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Jacobs: Baesler brings new methods to ND schools

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Jacobs: Baesler brings new methods to ND schools
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It’s pretty hard to leave a meeting with Kirsten Baesler without being excited.

It might be impossible.

A group of fourth graders couldn’t do it last week. Neither could adults listening to Baesler lecture. And neither could the Grand Forks Herald’s editorial board.

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Grand Forks Herald Publisher Mike Jacobs

Our board, the lecture audience and the fourth-graders from Lake Agassiz School in Grand Forks got different doses of the Baesler treatment on Tuesday afternoon. She read the students a story. She told an audience at a lecture sponsored by the University of North Dakota’s College of Education about her goals. We at the editorial board got a pep talk.

Baseler is North Dakota’s superintendent of public instruction. She was elected a year ago — as a Republican. It might be that Republicans didn’t quite know what they were getting. Baesler’s message isn’t consistent with policies Republican legislators have pursued.

She’s aggressively pushing centralization of standards, for example. These are the national “Common Core standards,” and they’ll apply in all of North Dakota’s public schools.

Common Core isn’t the old way of learning. There’s little memorization, for example, and little recitation. Instead, there’s an emphasis on understanding and applying concepts.

Plus, there’s an expectation that students will finish high school ready to take college-level classes. Remediation should be a thing of the past.

Of course, all of this will take time. It will be more than a decade before the first class graduates from the complete course, kindergarten through 12th grade.

The college-ready curriculum was created by backing into the educational system, Baesler said. Rather than determining what first graders should know, then building on that each year through high school, educators determined what high school seniors need to know in order to succeed in college. Then they applied the requirements backward by grade.

The result is that eighth-graders will be studying what once was taught to high school juniors.

The first real test of the new standards will come in 2015, when students statewide will be tested on what they know. Baesler warned that test scores will be lower than they’ve been in previous statewide evaluations. That’s the message she asked us journalists to share with readers.

Actually, standardized test scores have been flat in North Dakota, which used to rank at or near the top. The usual explanation for this — and the one Baesler offered — is that other states have improved while North Dakota has been satisfied with its results.

“It’s not that we’re getting any worse,” she said. “Other states are getting better.”

Of course, that’s still a challenge, and Baesler has tackled it enthusiastically.

In fact, she treats it as a key part of her department’s mission.

This part aligns with the state higher education system’s “Pathways to Student Success” program. Effectively, what’s sought is a coordinated educational program P through 20, as educators say. The rest of us say “pre-school through graduate study.”

The other part of Baesler’s mission is the P part of this equation: pre-school. If anything, she’s even more passionate about early childhood education than she is about public schools.

This might be the spot where she’ll be most at odds with legislators. The last session did spend more money on pre-school education than the one before it, but North Dakota still lags behind others in this area.

Baesler’s formula: “I’ll be back asking,” she said.

As a hypothetical question, we asked how she’d produce more doctors for North Dakota. Without hesitation, she said she’d “put more youngsters in lab coats.”

This was a reference to a visit she’d made to Midway School in rural Grand Forks County. Midway’s science coordinator treats the science classroom as a laboratory complete with young researches dressed in lab coats. Their task is to make discoveries. That, Baseler says, is the key to learning.

And it has to start early, before students enter first grade, she said, because the human mind absorbs and processes more at very young ages. Brain growth begins to slow down when children are just starting school.

So, concepts ranging from science to language arts are best taught to youngsters.

Of course, that’s a difficult message to sell, since it challenges the notion that children belong at home, a cherished concept among political conservatives. And early childhood education costs money, which legislators often are reluctant to spend.

But Baesler generates excitement — enough to unify educators around the new public school curriculum.

And that is just the beginning.

Jacobs is the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is part of Forum News Service.

Email him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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Forum News Service
The Forum Communications News Service is the premier news wire service covering the Upper Midwest, stretching from the oilfields of western North Dakota to the plains of South Dakota and to the shores of eastern Minnesota. For more information about the services we offer or to discuss content subscriptions, please contact us.
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