History of Education in Minnesota: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Many Minnesotans pride themselves on the quality of the public education in the state. It is important to look back to the foundations of the state's education system. It really was not that long ago that Minnesota was just a territory with a couple of schools in St. Paul. Examining the amazing evolution of the schools themselves as well as the entire system is fascinating. As with the study of any history, this can also provide some valuable insight into how our current education problems might be solved. Despite Minnesota's stellar record of education in the state, it has been falling in national rankings. Meanwhile, the United States has been dramatically falling in international rankings. This FAQ provides some background on education in Minnesota, which in turn will help one to understand today's state of education.

How was education accomplished in Minnesota prior to it becoming a state?

The first school in MN was the post school at Fort Snelling (which has been maintained as a historical landmark).


The first school outside of the post was opened in 1835 on Lake Harriet. Missionaries, led by the Pond family and Reverend Jedediah D. Stevens, mainly worked with the Sioux Indians in the area. Following the Pond’s school, the Catholics opened a school for the Chippewa at Grand Portage.

The first school for white children opened in 1847, led by Thomas Williamson (he also was in part responsible for a Sioux missionary school). Williamson called for help and Harriet Bishop became St. Paul’s first teacher, with 36 students attending the first year.


She had moved from Vermont that same year. A fascinating character, Bishop was one of the first women to head West in order to teach, hoping to educate the children and improve the morality of the town in general. She also started the first Sunday school, which would later lead to the first Baptist Church. According to Zylpha S. Morgan in an article published for the Minnesota Historical Society, "St. Paul’s first teacher left her most indelible mark on the young people she guided and the organizations she founded that helped transform a raw river town into the capital city of Minnesota." In this same article, titled Harriet Bishop, Frontier Teacher, Morgan offers this wonderful description of Bishop and education in early Minnesota:

"Eventually Dr. Williamson’s letter reached the normal school at Albany and was put into the hands of Harriet Bishop, one of the young women in Miss Beecher’s class. The writer said he was living on the verge of civilization in the northwestern park of the United States in a territory he supposed would bear the name of Minnesota. He told of the need for a teacher in the settlement known as St. Paul, four miles from his mission at Kaposia. There were five stores, a dozen or more families, and probably thirty-six children of school age at St. Paul, he said. Room and board would be furnished by a family having four children, in return for the latter’s tuition. Dr. Williamson said that the teacher would have to forego the elegances and niceties of life in New England, and be willing to teach children of varied races and colors without prejudice, and he suggested that she bring her own school books, as there was no bookstore within three hundred miles. The effect of this letter on Harriet Bishop was decisive. When members of the class in Albany were asked who would go to far-off St. Paul, the young woman from Vermont answered unhesitatingly, 'I will go.'"

Bishop was one of the first teachers to head West in order to help formalize schooling on the frontier. By 1858, 481 teachers had been shipped off.

Minnesota became a territory in 1849. At that point there were basically three developed areas – Stillwater, St. Paul, and St. Anthony – with a total of four elementary schools. Immigrants began to come in greater numbers following the territorial grant. The common school district was established at this time in MN.

Many of the first schools were started by Christian missionaries. The first parochial school opened in St. Paul in 1851. The Catholic schools, which emerged after the large numbers of Irish and German immigrants in the 1850s, were generally the best organized and sufficiently funded. Very few schools besides the Catholic institutions survived the Panic of 1857.

By 1851 a State university was proposed and opened, but did not become officially recognized as a university until 1869. Baldwin school opened in St. Paul in 1853, followed quickly by Baldwin College (for men) in 1863. The college would change its name in 1874 to Macalester College. The Methodists opened Hamline University in 1854. In its first 12 years, the university graduated 14 women and 9 men. It survived the Panic despite having to suspend operation from 1869-1880. Gustavus would not open until 1862, four years after Minnesota became a state. St. John's and Carlton opened in 1864 and 1870, respectively.

Reverend Edward D. Neill, the first territorial Superintendent of Public Instruction, was one of the leaders in fostering education growth in the territory, after moving to MN in 1849. Territorial governor, future two-term governor and two-term U.S. senator Alexander Ramsay put a large emphasis on fostering a strong educational system in Minnesota:

"The subject of education, which has ever been esteemed of the first importance, especially in all new American communities, deserves, and I doubt not will receive, your earliest and most devoted care. From the pressure of other and more immediate wants, it is not to be expected that your school system should be very ample; yet it is desirable that whatever is done should be of a character that will readily adapt itself to the growth and increase of the country and not in future require a violent change of system."

Structurally, the townships were divided into districts (with at least 10 families in each). The first public school meeting was held in November of 1849 in a log schoolhouse in St. Paul. The federal land ordinance of 1785 made sure that each township set aside one plot of land for schooling facilities. Minnesota had two granted upon its acceptance as a territory. Public education was guaranteed royalties from regional natural resource production, as well as county taxes, primarily on liquor, and from criminal fines.

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How did education work after Minnesota became a state?

The state was created in the wake of the common school movement, which was started by Horace Mann in the first half of the 19th century. The movement focused on educating a larger percentage of the population, making education government funded and an equal opportunity, while also eliminating unqualified teachers. These principles had a significant effect on the formation of Minnesota's education system during its early statehood.

The state convention began July 13, 1857. One of the main debates surrounded the question of administering school funds and land grants. As mentioned above, the schools would be given a certain amount of money and tracts of land. Another key question surrounded local versus state versus federal aid. It began with adjusted county taxes based on the number of students living in the area, but soon after became more centralized with a statewide tax.


The original state constitution differentiated between "children" and "scholars." Scholars were the children who would be attending school. Though public schools existed, they were not intended to be mandatory. This contrasts sharply with the contemporary view of education, namely that every child should attend school.

The first legislative session began in 1858. It provided a system of public schools to be supported by the sale of school lands. It also established three State normal schools, later called States teachers' colleges. These would eventually open in Winona, Mankato and St. Cloud. Due to 19th century reform efforts, normal schools were created to train and educate high school graduates to become teachers. 

The state offered special, incentive-based aid to unique districts including those with better teachers, more modern school facilities, or certain advantages for long-term education. According to historian David Kiehle,

"This generous aid of the state has proven a marvelous stimulus to education. The amounts given have encouraged districts to make corresponding expenditures in schoolhouses and equipment, and instead of making the people dependent upon the state they have grown ambitious to do more for themselves."

State supervision was also quickly established. Edward Neill, who was the first territorial superintendent, was also the first State Superintendent of Public Instruction (1860-61). He helped implement district organization, a uniform series of textbooks and library funding. Teachers were also required to be licensed. "Special education" programs began in Minnesota as early as 1863 when a state school was opened which focused on the "deaf, dumb, and blind." As of 2010, there were over 127,000 students in MN special education programs.


The State High School Board was created in 1878, its stated function being, "to establish any necessary and suitable rules and regulations relating to examinations, reports and other proceedings under this act." This was changed in 1881 as the Board became more autonomous: "The High School Board shall have full discretionary power to consider and act upon applications of schools for state aid, and to prescribe the conditions upon which said aid shall be granted, and it shall be this duty to accept and aid such schools only as will, in its opinion, if aided, efficiently perform the service contemplated by law."

In the same year, state aid began to drastically expand. It was only given to high schools from 1878-1896, after which "graded schools" began to receive money. In 1899 "rural schools" were added; in 1900, "semi-graded schools"; in 1906, “rural schools of the second class"; and in 1912 "consolidated schools and rural schools of Class C." Between 1878 and 1916 the number of state funded schools jumped from 38 to 7,127. The state aid to individual schools rose from $500 in 1898 to $2,200 in 1913.

Of course, state funding did not come without certain requirements:

"First, that there shall be regular and orderly courses of study, embracing all the branches prescribed as prerequisite for admission to the collegiate department of the University of Minnesota, not lower than the third, or sub-freshmen class. Second, that the said school receiving pecuniary aid under this act, shall at all times permit the said board of commissioners, or any of them, to visit and examine the classes pursuing the same preparatory courses."

Coinciding with these requirements came additional support to aid local areas, particularly rural parts of the state. Teacher-training departments began to receive state aid in 1895. The Putnam Act (1909) required schools to provide additional classroom space for specific subjects. This act also made college education a requirement for any teacher, while also mandating that at least three teachers be on staff at each school. The Benson-Lee Act (1911) mandated that state funds be distributed to agricultural programs in high schools. The Smith-Hughes Act (1917) improved funding again for agricultural education, including equipment, travel opportunities and teacher salary. By 1963, the Vocational Education Act changed the agricultural education program to focus less on individual farming and more on agribusiness. It also allowed females to participate.

By the Progressive Era, Minnesota began to see statewide funding skyrocket, and by 1914 about one-fifth of rural schools in MN were receiving more in state aid than they were raising through local taxes. Moreover, the state's Annual Fund for education rose from contributing one three-hundredth of total school revenues in 1878 to about 11% in 1917. Most Minnesotans were in favor of such a trend, such as historian Frances Kelley Del Plaine:

"If education is a function of the state, it is evident that the support of schools can not be left entirely to the individual districts with their widely varying degrees of wealth and intelligence. The levying of a state school tax is a recognition of the right and duty of the state to provide public schools. Such a tax serves to insure certain moneys for every district. It is also a means for encouraging local reports to the state department. Properly disbursed, it should help to equalize the burdens of school support."

Early on in Minnesota education was funded by a compulsory country tax. This became a district tax by 1877 and ten years later a state tax. Interestingly, the tax was formally a county school tax of "1-mill" by state law. A "mill" refers to a percentage property tax. For example, if your property was assessed to be valued at $100,000 and there was a 1-mill school tax levied, your tax would amount to $100, or 0.1%. If the rate was 10-mill, $1000 would be taxed, or 1%. The state’s compulsory school taxes decreased from 2.5-mills upon Minnesota’s founding as a state in 1858 to 1-mill by 1873. The move was widely criticized, for despite the sharp rise in property values during the state’s first 15 years of existence, the difference was not enough to compensate for the drop in the rate of taxation. Much like today, there emerged a general complaint regarding underfunded schools, particularly those in rural regions. The idea behind the plan was to prevent one area or district from paying for the schools in another. 

Despite the move to statewide taxation for education being quite popular, some strongly criticized the decision arguing that state aid going to rural areas lessened local incentive to maintain or improve their own schools. Rather, such areas would come to rely too heavily on outside taxation funding. As Del Plaine argues, this type of taxation "harmed the schools...by encouraging the growth of local indifference to the schools and their support." He sums up the early debate over education concisely:

"There is no more fundamental problem in American education than the financial one."

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What does the Minnesota Constitution say about education?

The Minnesota state constitution was signed on October 13, 1857 and later revised on November 5, 1974 (the version seen below). There are a total of 14 articles including one devoted to the Minnesota Bill of Rights. Three of the articles in part deal with the subject of education in the state.


Article XIII; Sec. 1: "Uniform system of public schools – The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state."

Article XIII; Sec. 2: "Prohibition as to aiding sectarian school –  In no case shall any public money or property be appropriated or used for the support of schools wherein the distinctive doctrines, creeds or tenets of any particular Christian or other religious sect are promulgated or taught."

Article XIII, Section 1 simply establishes the fact that there will be a public school system in the state. Section 2 concerns religious aspects in schools, prohibiting any state taxpayer money from going to schools with a specific religious affiliation.

Article X, Section 1: "Power of taxation; exemptions; legislative powers – The power of taxation shall never be surrendered, suspended or contracted away. Taxes shall be uniform upon the same class of subjects and shall be levied and collected for public purposes, but public burying grounds, public school houses, public hospitals, academies, colleges, universities, all seminaries of learning, all churches, church property, houses of worship, institutions of purely public charity, and public property used exclusively for any public purpose, shall be exempt from taxation except as provided in this section. There may be exempted from taxation personal property not exceeding in value $200 for each household, individual or head of a family, and household goods and farm machinery as the legislature determines. The legislature may authorize municipal corporations to levy and collect assessments for local improvements upon property benefited thereby without regard to cash valuation. The legislature by law may define or limit the property exempt under this section other than churches, houses of worship, and property solely used for educational purposes by academies, colleges, universities and seminaries of learning."

Article X, Section 1 grants the state the power to tax individuals and businesses, but mentions a list of exempt entities, including all public schools.

Article XI, Section 8: "Permanent school fund; source; investment; board of investment – The permanent school fund of the state consists of (a) the proceeds of lands granted by the United States for the use of schools within each township, (b) the proceeds derived from swamp lands granted to the state, (c) all cash and investments credited to the permanent school fund and to the swamp land fund, and (d) all cash and investments credited to the internal improvement land fund and the lands therein. No portion of these lands shall be sold otherwise than at public sale, and in the manner provided by law. All funds arising from the sale or other disposition of the lands, or income accruing in any way before the sale or disposition thereof, shall be credited to the permanent school fund. Within limitations prescribed by law, the fund shall be invested to secure the maximum return consistent with the maintenance of the perpetuity of the fund. The principal of the permanent school fund shall be perpetual and inviolate forever. This does not prevent the sale of investments at less than the cost to the fund; however, all losses not offset by gains shall be repaid to the fund from the interest and dividends earned thereafter. The net interest and dividends arising from the fund shall be distributed to the different school districts of the state in a manner prescribed by law."

This section was the most controversial during the state convention. It established land grants for each school in each district. When Minnesota became a territory, each district was granted two plots of land for schools. When Minnesota became a state, some called for the elimination of land grants given to schools, while others believed they were necessary to ensure that children across the state would have access to a local school. This debate correlated with the argument over the percent of taxes each person would have to pay for their local school. These issues are further discussed in the first two parts of this FAQ.

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What major education reforms have taken place in Minnesota’s more recent history?

Southeast Alternatives Project (1971-1979) – The stated primary goals of this project were: "to provide a choice of educational alternatives for students, parents, and faculty; to provide a K-12th continuum of learning experiences; to encourage and provide opportunities for parents, students, staff, administrators, and faculty to participate in the educational and decision making process through decentralized administration; and to incorporate promising educational practices within the curriculum and develop experimental programs." Students were given a choice of four education models: free school (taxpayer-funded, free to attend, not locally run, and non-discriminatory), open education (eliminates as many barriers to entry as possible, such as academic standards), continuous progress (a cooperative approach, with multi-aged classrooms and a "family-like learning environment"), and contemporary education (focus on classmate cooperation and individual discovery rather than strictly teacher instruction). Though the program was short-lived, it set the stage for further alternative educational reforms in the state.

Contracted Alternative Schools (began 1972) – These programs continue today, providing extra schooling opportunities for those students who have "not found success in the traditional school model." Such schools paved the way for the foundation of charter schools and more educational freedom. Depending on the specific grant a school receives, its organization and administration can differ slightly from other alternative schools.

Council on Quality Education (1973) – This organization was established entirely independent of the MN Department of Education. Its goal was to promote innovative ideas within the struggling, centralized education system in the state.

Post-Secondary Enrollment Options Act (1985) – This has been one of Minnesota's most successful and useful education reform policies. Presently, thousands of motivated students across the state take advantage of this Act by receiving free college credits while still attending their local high school. The University of Minnesota admits 500 PSEO students each year.

Open Enrollment (began 1987) – This was quite controversial at the time, allowing students to enroll in any public school in the state no matter the district of his/her residence. Advocates argue that choice helps ensure a higher quality of education by adding the possibility of failure into the public school system. This would theoretically partially end the "monopoly" that public schools were given. But opponents of open enrollment fear that its goals will not materialize, but will instead harm the private school system. Despite its free-market principles, allowing open enrollment may strengthen unions and lead to the consolidation of districts.

The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools was formed in 1991 – See FAQ on Charter Schools

Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs – The MAAP was started in the 1980s in order to provide quality education to a greater spectrum of students. The number of students in alternative education has grown from about 4,000 in 1988 to about 150,000 in 2009.

No Child Left Behind (2002) – Signed by President Bush, this law most notably helped establish a standards-based education system. It requires numerous yearly state assessments of students. The law also significantly increased national and state education spending. The benchmark for every school in the nation became its Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Given the students' scores an AYP is determined and subsequent action, if necessary, is taken from there. The law's critics, the number of which has grown since its inception, claim that the program is far too uniform. It diminishes the positive impact teachers can make on their students and eliminates classroom creativity and innovation. Supporters of the law argue that because of the poor state of American education, more federal regulation is necessary.

Race to the Top (2009) - This education reform program was part of President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). ARRA provided $4.35 billion to the Race to the Top fund. According to the U.S. Department of Education,

"Race to the Top will reward States that have demonstrated success in raising student achievement and have the best plans to accelerate their reforms in the future. These States will offer models for others to follow and will spread the best reform ideas across their States, and across the country."

Effectively, this program was a national state-by-state contest, with each state vying for the most federal cash. In the end 11 states were granted between $75 and $700 million. Minnesota finished 20th in the first round and neglected to submit an entry into the second round. The state received no money from the program. Former Governor Pawlenty had a goal of obtaining over $300 million from the contest.

Like No Child Left Behind, the Race to Top faced strong criticism. In some ways it again redefined the national standards in education. The plethora of guidelines and regulations made it difficult to determine the best course of action to receive any of the "prize" money. This doomed Minnesota, which many believed would be a front-runner because of the strong and established charter system in the state. As Derek Wallbank said, writing for the Minnesota Post, "It might be easier for everyone concerned if Minnesota employed Sherlock Holmes to decipher the clues contained in the federal Race to the Top funding rubric."

Omnibus E-12 Education Act (2011) - This Act highlighted the upcoming state budget for education, guaranteeing nearly $15 billion for fiscal years 2012 and 2013.

In early 2012, Minnesota was granted a waiver from the requirements imposed by No Child Left Behind. This gives the education system more freedom and flexibility away from federal mandates. Governor Mark Dayton stated that under NCLB, "teachers have been forced to teach to tests, which do not accurately measure either individual student or school progress." The Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius added, "Minnesota is a national leader in test scores, yet we are still faced with one of the widest achievement gaps in the country."

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What are some key facts and figures on Minnesota's education funding and enrollment?

The graph and chart below show several interesting trends since 1960. The baby boomers account for the sharp rise in enrollment in the 60s, but the sharp decline in public school enrollment around 1970-71 might come as a bit of a surprise. 1971 was perhaps Minnesota's biggest year for education reform and has been subsequently coined the Minnesota Miracle. The more recent rise in public school enrollment can in part be attributed to the formation of alternative forms of education, which went into full swing in the early 90s.




Minnesota has steadily increased state funding for education in the last several decades. The most noticeable hike in state spending occurred during the beginning of the younger Bush administration due in large part to the passage of No Child Left Behind.


The map below depicts the different school districts in Minnesota. Since Minnesota became a state, one of the largest obstacles has been creating an efficient and fair district system in which the needed amount of funding could be appropriated throughout the state. Comparing St. Louis County and the Brooklyn Center district makes it easy to see some problems that might arise from districting inequalities.


The following two charts again show some of the funding distribution problems in both traditional public schools (chart 1) and charter schools (chart 2). Additionally, many have raised concerns about the seemingly excessive per student spending with one district spending over $24,000/student.





The next two graphs depict the rise in Minnesotan enrollment in alternative education programs. Homeschooling became increasingly popular in the 90s, while traditional public schooling sharply declined in the latter half of the decade.




Finally, this graph looks specifically at the student demographics in alternative education versus traditional education.


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What are charter schools and how did they come about?

A charter school is an independent public school. It receives state funding, but operates outside of the district board of education. Basically, it is a public school that is simply in its own, individual district.

A charter school can be started by anyone, though a charter plan must be written, proposed and accepted by the state. Once granted a charter, the school has increased autonomy over that of a normal public school, but also increased accountability due to the fact that no minimum attendance is guaranteed. Rather, families have the choice to opt for the charter school over the other public schools in the area.

It is this principle of choice that helped foster the original idea for charter schools and continues to drive their development today. Instead of parents and students feeling trapped with the limited number of options for free education, the charter system adds more choices and opens the door for unique competitors to enter the field of education.

The charter system also creates a more market-based system of education, primarily because success is based on consumer demand. With the possibility of failure and the need to attract consumers, charter schools often demonstrate the success which comes with the incentive to innovate and provide a high-quality product. Moreover, the autonomy which a charter school receives allows it to avoid some of the bureaucracy which plagues such a large portion of government-run institutions, including traditional public schools. Critics of the charter system argue that education is not a realm in which the free-market is necessarily appropriate. Currently, this argument is echoed by the proponents for a national health care system.

Though charter schools have greater independence, there are still significant differences between the charter system and private schools. Charter schools must admit any applicant if there are available slots, or hold a lottery (which is often the case) if demand is greater than the school’s capacity. Charter schools are also prohibited from charging any tuition.

The charter school laws and regulations vary between states. The primary difference is found in its funding. In Minnesota, charter schools are only granted about 75% of the funding which is given to the geographically surrounding or demographically similar public schools. This is especially problematic for start-up costs and facility construction for non-conversion (a conversion school is one which switched from public to charter while maintaining its capital and facilities) charter schools.


Recently, some have proposed a voucher system in addition to charter schools. Essentially, this goes a step further in granting parents and students more educational choice. Vouchers are equally distributed to families in lieu of taxes that family would have paid for public education. The vouchers could then be redeemed at any school, including private institutions.

Though not universally the case by any means, charter schools have been quite successful, creating a healthy pressure on local school systems where they are present. Very few have closed, and in many cases, charter schools have been flooded with massive numbers of applicants. Davis Guggenheim directed a critically-acclaimed documentary in 2010 titled "Waiting for Superman." The film depicts the current charter school successes and troubles, particularly the increasing demand for them in many of America’s poor urban areas. Madeline Sackler directed a very similar 2010 film called "The Lottery," which focused on four students in the New York school system.

Minnesota has been at the forefront of charter school development. In fact, Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991. Similar charter laws have since been extended to 40 states. The first charter school in Minnesota was Bluffview Montessori. It was previously a private school, but, after several years of proposals, legal battles, and new legislation, it opened as a charter school in the spring of 1993.

According to The Center for Education Reform, there are 161 charter schools in Minnesota with a total of over 30,000 students enrolled. The Center also ranked Minnesota as the top charter school state in the nation, trailing only the District of Columbia in overall grade. California has the most charter schools and the highest enrollment. There are nearly 1,000 schools with over 400,000 students enrolled. The Los Angeles area alone has over 200 charter schools.


Minnesota won the Innovations in American Government Award in 2000 for its development of the charter system.

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What is open enrollment, why did it develop, and what are its impacts?

Open Enrollment was part of the educational movement inspired by the principles of the free-market. The decline in America’s education quality and progress coupled with the public’s desire to have more choice in the realm of education led to significant education reform over the last several decades, including open enrollment, charter schools, post-secondary options, and other part-time alternative programs.

Minnesota has been a nationwide leader in educational reform. It was the first state to adopt open enrollment and also the first state to obtain charter status.

The idea for open enrollment is often equated with the proposals for tax credits or vouchers, with all of the reform ideas being categorized as part of the "School Choice" movement, but it is more limited as it only applies to public schools. Under a voucher system, parents and students would have the option to use the money at a private school.

Thus far, open enrollment in Minnesota has had its biggest impact on urban areas, particularly in the Minneapolis school district. While some attribute it to racial motives and "white flight" from urban centers, others believe that the impact on Minneapolis public schools is simply a sign of their inferior education standards and quality.

Open enrollment over the years has enjoyed increasingly bipartisan support. Those in favor of more educational choice believe that this is a stepping stone toward a voucher system or perhaps even more privatization. Such support comes from both those who wish to see education become more of an incentive-based business as well as those seeking religious freedom within the education system. At the same time, many supporters of a strong public school system contend that open enrollment will satisfy parents' wishes for choice, strongly diminishing any calls for a voucher or tax credit system.

Yet any of these proposals for educational reform come with quiet, and at times unforeseen drawbacks. The biggest of these is transportation. Currently, those in attendance at charter schools are guaranteed busing, no matter one's residence. This is not the case with those families who opt for a public school outside of their district. This particularly limits lower-class and single parent families and, some argue, has further increased the education achievement gap.

Another criticism has been its overall effectiveness and impact. Prior to open enrollment beginning, students were able to transfer school districts with their local districts' permission. What is more, the current system comes with numerous restrictions (e.g. the ability of local school boards to deny students a transfer), which often prevent any sort of radical change to a school district. Finally, some argue that open enrollment undermines the local aspect of education: if schools are consolidated and large numbers of students move outside of their districts, funding will be forced to come more from the state or federal level.

Open enrollment and similar educational reforms are nuanced issues and have been at the forefront of the educational debate since the 1980s in Minnesota. Though problems in the education system certainly still persist in Minnesota, the state has helped lead the way for other states in finding alternative and innovative forms of public education.

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How does standardized testing work?

Standardized tests have grown rapidly in number the last several decades despite rising concern that such tests are not effective indicators or motivators in a child's education. The biggest complaint has regularly come from teachers, who are forced to run their classroom in a way that simply prepares students for such examinations. Most teachers believe this is not the ideal method for learning.

Yet, it remains the only universal means of comparing individual students, schools, districts, counties or states. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed in 1965, requiring standardized testing in all public schools. Shortly thereafter the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) was established in 1988 to write and administer standardized tests across the country. In 2001 No Child Left Behind put additional emphasis on standardized tests by forcing every school which receives Title I federal funding to complete the NAEP tests.

Students are tested in 4th and 8th grade in reading, math, and science. This allows schools to both compare scores with other schools or states and also note progression or regression in its students' performance. The next question outlines Minnesota's scoring and compares it with the national average. Keep in the mind the discrepancies between test performance based on race. Such instances have been coined "achievement gaps" and have been key factors in the American education debate.

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How does Minnesota rank against other states?

In 2010, Minnesota's average ACT score (22.9) was the highest among the 27 states in which a majority of college-bound students took the test.

The overall ACT scoring average was 22.6 (meaning that this score included the scores from those who would not attend college the following year), significantly higher than the national average of 21.


Seventy percent of 4th graders read at or above a basic reading level; the national average is 34%. In the same category for 8th grade, Minnesotans scored 82%; the national average is just 43%.

In math, Minnesota ranks third for 4th grade and second for 8th grade (89% and 83% respectively are at or above basic math levels).

In 2011, Minnesota ranked second, behind Massachusetts, in math and science, based on the Science and Engineering Readiness Index (SERI).

But other sources have Minnesota ranked quite lower. In 2011 Education Week gave Minnesota a "C" making it 36th in the nation in overall education (the highest grade was a "B+"). Math and Science were the only high points for MN public education, according to this report. MN ranked 16th on the same report for 2009. The American Legislative Exchange Council ranks Minnesota 18th overall.

Disregarding the state ranking comparison, the discrepancy between the Minneapolis public school system and the rest of the metro area is becoming quite glaring.


Here are Minnesota's 2011 statistics for 4th grade math (the averages given are national):

By race:

At or above basic level – White: 94%; Black: 64%; Hispanic: 73%; Asian: 88% (Average – 91, 66, 72, 91)

At or above proficient – White: 60%; Black: 23%; Hispanic: 28%; Asian: 57% (52, 17, 24, 62)

At advanced – White: 14%; Black: 3%; Hispanic: 2%; Asian: 16% (9,1,2, 20)

By gender:

At or above basic – Male: 88%; Female: 88% (Average – 82, 82)

At or above proficient – Male: 54%; Female: 52% (41, 39)

At Advanced – Male: 13%; Female: 11% (7, 6)

By reduced/free lunch:

At or above basic – Eligible: 78%; Not eligible: 94% (Average – 73, 92)

At or above proficient – Eligible: 33%; Not eligible: 65% (24, 57)

At advanced – Eligible: 3%; Not eligible: 17% (2,12)


At or above basic – ELL: 67%; Not ELL: 90% (Average – 58, 85)

At or above proficient – ELL: 25%; Not ELL: 56% (14, 43)

At advanced – ELL: 2%; Not ELL: 13% (1, 7)

For 8th grade math:

By race:

At or above basic – White: 89%; Black: 55%; Hispanic: 59%; Asian: 87% (Average – 83, 50, 60, 85)

At or above proficient – White: 55%; Black: 18%; Hispanic: 18%; Asian: 63% (43, 13, 20, 55)

At advanced – White: 16%; Black: 1%; Hispanic: 3%; Asian: 31% (10, 1, 3, 22)

By gender:

At or above basic – Male: 72%; Female: 70% (Average – 72, 72)

At or above proficient – Male: 33%; Female: 29% (34, 33)

At advanced: Male: 7%; Female: 5% (9, 7)

By reduced/free lunch:

At or above basic: Eligible: 68%; Not eligible: 90% (Average – 59, 84)

At or above proficient: Eligible: 26%; Not eligible: 58% (19, 47)

At advanced: Eligible: 4%; Not eligible: 18% (2, 13)


At or above basic – ELL: 42%; Not ELL: 85% (Average – 28, 75)

At or above proficient – ELL: 8%; Not ELL: 50% (5, 35)

At advanced: ELL: 1%; Not ELL: 14% (1, 8)

Here are Minnesota 2011 statistics for 4th grade reading:

By race:

At or above basic – White: 78%; Black: 44%; Hispanic: 45%; Asian: 63% (Average – 77, 49, 50, 79)

At or above proficient – White: 42%; Black: 16%; Hispanic: 12%; Asian: 32% (42, 26, 18, 49)

At advanced - White: 10%; Black: 3%; Hispanic: 2; Asian: 10% (10, 2, 2, 17)

By gender:

At or above basic – Male: 67%; Female: 73% (Average – 63, 70)

At or above proficient – Male: 33%; Female: 38% (30, 35)

At advanced – Male: 7%; Female: 9% (6, 9)

By free/reduced lunch:

At or above basic – Eligible: 51%; Not eligible: 82% (Average – 52, 82)

At or above proficient – Eligible: 17%; Not eligible: 46% (18, 48)

At advanced – Eligible: 3%; Not eligible: 11% (2, 13)


At or above basic – ELL: 30%; Not ELL: 74% (Average – 30, 70)

At or above proficient – ELL: 5%; Not ELL: 39% (7, 35)

At advanced – ELL: almost 0%; Not ELL: 9% (1, 8)

For 8th grade reading:

By race:

At or above basic – White: 86%; Black: 58%; Hispanic: 69%; Asian: 74% (Average – 84, 58, 63, 82)

At or above proficient – White: 44%; Black: 15%; Hispanic: 23%; Asian: 37% (41, 14, 18, 46)

At advanced – White: 4%; Black 1%; Hispanic: 2%; Asian:  6% (4, 1, 1, 8)

By gender:

At or above basic – Male: 79%; Female: 84% (Average – 70, 79)

At or above proficient – Male: 35%; Female: 44% (27, 36)

At advanced – Male: 3%; Female: 5% (2, 4)

By free/reduced lunch:

At or above basic – Eligible: 68%; Not eligible: 87% (Average – 63, 85)

At or above proficient – Eligible: 22%; Not eligible: 47% (18, 44)

At advanced – Eligible: 1%; Not eligible: 5% (1, 5)


At or above basic – ELL: 38%; Not ELL: 83% (Average – 29, 77)

At or above proficient – ELL: 6%; Not ELL 41% (3, 33)

At advanced – ELL: almost 0%; Not ELL 4% (almost 0, 3)

Library Topic

How does the United States currently stack up against the world?

In 2010 the world education rankings were released by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The study tested about 470,000 14-year olds in reading, math, and science. Sixty-five countries were represented, including all of the wealthiest and most developed nations.

South Korea and Finland were the overall winners. Korea scored first, first, and third in reading, math, and science, respectively, while Finland scored second, second and first in those three categories. Canada, New Zealand and Japan rounded out the top 5. The United States scored 14th, 25th and 17th. It was even outperformed by former Soviet satellites Poland and Estonia.


Moreover, demonstrating the inefficiency in America's current education system, when breaking down the spending on education for each nation, the United States spends the most money per point in its average PISA test results.


Education has been one of the most important political and cultural issues throughout American history. No matter one's beliefs on the underlying problems or possible solutions, the most critical fact is clear: the United States is lagging farther and farther behind the rest of the industrialized world. As poorer nations put more emphasis on the education of their youth, it seems that unless there is a dramatic change in American education, it will only continue its descent in world ranking.

Library Topic
Library Topic
Library Topic: Charter Schools
Library Topic: Homeschooling
Library Topic: Private Schools
Library Topic: School Choice

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Commentary or Blog Post

"I asked Fulton County high school teacher Jordan Kohanim to write a piece about what she wanted for her students this year. Jordan joined forces with fellow Centennial High School English teachers Larken McCord and Cathy Rumfelt to write a powerful letter about their goals for their students and for all students. School resumes in Fulton County on Monday

Here is their combined effort....

Flanagan, seemingly a supporter of John Dewey's education philosophy and changes, portrays how Dewey went beyond the changes made by Horace Mann. Discussing his "laboratory school," which Dewey established in 1896, Flanagan argues that he created a school equally focused on both the student's individual pursuits and the preparation of each student to live in the community - both the...

Hager looks solely at the problem of competition and accountability with the public school system and specifically targets the progressive educators: "However, the social-management philosophes who fashioned the progressive education...

As one could guess given the name of the institute, this article urges that education on both sides of the Atlantic become more efficient and productive by enabling each participant significant choice on the matter. Lawson contends that this idea is far from where the British...

Describing the transition and evolution of education during the first several decades of the 20th century, Wiles characterizes the change as moving from a "closed" to an "open" system.  Throughout the rise of progressive thinking, Wiles argues, "no person epitomizes the acknowledgement of...

This brief introduction to Dewey's ideas asserts that the "most common misunderstanding about Dewey is that he was simply supporting progressive education. Progressive education, according to Dewey, was a wild swing in the philosophical pendulum, against traditional education methods.In progressive education, freedom was the rule, with students being...

Examining the causes of declining educational performance, Bernstein points to John Dewey's education philosophy as the cause. "[Progressive education's] main tenets have been widely incorporated into American schools. Our educators accept the premise that the target of education is not the student's rational mind. Since they believe that their goal is not to...

Prominent free-market economist and historian, Murray Rothbard, wrote an extensive 12-part analysis on the modern education system (including this piece, the last in the series).  He described the destructive trend of progressive education as being collectivistic, controlling and uniformitarian. And, in some...

In light of recent school violence, Woiceshyn takes a closer look at the progressive education philosophy. This philosophy "maintains that the cause of social strife is the unwillingness of an individual to sacrifice his convictions to the group. Dewey maintained that it is the insistence on distinctions such as 'true versus false' and 'right versus wrong'...

Emand and Fraser offer a helpful piece on Dewey's theories, which may often be confusing and seemingly contradictory. The article lays out a question, and then answers it with several quotes from various writings by John Dewey.

Gatto describes a plan developed by "Gary, Indiana, Superintendent William A. Wirt, a former student of John Dewey’s at the University of Chicago...in which school subjects were departmentalized; this required movement of students from room to room on a regular basis so that all building spaces were in constant use. Bells would ring and just as with Pavlov’s...

Anderson defines and highlights the legacies of Progressivism. He mentions two early Progressive leaders, Teddy Roosevelt and John Dewey. According to Anderson, Roosevelt exemplified the Progressives desire for a stronger executive branch and Dewey represented the Progressives dislike of a decentralized educational system. Anderson highlights 1913 as a key year because of the establishment of...

Analysis Report White Paper

Taking a markedly pro-Dewey stance, Novack discusses Dewey's international impact on educational reform as well as the necessity of such reform. Honoring what would have been Dewey's 100th birthday, Novack calls for further implementation of his theories and reforms.

"This historic context study spans more than a hundred years and the approximately 140 buildings constructed, acquired, maintained, expanded, and sometimes removed by the Minneapolis Board of Education between 1849 and 1962."

Taking a rigid free-market stance on education, Hood examines the inefficiencies and failures of America's public education system. Rather than siding with one group in particular over the matter, he finds numerous problems - monopoly of the system, centralized decision-making, tenure - which contribute to the downfall of such a system.

"Wirt devised a diverse curriculum to prepare youth for the new emerging industrial state, and a significant part of Wirt's innovative currciulum included sports, games, and play activities. Wirt referred to his system as a work-study-play school, but it was also termed as the Gary plan and platoon school."

Field gives an in depth look at Dewey, including analysis on Dewey's social theories, the public's reception of him, and his thoughts on learning and education. From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the article is cited thoroughly and examines Dewey and his philosophies with a keen academic eye.

The piece discusses the decline in America's schools, with regard to both its role as a government funded institution as well as the partnership that is formed between parent, teacher, and student. Though the structure of public education is flawed, education itself has become a political, social and cultural issue.

McCluskey discusses current social conflicts in American public schools and then explores the history of American schooling from the Founding until now.


From the description: "This is a group project for teachers about the history of education from 1900-1950."

"The Travelers" describe some of the changes in society as a result of immigration, the transition from education emphasizing the "three R's" to a progressive education model of work, study, play, and the influences of Dewey and...

This is a 4-minute sample clip about Dewey from a film that is part of the series called GIANTS. It briefly explores Dewey's critique of the reflex arc concept in psychology, his belief in truth as process, and his belief in democracy.

"In this program, Columbia University professor Sidney Morgenbesser discusses the nuances of pragmatic philosophy as expressed by three of America's greatest thinkers. Moranbesser examines Peirce's theory of meaning and the notion of fallibilism that supports the changing nature of truth. James' concept of meaning, knowledge, and truth is examined within the context of the usefulness of...

"This video presents a positive view of progressive education although it begins with a parent complaining that children are not learning the fundamentals. Various educators are seen including famed John Dewey. One skeptic asserts that ideas similar to progressive education caused a collapse of the ancient Greek civilization. Current debates about educational techniques in many respects seem...

"A quick expose of why public schools in the US are mediocre. From John Dewey to now in only 4 minutes."

Primary Document

Arguably Dewey's most controversial essay, Impressions describes Soviet Russia in a strikingly positive light. Writing just as Stalin assumed official leadership, Dewey, despite finding some slightly troublesome qualities of the regime, recognized a certain legitimacy of the Soviet system. Though he...

In this piece Dewey truly does lay out his own "creed" on education, even beginning each paragraph with, "I believe."  Using his extensive background in psychology and combining it with his social philosophy, Dewey presents five sections concerning education:
1)      What Education Is
2)     ...

G.K. Chesterton’s essay on education addresses everything from what education is, to what role parents and public schooling should play in education. Chesterton believes that education is continually occurring whether or not a person is in an acceptable educational...

In late 1936 and early 1937 the famous educational theorist John Dewey issued a set of rebuttals to Robert Hutchins' book, The Higher Learning in America. Hutchins' book...

In late 1936 and early 1937 the famous educational theorist John Dewey issued a set of rebuttals to Robert Hutchins' book, The Higher Learning in America. Dewey uses his...

In this work, Lewis defends a universal law of morality.

This book and The School and Society, "which grew out of Dewey’s hands-on...

Perhaps the pioneer in progressive education, Parker helped pave the way for Dewey and others...

This book and The Child and the Curriculum, "which grew out of Dewey’s hands-on experience in administering the laboratory school at the University of Chicago, represent the...



This FAQ provides some background on education in Minnesota, which in turn will help one to understand today's state of education.