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 Response Page - Thomas  Interview -      

These comments are responses to the questions listed below,
which were generated in regard to the
Doug Thomas Interview of


Doug Thomas, co-founder, Minnesota New Country School, Henderson, Minnesota, brings to the Caucus an example of successful innovation in the education field.  Seventeen years ago Doug Thomas co-founded the Minnesota New Country School, a successful charter high school that incorporates self-directed project-based learning, autonomous school management, teacher "ownership" and democratic governance in a small-school setting.  

He describes what makes the school different from traditional "command/control" public schools, and how this radically changes the experience for teachers and students. He details the process of replicating the school model in other communities in Minnesota and elsewhere. While this school is perhaps unconventional at present, he contends that the principles underlying its design are sound and far more compatible with both teacher and student needs than more common traditional school models.

For the complete interview summary see:

Response Summary:  Readers have been asked to rate, on a scale of (0) most disagreement, to (5) neutral, to (10) most agreement, the following points discussed by Thomas. Average response ratings shown below are simply the mean of all readers’ zero-to-ten responses to the ideas proposed and should not be considered an accurate reflection of a scientifically structured poll.

1. Professional partnerships. (7.3 average response) Teachers should be allowed to run their schools as professional partnerships, much as partners practice in law, accounting or investment firms, with autonomous control over budget and staffing and full accountability for financial and academic success.

2. Project-based learning. (7.7 average response) In contrast to traditional classroom learning, students, parents and teachers should be allowed to use project-based learning, which emphasizes student needs and interests incorporated in a personalized learning plan, aided by extensive use of technology.

3. Assessment requirements. (8.0 average response) For intended results to be achieved in teacher-run, project-based schools, authentic assessment is essential, enabled by multiple adult advisors for each student, electronic standards tracking, community involvement, ongoing life skills measurement, and standardized testing.

4. Department of Education support. (7.0 average response) The Minnesota Department of Education should encourage schools organized around project-based learning and managed by professional associations of teachers to be widely replicated. 


Response Distribution:

Strongly disagree

Moderately disagree


Moderately agree

Strongly agree

Total Responses

1. Professional partnerships.







2. Project-based learning.







3. Assessment requirements.







4. Department of Education support.







Individual Responses:

Bert LeMunyon  (7.5)  (5)  (7.5)  (5)

2. Project-based learning. I think project-based learning is best for students that have difficulty with traditional learning.  Many students flourish with traditional learning.

4. Department of Education support. Perhaps project-based learning should be tried in schools that are otherwise failing their students.

R. C. Angevine  (7.5)  (7.5)  (5)  (5)

1. Professional partnerships. While I have trouble seeing this as an overall solution to the current education system issues I do think that it can work in some situations, primarily in smaller population areas.  I support this as long as the results back up the process.

3. Assessment requirements. The New Country School seems to take advantage of a large amount of volunteer assistance.  I question whether this is workable across the board and wonder what the true costs are if this volunteer labor needs to be supplemented by paid labor.

4. Department of Education support. I agree the State needs to be supportive and not a roadblock but again would like to see the results.

John W. Sievert  (0)  (5)  (7.5)  (0)

1. Professional partnerships. Teachers are abjectly deficient in management capability.  This is not what they do best.  A better model would be the one that is used in hospitals - a hospital administrator with profit and loss responsibility and a competent medical chief of staff who has significant power to make decisions.    Charter schools in general have failed abysmally.  There are a few examples where it works (like the school presented here).  Largely issues like curriculum and management pale in comparison to parental involvement and commitment.  Dig deeper here and I think you will find that that is the basis of their success and not much else.

2. Project-based learning. Sure. But leave it up to schools, teachers and school boards to decide.

3. Assessment requirements. Yes, but there is no assessment and accountability on parents and families to follow through on their part of the plan. That is the huge piece that we are missing. For example, a school has to come to a plan together with the family detailing what each will do for a special education student's plan.  If the school does their part and the family doesn't do their part, the standardized test score doesn't improve and the school is on the hook for that.  So more resources get applied to this child even though the family doesn't follow through.  Where's the accountability in that?  At some point, the schools ought to be able to take their case to an administrative law judge and if the judge agrees, then the parents who are not following through ought to be taxed for the additional resources they are consuming and wasting.

4. Department of Education support. MDE ought to stay out of it.  One size doesn't (fit) all and we need to make that a local decision and a teacher decision.

Bill Marx  (10)  (10)  (7.5)  (7.5)

1. Professional partnerships. Teachers and all others running a school need to be partners in the operation.

2. Project-based learning. This is how learning occurs.

4. Department of Education support. MDE does not encourage as much as facilitate.

Chris Brazelton  (7.5)  (10)  (7.5)  (7.5)

1. Professional partnerships. As we have seen in the Charter school development in Minnesota, this works better at some sites than others.  As in anything, it depends on the mix of people involved, and their capacity for achieving the level of success that the New Country School has.

2. Project-based learning. I wholeheartedly agree that kids are motivated to learn when the topic is one that stirs up their own passions, especially in a hands-on environment.

3. Assessment requirements. All kids leave school to become citizens of the world, and if public dollars are being expended there is some responsibility to ensure that the dollars are used wisely and that the graduates have certain fundamental abilities.  As the speaker indicated, the replication of this program to other schools was not uniformly successful.

4. Department of Education support. Again, the success of any school depends on the people involved.  Some schools and systems have a better structure for success, and I appreciate what the speaker has accomplished through New Country.  As we compare the results, and look at some of the failures in the district system, his successes are impressive.

Jason Just  (7.5)  (7.5)  (7.5)  (5)

2. Project-based learning. Technology-aided education is the key -- partnered with dedicated time. Today any concept, topic or idea can be learned anywhere and at any time by anyone -- with the time. Many high school students thrive with technology-led learning (e.g., hybrid online classes), but some lack the discipline to "do the class" outside of the physical walls of a building.

3. Assessment requirements. Multiple adult advisors (are) key—and expensive in the traditional "district" unless resources are allocated for such.

4. Department of Education support. New Country appears to work great for small schools. Large Urban or Suburban High Schools are going to have trouble. Giving small, local control, when class sizes are 500 kids (and schools are 2000 kids - larger than the size of Henderson) is going to require some radical changes. Not that radical might not be good -- but it’s going to take more than four questions and Mr. Thomas' understanding and good will.   

More comments:  The interview brought up the idea that some students will not choose a school that does not have sports.... or some music opportunity. Sports (and other co-curriculars) are entrenched in our schools, and drive many students to "show up" each day. These opportunities teach some concepts that are difficult to learn anywhere else (physical drive, time management when emotionally and/or physically depended upon, resilience, perseverance, etc.). The question needs to be addressed—and I think can be answered: how can we fit-in these co-curriculars?    This was a very interesting interview and I think I could comment for a long time.

Peter Hennessey  (7.5)  (2.5)  (7.5)  (2.5)

1. Professional partnerships. This is (almost) the definition of a good private school. Good luck getting this past the unions. Good luck finding the teachers who think of themselves as professionals at this level, good luck finding those who truly are.

2. Project-based learning. There is room for both traditional teaching and project-based teaching. Sometimes you have to lecture, sometimes you have to guide so the student can arrive at the solution by himself, sometimes you have to focus on the individual student and sometimes there is room for collaboration on a project, assuming each student has a part for which he alone is responsible and understands how his part and the parts of the others fits in with the whole. Technology has nothing to do with this. Socrates and Archimedes did not even have paper and pencil, they scribbled in the sand.

3. Assessment requirements. Objective standards and testing are always required. Otherwise how would you know if you are doing any good? Again, tracking progress does not have to rely on technology; us old fogey's still managed to get grades and test scores back in the pencil and paper days.

4. Department of Education support. The best thing any state and federal department of education can do is close up shop (and) stop wasting valuable resources on useless, obtuse and obtrusive bureaucracy and their intrusive unfunded mandates that have nothing to do with education. Education is a personal, family and local matter. The students go to school in their neighborhoods, not in the state capital or in Washington DC. The bureaucrats there have no idea what needs and challenges confront the individual student and his school.

W. D. (Bill) Hamm  (0)  (0)  (0)  (0)

1. Professional partnerships. As soon as schools are owned by teachers we the people will give them autonomous control, not one … minute sooner. As for other accountability, let them stand in competition against home schooling and private schooling. When they truly can compete we will notice.

2. Project-based learning. Project based learning is just another (phrase) from the …elitists who have done everything possible to turn the simple job of educating our children into something almost incomprehensibly too complex to be manageable. The system we used in years gone by that adequately served 94% of our students was far better than this individualized, over-complicated (approach) again being pushed here. Brain science has clearly proven that rote is how we learn.

3. Assessment requirements. First of all we need -un, child-based schools using objective analysis to insure that quality education has been achieved. Authentic assessment in this context is merely more … jargon for more subjective (touchy feely) analysis over realistic objective analysis. No amount of subjective nonsense will tell you if little Johnny actually learned to add, subtract, multiply, or divide. Only good old-fashioned objective and provable analysis will accomplish this measurement chore.

4. Department of Education support. The Minnesota Department of Education needs to be all but eliminated along with the legislature’s ignorant oversight of education.

David Dillon  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)

Don Anderson  (0)  (7.5)  (2.5)  (2.5)

Mary Pickard  (7.5)  (10)  (10)  (10)

1. Professional partnerships. This and many of the other concepts are good if they are grounded in sound practice.  Should they be allowed to do this?  Yes, if they know what they're doing.  It's not easy and requires a new approach and discipline.  Now that one school has worked through this, the principles, discipline, methods should be taught to others.  It's likely not the right work environment for all teachers.

2. Project-based learning. Applying learning is pretty basic.  But again, it requires a new discipline that may not come easily to administrators and teachers.  I think it's critical for learning and developing confidence and the ability to make one's way in the world.  Reminds me of "the old days" when schools had high quality extra-curricular activities that mirrored classes:  music, art, drama, speech, language clubs, science clubs, local volunteering, etc.  Those were opportunities for students to have fun, apply learning, and extend learning in a group setting -- especially when the advisors were also their teachers.

Ralph Brauer  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)

In these days of rapid change and a global economy, project-based learning, not multiple-choice tests should be how our students are taught and assessed.  Three decades ago the bipartisan A Nation At Risk recommended project-based learning, computerized personal learning plans and teaching systemic thinking. In the time since, we have gone backward not forward. It is refreshing to see people like Doug Thomas with the vision and leadership to see what education needs.  The only thing missing from this vision is system-based assessment of each school.  Without it success can be illusory and misleading.

Glenn Gruenhagen  (na)  (na)  (na)  (na)

Thank you for the information; I am a strong supporter of charter schools.

Al Quie  (10)  (10)  (9)  (10)

Vici Oshiro  (na)  (na)  (na)  (na)

New Country School is an excellent example of an R&D school, but it is not a model that will fit everywhere.  One size/model does not fit all.  This does raise some important issues about standards and state supervision, but does not propose solutions to those issues.  We need state standards and supervision without micromanagement - a balance not easy to achieve.

Wayne Jennings  (8)  (10)  (10)  (10)

Minnesota New Country School is one of the most innovative and successful schools in the nation. I think that’s attributable more to its curriculum and design than the co-op model. You could have a teacher partnership that maintained the status quo. This one doesn’t but another might.

Terry Stone  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)

This is a great concept informed by a tremendous apolitical effort.

Ray Cox  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)

Our education system today in America has become suffocated with too much administration. The types of schools Mr. Thomas describes would be a welcome breath of fresh air in the education process.

Richard McGuire  (8)  (8)  (10)  (10)

Fascinating.  I was not aware that this school and this system existed.  Our educational system is going to need a great deal (of) innovation going forward if we are to achieve what we need to achieve.  We need to openly think about doing things differently.  I have been involved for 9 years with an organization that puts tutors from all walks of life into inner city Catholic Schools, as a way to put additional free teaching resources into cash strapped schools.

David Alley  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)

New Country School is a great model.

Tom King  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)

I remember Doug from my halcyon Saturn School days in St. Paul years ago, where we did many of the same things. He's another pioneer, but one who was able to make it happen much longer than we did.

Reforming a school is hard, keeping it reformed is harder, (and) replicating it elsewhere is darn near impossible. But that's no excuse for trying.

Paul and Ruth Hauge  (6)  (6)  (7)  (7)

Scott Halstead  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)

This probably would not work well in all settings but possibly could be included in most school districts as an alternative program and include extracurricular activities for the students to participate.

Bert Press  (0)  (0)  (5)  (0)

Rick Bishop  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)

I have been a long-time colleague, friend and supporter of Doug and charter environments.  I lead a founding team of a Minneapolis charter school and utilized, at the time, project-based learning.  Before the onset of this process, I initiated similar portfolio-based learning at Mounds View Area Learning Center.  Thank you for highlighting Doug and his initiative.

Carolyn Ring  (8)  (6)  (8)  (7)

This all would take considerable training of how to set goals and expected outcomes, mediating of different ideas among the faculty, willingness of faculty to cooperate with decisions made etc.  There is no doubt more teacher, parent and student input is needed and the ideal should be pursued.

Lyall Schwarzkopf  (7)  (7)  (9)  (7)


The Civic Caucus   is a non-partisan, tax-exempt educational organization.   The Core participants include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and business. Click here  to see a short personal background of each.

   Verne C. Johnson, chair;  David Broden, Charles Clay, Marianne Curry, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje,  Jim Hetland,  Marina Lyon, Joe Mansky, John Mooty,  Jim Olson,  and Wayne Popham 

The Civic Caucus, 01-01-2008
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