Tag Archives: Education Policy-Minnesota

Listening to Ruth Myers as we address 2015 challenges

Note:  This is a revision of an earlier post, reposted because of the current discussions of the education, health and nutritional needs and the rights of American Indian Minnesotans:

“Weaving the stories of women’s lives” is the theme of this year’s Women’s History Month.   The story of the life of Ruth Myers is – and must be – woven into today’s fabric of the education and health of American Indian youth and families. Though Myers is no longer with us, her spirit and her political force continue to shape the educational and political ideology of the leaders she helped to form.

For decades, Ruth  Myers, known as the “grandmother of American Indian Education in Minnesota”was the driving force and voice for American Indian children and their families.  Though she died in 2001, Ruth left a legacy that might well serve as the model for Governor Dayton and the educators who are struggling with the same issues today.  Her spirit, ideas, courage, and unstinting commitment to American Indian learners set a standard to be emulated.  Her spirit can infuse and thus help shape today’s efforts.

Ruth was not a professional educator but a concerned parent, citizen and a proud member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.  Ruth was sent at an early age to an Indian boarding school, a sad fact that shaped her life and fueled her fervor.  Though she spoke little of those sad experiences, it was easy to feel her pain and the ways in which she harnessed that pain to inspire positive change.

Her accomplishments are legendary.  An elected member of the Duluth School Board, Ruth was appointed by the Governor as the first American Indian member of the Minnesota State Board of Education. Though at times she chaired that Board, she always ruled it by her presence and her persistence.

At the University of Minnesota Duluth where she worked for many years, she remains a legend.  She is credited with starting sixteen of seventeen UMD programs for American Indian students.  Colleagues there recall that, in 1973, she saw a notice in the newspaper that the UMD Medical School was developing a program for American Indians and, in the process, was organizing a committee of community members.  She knocked on the office door of the Dean of the Medical School and asked, “What Indians do you have on that committee?”  The rest is history….

Ruth’s position at UMD before retirement was Co-Director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health at the School of Medicine.  There she tended not only to recruitment and academic coaching but to life’s details; she regularly stopped at a legendary purveyor of low-cost fresh produce every time she had a meeting in St. Paul – which was often.  Often I think of how proud Ruth would be of the students to whom she offered a gentle helping hand at the most unexpected moment.

Not one to bow to academic measures, Ruth was truly pleased when UMD named the Ruth Myers Endowed Chair in American Indian Education; though she cared little about the honor she knew it would convey status and support on her beloved program.  She was also touched deeply when the Fond du Lac Community College Library was named for her; that library continues to reflect her influence in many ways.  Ruth understood well the power of the record; she often expressed a conviction that American Indian students should be encouraged to pursue professions in museums, libraries and archives so they could correct, complete and basically set the historic record straight.

Though the list of honors for Ruth is nearly infinite, possibly the most inclusive is the Minnesota Indian Education Association Elder of the Year – it says it all.

My introduction to Ruth was as a member of the State Board of Education.  On the first day, she reminded me that I was as much a member as any of the older and, I presumed, wiser members.  She also declared that, from that day forward, I was to watch out for women’s issues so she could concentrate on American Indian and other minority students.  Ruth was the mistress of gentle delegation.

Though her accomplishments as a member and Chair of the State Board of Education are inestimable, a few stand out in my clear memory of those days:

  • Ruth advocated unceasingly for review of the image of American Indians in textbooks, library materials, the core curriculum.
  • She fought for preservation of American Indian languages in the schools.
  • She insisted that every Minnesota student must know something about Indian culture.
  • She regaled education professionals about their indifference to the nutritional needs and dietary threats (e.g. milk products) for American Indian youth.
  • Ever open to change, Ruth examined every proposed rule from the perspective of how it would affect Indian kids and their families.
  • And she would frequently point to the American Indian origins of the U of M Morris campus – and the rights of American Indian students who should be encouraged to exercise their inalienable right to attend UM-Morris.

Often a body of writing conveys the thoughts of an academic who wants to have a voice in the future.  For Ruth, the voice was so strong, the commitment so staunch, the vision so clear and the passion so fervent that it is her voice that speaks to those who will but hear.  My hope is that this includes those who are shaping the future of American Indian education in Minnesota.  As with other great leaders, the vision outlives the individual and must inspire those who would seek to accomplish similar goals – if they will just listen.




Minnesota Education Policy – Who’s in Charge?

Commenting on the “America the Ugly” social studies curriculum now raising such a controversy in Minnesota, an opinion piece in the National Review Online blog asserts that “any development of American-citizenship education (history/social studies) standards should involve elected legislators in the states, which have the responsibility for education under the Constitution.”

That assertion suggests to me that what this state needs at this hour is a really good State Board of Education.  The “responsibility for education under the Constitution” [sic] may not be enough.  The raging controversy about the state standards for social studies invites discussion of the role that an independent appointed Board might play in the arena of  state education policy.   We once had one of those until 1991 when the Legislature decided to eliminate the Board and assume full responsibility for education policy and finance.

Granted the SBE was not perfect.  There was more than a hint of political favoritism when the Governor named Board members (which were, by the way, ratified by the Senate.)  And there was some inclination on the part of Board members to meddle at times in issues that had a profound impact on their constituents.

Still, the Board was a buffer and a free agency.  Over the yeas Board members grappled with some tough issues – integration of urban schools and bussing being the most prominent.  They dealt, too, with Title IX implementation and a host of issues related to the education of women and girls.  They deliberated the inclusion of American Indian history in the curriculum, the politics of the vocational system, child nutrition, school district consolidation, administrator requirements and countless other controversial matters of local and state significance.

Legislators are comfortable dealing with fiscal issues and policy related to financial formulas, disparities, the long-term implications of the Minnesota Miracle.  They ignore their constituents’ predilections at their own political peril.

Members of the State Board of Education had little to say about money.  Policy was their beat.  They answered to the Governor rather directly to the voters. The SBE was free to advocate, to serve as a liaison among constituencies, to establish and enforce policies that would never win voter approval.

There are over fifty states and other political bodies that belong to the National Association of State Boards of Education.  There are just about as many variations on the theme of policy-setting as there are systems.  A look at the mix of possibilities suggests that neither the present legislative authority nor the role of the former Board is the only way or even the best way to shape education policy at the state level.  Options abound.