by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter
Bring a group of elite teachers to a legislative committee and things can get passionate.
“What an answer,” Senate Education Committee Chairman Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, uttered after Lee-Ann Stephens of the St. Louis Park School District, 2006 Teacher of the Year, lit up the room with her forceful depiction of life as a black educator.
“It’s exhausting. But it’s what I do every day,” Stephens said of climbing the educational ranks and yet being followed while shopping.
To discuss race — something the students at St. Louis Park High School do daily, Stephens said — people need to “get on the other side of fear.” And her students are the “myth busters,” she said.
Stephens was one of six former Teachers of the Year appearing before the Senate Committee Nov. 14.
Also around the table were Teacher of the Year winners Jackie Roehl (2012 winner), who teaches English at Edina High School; Katy Smith (2011) of Winona; Ryan Vernosh (2010) of St. Paul; Derek Olson (2008), known as “Mr. O” to Stillwater elementary students; and Michael Smart (2007) of Intermediate District 287, a consortium of 12 west metro school districts.
The award-winning educators discussed and analyzed many issues.
Olson spoke of teacher evaluations. It’s a myth, he said, that teachers don’t want to be evaluated. They’re not afraid, he said.
What’s the point, though, of evaluating teachers and gathering data if it’s not used to advance education, he said. Evaluations should involve more than weeding out bad teachers, he said; it should produce better ones.
Roehl, in her comments, defended the common core curriculum in her discipline, bringing in social issues relevant to students. There’s a need for it, Roehl explained.
Only about 5 percent of high school students are aware of the Dakota War of 1862, though the battle ground was the very land on which Edina High School was built, she said.
“The death of literature isn’t happening because of common core,” Roehl said.
The achievement gap, the academic lagging of student of color behind white students, loomed over the discussion.
The gap exists, Stephens said, and the idea that it simply reflects an unalterable reality is merely a washing of hands of the issue. Stephens spoke of the soft bigotry of low expectations.
“The achievement gap begins at birth,” said Smith, who works in early childhood education.
Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, questioned whether focusing on the gap and the interplay of academic, race and culture helped sustain it. Stephens sharply disagreed. People are created equal, Vernosh said, not treated equal.
“There is no one silver bullet,” he said of solving the achievement gap.
There is urgency, though. By 2020, 74 percent of all jobs will require post-secondary education. People of color constitute the growing population of Minnesota, he explained, yet in terms of college readiness, these students lag behind their peers.
Tim Budig is at [email protected].