron Johansson, a 56-year-old engineer from Stillwater, said he thinks kids need to know some facts. But he doesn't want the state to go overboard in telling teachers what they have to teach.

"I think it's easy to go too far and say, 'These are the 426 questions they have to be able to answer,' " said Johansson, who thinks the state should restrict itself to setting guidelines for learning. "Memorization per se is not very good. The principles that you're teaching them, and some logic on how to get information, are more important than specifics."

'We're in the middle'

Minnesota Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke said the new state standards combine parts of both approaches. "We're in the middle," she said. "There's obviously not a consensus to do one or the other. So the direction we're going, to combine the approaches, seems to be closer to a consensus than one or the other."

Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is concerned that the proposed standards making the rounds in the Capitol are too fact-filled, and that they don't leave enough flexibility for teachers to teach the way they think best. But Kelley said the difficulty of the poll question and the even-split poll results haven't helped him determine what Minnesotans think about the matter.

"I have a hard time getting a clear message from that," he said.

The split in the poll results is not always reflected in the demographic breakdown of the poll respondents. For instance, women, more than men, tend to favor the state having fact requirements for the classroom. Those with less education tend to like the fact approach better than college graduates, who prefer the more general guidelines approach. Democrats like the facts more than Republicans. And 54 percent of respondents aged 65 or over would go for the required fact approach, as opposed to 29 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24.

Rep. Barb Sykora, R-Excelsior, chairwoman of the House education policy committee, thinks she might have an answer for that last finding.

"The 18-to-24 age group was raised in an era when probably they talked more about feelings and attitudes than specific facts and learning," she said. "The older generation was probably raised at in a time when there was more emphasis on learning specific facts than how you felt about them."

Norman Draper is atndraper@startribune.com.

— Norman Draper
Minnesota Poll: Even split on school standards
Minnesota Star Tribune


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