#853 – Dick Bernard: An Opportunity to Talk With (not At, or Down to) Public Education, past, present, future

This morning, while waiting for my car to be serviced, I noted the Business Section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Leafing through it I came across an article by Chuck Slocum, about two personages involved in Public Education policy in Minnesota in the early 1980s. The article is headlined: Minnesota Education Duo: 3M CEO Lew Lehr and [then Minnesota Governor] Rudy Perpich.
Back home, my wife, a retired 3Mer, noted the article, and I said I’d already read it. “Interesting article”, she said.
Indeed. Interesting.
I know Mr. Slocum, not as well as I’d like to, and he’ll be specifically noticed by myself when I publish this blog, as will all of the people I can identify within public education, including the “education establishment” and retired, not only in Minnesota.
My career was in MN public education – primarily as teacher union staff (MEA, now Education Minnesota).
Mr. Slocum references a 1984 Study by the Minnesota Business Partnership (MBP): “Educating Students for the 21st Century”. My file copy of this now near-30 year old report can be read in its entirety here: MBP 1984 Education001 (Here is one page that I missed making the aforementioned pdf: MBP 1984 58 businesses002)
I first heard reference to this Study at a meeting of MEA Staff about November of 1984, and was last involved with it in about August of 1985.
In 2005 I dusted off the report, sent copies of it to the Minnesota Public Education establishment of the time, and urged them, as I am again urging them, and MBP et al, “that this might be an excellent opportunity to review the [now 30] years since the MBP report, and perhaps even get into dialogue about what happened, and didn’t happen, and why. (There were lots of dreams, and my suggestion was to look at the reality of what happened in the intervening years.)
From 1984 to today, and indeed before 1984, it has been my observation that the establishment, in this case, Big Business, and Public Education leaders, are better at declarations and positioning than dialogue, and as a result, fences go up, rather than walls come down about how best to do public education which is, after all, about children and their future in our society.

A little personal history:
Back in 1984, as Mr. Slocum might similarly recall, the process went like this, for me.
We learned about this report at a Union staff meeting. It had been published, and we were immediately put into a reactive mode against it.
I personally challenged our knee-jerk reaction at the union staff meeting in question, and afterwards called the Business Partnership and asked if I could have 50 copies of the report to take home to my Iron Range locals.
The answer was yes, and I recall going to the MBP office in the IDS Center in downtown Minneapolis to pick up the box of reports. Mr. Slocum came out of his office; I took the reports home, and gave them to my teacher leaders, who were far less than pleased with the indictment they felt against their work with students. Over the coming months there were some tiny and unsuccessful attempts at dialogue, including at the then-MEA Summer Leadership Conference in the summer of 1985.
But these attempts were perfunctory.
You don’t do dialogue past monologues, unilateral declarations, or fighting issues in the newspaper.
As stated, 20 years later, I tried again to encourage dialogue. I didn’t hear a thing from anybody.
Most recently, four years ago, by accident, I happened across an MBP official at a meeting. He and I had tried to facilitate a conversation about the MBP Report at a teacher meeting back in 1985. I was glad he came to the gathering at a Minneapolis hotel; but it wasn’t the time for a civil conversation. The bitterness of the teachers was too close to the surface.
It happened that in the 2010 conversation, conversation quickly turned to the latest clearly business centered initiative, to get rid of “bad” teachers, and essentially gut seniority and disempower unions. There was a petition going around….
The beat continues.
Mr. Slocum, in a conversation in recent years, said he and MBP were “proud” of what they did in 1984. And perhaps the pride was justified.
But it all fell apart because it was a talking down to, rather than dialoguing with, the institution they were criticizing.
Maybe they’re still proud.
I hope the folks talk….
We have eight grandkids in Minnesota public schools.
Not long ago one of them, a 9th grade boy, said he couldn’t read handwriting.
This led to a realization that kids weren’t taught cursive handwriting any more. This puzzled me. I still handwrite letters I think are most “important”.
Very recently I was visiting with a middle school administrator who affirmed that they don’t teach much handwriting any more. The reasons given: computer keyboards are the way to communicate, but even more important, the dominance of testing, which makes subjects like handwriting a frill.
This troubles me….

2 replies
  1. Leila Whitinger
    Leila Whitinger says:

    If there had ever been an intent to improve public education, it would have been easy to discuss this issue with them. It never was, nor were they ever interested in what public educators had to contribute to the issue.
    I was teaching in Michigan when the first attacks on Public Education started. I don’t remember who it was who informed us that it had less to do with our successes or failures than it did with money. The anti-public education forces had noticed an industry that was ripe for picking. Why shouldn’t they make a profit from an industry that already exists?
    The attacks were a marketing ploy, pure and simple. They had show how poorly our system was working in order to have anyone consider alternatives. Their goal was, and continues to be, the destruction of a non-profit public educational system. Only then can they continue to make profits out of an increasting market share of “customers.”

    • admin
      admin says:

      Thanks for the response. I agree. I think this all started close on the heels of “A Nation at Risk” (1983) which may have had some reasonable intentions at the beginning, but was soon co-opted by the anti-public education forces. The 1984 booklet is a worthwhile starting point to analyze what happened from 1984 on.


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