Walz needs to confront test scores in his second term

August 29, 2022 6:00 am

Gov. Tim Walz delivered a pandemic state-of-the-state address in his old classroom at Mankato West High School. Pool photo by Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune.

Minnesotans were hopeful that Tim Walz would become the education governor. He spent two decades in the classroom as a charismatic high school teacher and coach, and he’s married to an educator. 

Surely, Walz was committed and prepared to deal with the burgeoning crisis in Minnesota schools. 

What’s the crisis? The state’s once vaunted schools are stratified, some boasting among the nation’s highest ACT scores, while other schools leave students without basic literacy and numeracy. 

The stratification is racial, with Black and Indigenous students especially vulnerable to the system’s failings, even as students of color become a larger proportion of the student population every year. 

Standardized test scores released 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 pandemic began, the portion of students proficient in reading dropped from 59% to 51%, while in math we dropped from 55% to 45%. 

And, our racial disparities are disgraceful: 20% of Black students are proficient in math, while 31% are proficient in reading. The problem is just as severe among Native American and Latino students. 

Here’s what Walz told me in 2019: “It’s a reality I clearly understood and I said during the campaign that I’ll be judged and should be judged by how well we close [those disparities], as long as we’re given the tools, and I take that responsibility,” he said.

Well, here we are, governor. 

Granted, there are mitigating factors: The pandemic has wreaked havoc on families, who are dealing with housing instability, food insecurity, rising crime in some places, racial trauma. 

We struggle to recruit and retain teachers of color, which likely hurts the academic performance of our Black, Indigenous and Latino students. 

The decision to keep kids out of school during the worst of the pandemic was a no-win. I don’t doubt that Walz’s good-faith motivation was to keep students, their families and teachers safe, and prevent a worse outbreak from flooding our hospitals. 

In retrospect, however, it was a mistake. 

To be sure, the evidence was mixed vis-à-vis the effect of school closures on transmission rates. In a study of school COVID-19 safety, transmission rates among students in 11 in-person North Carolina districts were lower than for all people in those school districts and the entire state. In other words: Keeping kids 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 the growth rate of cases by 5 percentage points on average. 

What’s not debatable, however, as evidenced from the proficiency exams, is that remote school was an academic disaster for many students, and a social one, too. 

Teenagers out of school, with nothing to do — how did we think that would turn out?

The academic and social damage caused by the pandemic school closures will be felt for years, perhaps even decades to come. 

My biggest concern at the moment: There’s a reason that the first step of the famous 12 is admitting you have a problem, and I’m not sure he’s there yet.  

Rather than stand at a podium and tell Minnesotans that these results are unacceptable, and that he’s going to be laser focused on it, Walz was yukking it up at the State Fair on the day the results came out. He didn’t put out a statement at all. Walz’s Department of Education released the results on the opening day of the State Fair. Their jargon-heavy press release on the test results omits the actual test results.

(I did find it relatively simple to figure out the portion of students at my son’s elementary school achieving math proficiency: 27%.) 

Walz’s spokesperson sent me a statement Friday: “As a parent and a 20-year classroom teacher, education is and always has been my top priority. This report spells out what we already knew: that COVID presented immense challenges for students across the country,” he said.

He boasted about signing the largest education funding increase 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 that our schools can and should be the best in the country.”

Luckily for Walz, his opponent has not offered a better plan. In fact, Scott Jensen has proposed eliminating the state income tax, which would leave him no choice but to enact drastic cuts to school funding, as Reformer reporter Michelle Griffith reported last week

I don’t know what the solution is. Our teachers have endured an exhausting two years, and we need to spend more money to recruit and retain. 

But I’m also pretty sure more money alone won’t do it. 

Walz’s most important legacy will be preparing the next generation of Minnesotans to lead the state into the future, and that’s going to require a foundation of literacy and numeracy. We need to nurture citizens who understand our democratic birthright; educate them in problem solving and critical thinking that will help them tackle the challenges that will bedevil a future Minnesota; and craft lives filled with meaning, hope in the future and empathy for their fellow humans.

It’s a dizzyingly complex political and policy challenge. If Walz fails at it, however, his tenure as governor should be judged harshly.

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and two young children