Who’s Who: A reader’s guide to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Education Summit

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Flunking, failing, and worst—these words crop up immediately in the official announcement for the February 6 Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Education Summit. In fact, the Chamber asserts that “too many of our students” are failing and thus our schools are in dire need of reform.

This strong language begs the question: What kind of education reform for our schools is the Chamber promoting through this “Summit”? I’ve done some digging and will share here what I’ve learned about some of the Summit’s presenters and moderators.

Michelle Rhee: Teach for America alumna Rhee’s reputation as an aggressive education reformer, mainly through her tenure as Chancellor of the Washington D.C. schools, precedes her. I have already written a blog post detailing her background and reputation a bit, so I will not add much more here.

However, one question that I still do not have an answer for is how much will Rhee be paid to appear at this Education Summit. Jim Pumarlo, who is the communications director for the Chamber, declined to answer my inquiry on this subject, but it is said that Rhee commands between $35,000-50,000 per visit, excluding the cost of first class travel arrangements.

Alice Seagren: Former Education Commissioner for Minnesota, under the Tim Pawlenty administration. Seagren is thought to consider the introduction of the alternative, performance-based pay program for teachers known as “Q-Comp” as one of her greatest achievements. When it was introduced in 2005, the St Paul-based nonprofit Parents United warned of potential problems with the Q-Comp approach. A 2013 article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press notes that funding for this program has pretty much dried up, making its ongoing survival questionable.

Aimee Guidera of the Data Quality Campaign (DQC). Guidera started the DQC after a stint at the “National Governors Association” (NGA), which is a privately held, education reform advocacy group closely tied to the creation and implementation of the Common Core State Standards. While the DQC, under Guidera’s guidance, maintains that collecting data of all kinds on teachers, students, and schools is a necessary means to improve schools, blogger and teacher Merecedes Schneider has a different take on the mission of DQC. One note of concern: DQC has received millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation, whose thumbprint—and checkbook—is all over not only the Common Core State Standards, but most current education reform initiatives.

George Parker of StudentsFirst, which is Michelle Rhee’s education reform advocacy organization. Parker was the president of the Washington D.C. teacher union while Rhee was Chancellor. Some have questioned whether Parker joined StudentsFirst for financial reasons, which Parker has denied. Recently, he was in Washington D.C. testifying before the House Education Committee about his belief that “performance is more important than seniority” when it comes to teaching.  

He attributed the recent rise in NAEP scores in the D.C. schools to policy changes he and Rhee put in place: “Teachers have gotten more serious because they know that it is performance, not seniority, protecting their jobs.” However, PBS education writer John Merrow offers a different view on the supposed gains in D.C. test scores and whether or not Rhee’s policies are the source, noting, among other things, that the “achievement gap” among D.C. students actually widened under Rhee and her successor, fellow TFA alum Kaya Henderson.

Suzanne Tacheny-Kubach, of the PIE Network. This group functions as an organizer and clearinghouse for pro-education reform movements, as a way to broaden, compile, and share notes on how best to enact their preferred reforms across the country. For example, according to an article called “Fight Club” in the journal Education Next, “PIE Network members share legislative language for school reform bills (such as to improve teacher evaluation and tenure) that are being pushed in state legislatures, obviating the need for groups to undertake this time-consuming and technical work on their own.”

The PIE Network is funded, in part, by the Broad, Walton (of Wal-Mart fame), and Gates Foundations, considered to be the “big three” when it comes to financial support for corporate education reform efforts. This brief look at the PIE Network is interesting: The Business Roundtable and PIE. PIE Network’s own list of shared “commitments” among its members, such as a desire to “advance charter schools” and the need to “create urgency” around the need for reform” is interesting, too.

Kate Walsh, of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). The name of this group, which Walsh directs, is innocuous enough, if not entirely accurate. The NCTQ, which is famous for publishing a strong critique of the nation’s teacher preparation programs, is less of a “national council” and more of a distinct education reform advocacy group. The NCTQ prepared their teacher prep program report in 2010 but waited until 2013, after they had partnered with US News and World Report, to release it.  Higher education research group Edventures offers a compeling look at the questions surrounding the NCTQ report on their website.

R.T. Rybak, former Mayor of Minneapolis and current executive director of Generation Next. Rybak is serving on a panel about how “we can come together for reform in Minnesota.” Rybak will apparently be part of a group of three, along with Amy Hertel of the Minneapolis Foundation, addressing the last legislative session in Minnesota, which, according to the Education Summit’s agenda, “…saw the rollback of several important education policies.”

It will be interesting to see how Rybak, who enjoyed a reputation as the progressive mayor of a liberal city, will fit into this discussion of a “disappointing” 2013 legislative session, since many within Rybak’s own DFL party consider it a very successful one for education in Minnesota. Rybak, whose own children went to Breck, a pricey private school in a Twin Cities suburb, has now focused his career on “closing the achievement gap,” a term which some consider racist.

Lastly, Kati Haycock of the Education Trust will address the crowd about what Minnesota should do, if it wants to “maintain its status as a state with a high-talent workforce.” What might Haycock suggest we do to maintain our status? In an October, 2013 appearance before the “Council of Urban Boards of Education,” Haycock said that tackling the “achievement gap” and improving schools is difficult work, but boils down to just a few simple strategies, such as the importance of collecting data to monitor the “inequalities of teaching assignments,” and the full adoption of the Common Core State Standards in order to “help teachers increase rigor and expectations.” 

Writing for the education-focused blog “Living in Dialogue,” teacher John Thompson offers this critique of the Education Trust: “To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The Education Trust, like too many school ‘reformers,’ believes that output-drive accountability is the answer to educational inequities.”

I will be attending the Chamber’s Education Summit and will blog about it. I will also be live tweeting from the event, @sarahrlahm.