Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Election Analysis.  It was a busy primary night around Minnesota.  With the votes now cast, everything points toward the November general election and after a bit of a breather, I can only imagine how fast and furious things will be from Labor Day on through to election day.

There are usually some big surprises on primary night, but it's hard to see that there were many last evening.  My eyebrows went up a bit over Rick Nolan's relatively healthy margin in the 8th congressional district primary and while I never knew which horse to bet on in the Quist/Parry battle in the 1st congressional district, Quist's winning margin of over 8 percentage points surprised me as well.

In terms of legislative races, the one everyone was watching was in the Republican primary in Senate District 33, where State Representative Connie Doepke squared off against endorsed candidate David Osmek.  This was a hard fought battle, with Osmek coming out on top by 107 votes, which translated into a margin of about two percentage points.

Just down the road, there was also a highly-watched primary with incumbent Senator Julianne Ortman facing Bruce Schwichtenberg (take that spell check) in the Senate District 47 Republican primary.  Senator Ortman is the current chair of the Senate Tax Committee and most observers were surprised when she was denied her party's endorsement last spring by Schwichtenberg.  Last night, Ortman bested Schwichtenberg by just over 16 percentage points resulting from a 610 vote difference.

These two races showed a couple of things to me.  First, the outer ring metropolitan area districts are becoming extremely interesting (and more conservative) politically.  These are conservative districts that have been represented by solid conservatives.  While Senate District 33 changed fairly dramatically in reapportionment, Senate District 47 was less so affected.  What surprised me is that both Doepke and Ortman were assailed as not being conservative enough for their districts by their detractors.

The question will be out there as to why of the two incumbent legislators (although one was moving to a different seat) why did Ortman survive and Doepke come up short?  To me, the two factors central to the discussion are the nature of the reapportioned districts and the endorsement process.  Senate District 33 (Doepke versus Osmek) is a district that appears to be bifurcated between older, more established communities and communities that have expanded rapidly over the past two decades.  Representative Doepke carried the more established end of the district and Osmek the other half.  I don't have the demographics in front of me, but I'm guessing that in terms of per capita income, wealth, and age, these two ends of the district are markedly different.  All conservative (I think a Democrat ever winning this seat would be a sure sign of the endtimes), but different shades of the same color (that would be red). On the other hand, I believe Senator Ortman's district is a bit more monolithic in nature.

The other element in play is that of the endorsement.  It's important to remember that Osmek was endorsed by the Republican Party in Senate District 33 while the Senate District 47 Republican convention did not produce an endorsed candidate.  The endorsement process gets beat up quite a bit these days, with more and more people calling for their elimination and replacement with a primary system.  One can argue whether or not the endorsement was key to Osmek's victory, but I have a hard time believing that it did not give him a heightened legitimacy that helped boost his chances.  In the Ortman/Schwichtenberg race--with no endorsement--Schwichtenberg lacked a tool that would have elevated him against an incumbent.

Does this constitute for all of the difference?  No.  But I believe these two factors are the ones on which the races swung.

I would argue that the DFL endorsement in the 8th congressional district played a significant role in Rick Nolan's victory, especially in a three-way race.

I'm sure my theory could be disputed.  There are races where the endorsed candidate lost (Tom Dimond in Senate District 67, although it must be noted that the candidate whom Dimond defeated for the endorsement--incumbent Senator John Harrington--did not run after failing to garner the DFL endorsement).  But it looks like party endorsement meant a lot more this year than it has in the recent past.

There's always a great election story out there and I think this is my favorite one from primary night.  In Senate District 46, candidate Paul Scofield endorsed his opponent Roger Champagne during a League of Women Voters debate in late July.  Scofield had actually attempted to withdraw from the race, but missed the deadline for being removed from the ballot.  Despite his efforts to lose, Scofield won.

Here's the news story: 

And here are all the election results:

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Teacher Evaluation Hits the Big-time.  Not much new in this article from The Christian Science Monitor, but it does provide a solid synopsis of the many angles surrounding the issue and does so in a balanced manner.  As I've written in the past, I think the problem with putting to much stress on student performance as part of the evaluation process, the temptation will be to reduce it to a flat two-dimensional tool, which won't serve students well and will likely chase a lot of highly-motivated and highly-qualified people out of the profession.  As this article states, teaching is as much an art as it is a science and providing a comprehensive education goes beyond the simple churning out of test scores.

At the same time, this article provides a very good description of the kind of teacher-improvement models that work and the examples are illuminating.


Bullying Report Released.  As regular readers of this blog readily know, I'm not immune to the occasional smart-aleck remark, but when it comes to the subject of bullying, there really isn't anything mildly humorous that can be said.  Clearly acts committed by students against other students, while often not overtly violent in a physical sense, are causing untold damage throughout the state and nation. I can think of several examples of tragedy that have occurred in SEE member districts and the pain these incidents have caused in those communities.

In reaction to the rise in bullying, the Minnesota Department of Education convened a working group this summer and the final report of the group was released on August 1.  The report offers comprehensive recommendations, but the question will always be, "Will these recommendations serve as solutions?"  This is an extremely complex issue, as there is a difference between misbehavior and harassment and trying to determine which behaviors fall on the appropriate sides of that line will be a difficult task for school administrators.

There will also be a question of costs as they relate to training of staff and students and reporting to the Minnesota Department of Education and with schools already underfunded, finding the resources to put together a comprehensive anti-bullying program will be difficult.

Even with these impediments, this issue has risen to the level of importance that it is virtually assured that something will be done to stem the damages by improving school environments during the 2013 session.

Here is a link to the report (downloadable):

Beth Hawkins' MinnPost article:

Monday, August 13, 2012

Back to the Blog.  The annual MSBA and MDE/MASA conferences are a signal that summer is over in the educational lobbying biz.  I want to congratulate both organizations on putting together valuable programs again this summer.  Great speakers and presentations to kick off preparations for the 2012-2013 school year and the chance for me to see SEE superintendents and school board members in a relaxed environment.

One thing that stood out to me, especially at the MDE/MASA conference was all the talk about the Finnish education system.  Talk of the Finnish system has increased dramatically over the past couple of years, largely in reaction to what is being viewed as an American education system that has become too test intensive.  I don't have all the information on the Finnish system, but there's a lot of literature out there describing the differences in teacher preparation/qualifications and relative lack (almost absence) of testing that exist between Finland and the rest of the developed world.

Here is a link to the book Finnish Lessons:  What Can the World Learn from Education Change in Finland? by Pasi Salberg.  


I've also included a link to Diane Ravitch's review of Finnish Lessons from the March 8, 2012, edition of The New York Review of Books.  For those of you not familiar with Diane Ravitch, she is an influential education historian who broke with the group calling for greater accountability through testing and choice and has since become critical of those methods for improving American education.  Ravitch will be presenting at the Education Minnesota fall conference in October.


Noted education innovation author Tony Wagner gave a great presentation at the MDE/MASA conference, much of it springing from his latest book, Creating Innovators:  The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.  The only problem I see in this discussion (and it's a big problem) is that changing the system in the way advocated by Wagner is that it is going to cost considerably more--at least in my estimation--than what the system costs right now.  There may be ways to mitigate these financial challenges, but it will take other contributions from the community to do that.  From my perspective, greater investment--across all resources--is warranted if we are going to truly have the educational system we need to retain our station as the world's strongest economy and the works of Salberg and Wagner will help frame the discussion of what we need.


How I Spent My Summer Vacation.  I don't golf.  I don't fish.  My kids are grown. I'm too old to play the 100+ games of slow-pitch softball I did in my prime.  So, my summers now pretty much boil down to mowing the lawn and reading (and a little too much Netflix).  I'm going to use these early blog entries to provide a review or two of some of the things I've read this summer.

I'd like to start with a brief review of Robert Pierce Forbes' The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America.  This is a really great book at several different levels.  First and foremost, it is excellent history.  I've always found the antebellum era to be the most compelling period of American history.  The founders laid the groundwork for the American Experiment, but it was the following two generations that put into practice systems based on those founding principles.  We can argue whether or not those generations were true to the founders' vision (just like we can argue about how more recent generations are faring with this effort), but judging the results of those efforts are, in my estimation, central to understanding of our political culture, both then and now.

Forbes accomplishes several things mightily in his narrative.  First, he provides a very concise portrait of fifth president James Monroe and the juggling act Monroe performed during the discussion of the future of slavery in the early republic.  Monroe doesn't rise to the fore when the relative greatness of American presidents is gauged, but Forbes' portrait provides fodder for a reassessment of Monroe's standing.

Forbes also provides insight on the absolute centrality the discussion of slavery had in the early republic.  While pedestrian interpretations of American history often equate slavery with mere sectionalism, Forbes digs deeper to show how the slavery issue--and by extension, racial politics--was a debate that was not monolithic within the various regions of the nation.  In this discussion, Forbes ably lays out the role of early purveyors of "party spirit," particularly Martin van Buren.

The part of the book I found most interesting as someone who follows the legislative process is Forbes' description in the early chapters of the book regarding the process by which the two Missouri Compromises were passed in 1820 and 1821.  Issue-by-issue, vote-by-vote, personality-by-personality, Forbes dissects the debates surrounding both the first and second Missouri compromises and the passage of the legislation that brought these discussions into law.  What I found particularly interesting was the discussion of the fluidity of Congress in the early 19th century, with members sliding back and forth between the state and federal governments.  Forbes does a marvelous job describing "how a bill becomes a law--Antebellum Style."  It's not the version we watched on "Schoolhouse Rock."

Here's a link to the book.  If you're either a history of political science buff, it's well worth the time.