Horner and Penny: Public policy as propelled by real people

/ 24 March 2012 / eunice

Tom Horner and Tim Penny, Star Tribune Commentary, March 24, 2012 – Bold initiatives are giving hope that Minnesota can close the education achievement gap and improve outcomes for all students. These initiatives aren’t coming from government or the education establishment, but from communities of engaged people who are creating “citizen policies” to transform “public policy.”

Innovative efforts include these three:

• Northside Achievement Zone in north Minneapolis is declaring that a college degree is the goal for every child — this in a neighborhood in which about two in three students today fail to graduate from high school on time. The program takes a comprehensive approach, linking the challenges of students struggling in the classroom to parents trying to cope with poverty, then providing support for both.

• Minnesota Reading Corps is recruiting and training tutors to teach reading to at-risk children in preschool through third grade. The tutors spend one-on-one time every day with students, focusing on phonics, phonemic awareness and fluency skills. After just one year in the program, seven out of 10 students who were at risk of failing Minnesota’s standard reading test for third-graders earned passing grades.

• Minnesota New Country School, a charter school in Henderson, is proving that engaged students are successful students. Students aren’t bored by teachers forced to “teach to the test.” New Country School students are motivated learners, engaged in self-directed study through individual learning projects. They are learning the way adults learn in career and life situations.

These programs are evidence that public policy is happening all around us, not just in the halls of government.

The people driving Northside Achievement Zone, Minnesota Reading Corps and Minnesota New Country School and similar community-led initiatives stand in stark contrast to the politicians and vested interests — not just in education, but in many fields — who often think that tinkering around the edges is reform.

Transformational change requires bold thinking, as these citizen-led programs demonstrate.

Four lessons are especially important:

 First, few challenges have one cause and one solution.Northside Achievement Zone engages parents, schools and more than 60 area organizations to solve challenges that have their roots in poverty, racism and neglect. It’s easy to blame parents or even an entire culture. It’s much harder to bring people and organizations together for answers. Politicians like simplicity. Transformation is complicated.

 Second, the most-important results take time. Politicians resist asking taxpayers for money today for long-term change. By contrast, Minnesota Reading Corps is all about the future. A child who isn’t a competent reader in third grade is four times more likely to drop out of high school, according to a well-documented study. The adage is true that “you learn to read by third grade, after third grade you read to learn.” Return on investment is a long-term measure — not just in reading, but in health care, economic development, affordable housing and so many other areas.

 Third, measure what matters. Identify the desired long-term outcomes, then create realistic processes to achieve them. Test scores can be useful benchmarks, but the true purpose of education is to help every child become a productive, engaged member of society. New Country School students meet all state standards, but generally score only in the middle of the pack on standardized tests. More important, though: ACT scores for last year’s graduates of New Country School were higher than state and national averages. All the graduates had plans for continuing their education.

Seventy percent of the new jobs that will be created in Minnesota will require some post-high-school education. New Country School students will be ready for that future.

 Fourth, government alone likely isn’t the problem or the solution. These three programs often are partners with government. But the partnerships — including funding — don’t make them government programs. Rather, government is joining these initiatives on terms defined by the programs. The programs are saying to government: It’s time to be bold, to put aside ideology and to invest in people.

Policymakers and vested interests, pay attention. Reform isn’t likely to happen if your vision is limited by the date of the next election or the boundaries of the turf you are protecting.


Tom Horner is a public-affairs consultant and was chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. Tim Penny is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and is a former Democratic member of Congress. Both are former Independence Party candidates for governor.