|Back to July Ed Reporter|
|NUMBER 198||THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS||JULY 2002|
Small Learning Communities: |
The New Face of School-to-Work
MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL, MN Established by federal law in 1994, the School-to-Work (STW) program is alive and well with a new disguise and a new name: Small Learning Communities (SLC). Their establishment in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul made national headlines early this year when 8th-grade students in Minneapolis were required to apply for a career path by Jan. 15.
Many parents and citizens expressed shock and outrage, believing - like most Americans - that the passage of the 2001 federal education law "No Child Left Behind" relegated STW to the dustbin of education fads. STW has long been criticized by vigilant parents, educators, pro-family activists, and legislators at both the federal and state levels as a big-government takeover of U.S. education, the economy and the labor force.
SLC is the system outlined by Marc Tucker and his National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE) 10 years ago. Promoted from the beginning as "voluntary," STW is entrenched in all 50 states thanks to the allure of federal grant money and executive orders issued by some Governors.
In St. Paul, the foundation for SLC was laid in 1999 when the school district hired superintendent Patricia Harvey from the NCEE, where she worked closely with Marc Tucker. According to St. Paul's Small Learning Communities' blueprint, students will be forced to make career choices by the 2002-2003 school year, despite the Minnesota legislature's passage of a 2001 law prohibiting school districts from forcing students into curriculum or career path choices or related job training. Parents are now questioning whether the new system violates that law.
While SLC is being touted by the U.S. Department of Education and some state education departments as providing "smal-ler, more personalized learning communities" in order to "raise academic achievement," the focus is on job training, not academics.
According to the Maple River Education Coalition of Minnesota (MREdCo), a grassroots education research organization, "'Small Learning Communities' is pleasant sounding verbiage used to restructure schools along vocational lines. It is political spin - ambiguous and evasive about its real intentions - used to sell a radical reform agenda."
MREdCo's website and materials explain that, in practice, a "small learning community will correspond to a career cluster (or embryonic version of it in the elementary grades). A school will be divided into a number of small learning communities that cut across grade levels, each aligned with a specific career cluster," such as cosmetology, global studies, automotive, or "Triple E (Environment-Empowered Essentials)."
"More than half of Minneapolis 8th graders will likely have their career goals chosen for them by the schools," asserts MREdCo Executive Director David Thompson. "Our children's rights are violated and educational flexibility goes out the door. The school district is literally substituting hairdos for history and other genuine academic learning."
The St. Paul blueprint also states: "Standards will end the practice of holding different expectations for different students." But as MREdCo notes, the only way to accomplish this "is to have minimum expectations - which is precisely what the new system does, and why it is such a tragedy. It reflects a key goal of the system: one set of outcomes for all [OBE]" by focusing "on minimum competencies, and defining those as the standard of success by which educators will be judged."
One St. Paul teacher whose high school is already in the SLC system says it shortchanges students academically. "They are only allowed to take two trimesters of a subject; thus, many subjects such as science, band, and foreign languages are only offered to students for two-thirds of the year. During the other one-third they take an 'elective.' This has caused a 'dumbing down' of the curriculum . . ."