Former MN education commissioner decries ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’

Alice Seagren didn’t mix words in her criticism of the back-patting over the news this week that the high school graduation rate in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 83 percent in the 2014-2015 school year.

In a letter to the editor, published in the Star Tribune today, the former commissioner of education in Minnesota wasn’t buying it.

The Associated Press article praising the rise in graduation rates in the nation and in Minnesota (“More teens getting diploma,” Oct. 19) is no cause for celebration. Buried in the article is the admittance that test scores are falling even as more students graduate. Why? We are moving back to a “seat time” system where students show up for class, get minimal passing grades and then are allowed to graduate.

When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tried to tie test performance to academic “know-how,” a backlash ensued. Unfair! Cries of “one test does not demonstrate what a student really knows” began. But we need a “plumb line” by which we can be guided to help students achieve at a level that, when graduating from high school, will assure them and their parents that they can begin postsecondary education or begin a job that is a steppingstone to work that pays more than minimum wages. We are going back to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

That’s a reference to the phrase speechwriter Michael Gerson coined for President George W. Bush, who used it in his speech announcing his intention to run for president.

The solutions for raising academic achievement seem obvious. But few of them seem to work.

During her time as education commissioner, Seagren didn’t have any more success at closing the achievement gap than any of her predecessors or contemporaries.