(above photo from WITF50)
Last month, after all the hullabaloo over the Reading Horizons curriculum had passed, Minneapolis Public Schools quietly released its 2015 Academic Progress Report. (You can download it here. ) If you missed it, join the club. Almost no one was there. The media didn’t cover it. And the district was happy to keep it that way
But this is the academic reality the next superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools will be facing.
As background, here are the district’s demographics from its website:
First, the good news:
- MPS attendance rates look pretty good, especially in the K-8 phase, with most of our students in school 92-95 percent of the time (below chart is on page 30 of report).
- There’s no “persistence” gap. (And no, I don’t know how they assessed persistence, but MPS students appear pretty equally persistent at learning, across all ethnic groups.) (page 3).
- White children, who make up one-third of our enrollment, are thriving by every measure and out-perform the state average for white kids.
Then the so-so news:
- MPS graduation rates for students of color are trending up (page 29) yet reading and math scores are still extremely low. Which means fewer students are dropping out, yet many graduates still can’t read and do math at high school levels.
And now the bad news:
- Only 25 percent or less of our African-American, African-immigrant, Hispanic and American Indian children are reading or doing math at their grade levels. (Asians do better but still lag behind whites. Note: the big drop in test scores from 2012 to 2013 was because the state tests changed and became more rigorous. These drops were seen statewide. Also note how the huge gaps between white kids and everyone else really skews the district averages. )
Yet proficiency rates alone don’t tell the whole story because students can and do arrive at MPS schools already several grades behind. So it’s important to also look at the growth rates, which measure how much progress kids make once they’re in our classrooms.
Which brings us to the really bad news:
- The majority of our African-American and American Indian students fail to make a year’s worth of progress in MPS classrooms. Ditto for nearly 50 percent of our Hispanic and African immigrant kids. Another 20 percent or so are making one year’s worth of progress, which isn’t nearly enough, since they’re often one or more years behind. (pp.38-52) Overall, we’re closing the gap with only about 20 percent (or less) of our children of color.
- In contrast, the growth rate for white children is terrific: over half are making more than a year’s worth of progress every year. (p. 51) Asian kids do better than other kids of color, but still lag behind whites. (p.46)
To sum up— just so we’re all clear on what’s happening here—according to the district’s own report: Most of our children of color show up, work persistently, and yet every year they’re in our classrooms, 50 percent or more of them fall further behind.
I mean, I thought I was jaded. But when I saw these numbers, I wanted to weep. Our academic gaps aren’t shrinking. For kids of color, who make up two-thirds of the district’s enrollment, the gaps are actually getting bigger than longer the kids stay in the district.
I don’t know how you can look at this data and not conclude that, despite years of rhetoric and professed good intentions, something’s really wrong with how we’re delivering education to 24,000 children in this city.
Eric Moore, the district’s director of assessments and research, estimates that 40 percent of problems are due to factors beyond the district’s control, i.e. poverty, the parents’ level of education, etc. So yes, poverty does matter and progressives are right to be pushing for better jobs, housing, transit and health care.
But there’s a chicken and egg dilemma here: it’s also hard to get a good job, if you can barely read or do math and yet that’s what we’re setting these kids up for. Which is why the whole “fix poverty vs. fix schools” is ultimately a (often deliberate) distraction. We need to fix both because if 40 percent of the issues are outside the district’s control, that means 60 percent of the problems are conceivably under the district’s power to change.
And here’s where we can inject some much-needed good news: it doesn’t have to be like this. Big urban districts with huge majorities of low-income children of color can actually change for the better—-check out the results now coming out of Washington, DC, or Boston. Or New Orleans. Or the ever-growing number of urban charter schools that are getting significantly better results. None of it is easy. None of it was done overnight. And all involved huge battles—something that conflict-averse Minnesotans usually are keen to avoid, especially if it means challenging allies or friends.
Yet Minneapolis is a city that prides itself on its progressive values and politics. So the question is: are we willing to do the hard work and have the hard fights? And if not, what does that say about us and what–or who–we really value?
(Jon Overmyer, Newsart, courtesy Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently ran a revised version of my earlier post about how the culture in the teachers’ union resembles the Christian fundamentalism. To recap, I grew up among the conservative Baptists and in my experience, both the Christian Right and teacher union leaders tend to:
1) Frame issues as either-or, heaven-or-hell choices with apocalyptic endings (i.e. either you support every clause in the contract or you’re trying to bust the union. Either you romanticize teachers or you’re “bashing” them.)
2) Demonize opponents. (Ed reformers aren’t just wrong about educational policy — they must have evil intent.)
3) Deny or dismiss data that challenges their worldview. (Example: the results in New Orleans)
4) Resist any change to tradition, even if this means disenfranchising entire groups of people. (The union reacts to high-performing charters pretty much the same way fundies react to gay marriage.)
5) Represent a base that is mostly white, aging and nostalgic for an alleged better past that must be “reclaimed.”
The piece ran on the cover of the Sunday opinion section and got over 400 comments, including this one:
“In 25 years of negotiating contracts with labor unions; the most inflexible, dogmatic, distrustful, least enlightened are the teacher’s unions. The Teamsters, by way of contrast, are tough and professional without the weirdness of the Education Minnesota faithful. I’ve seen teacher union reps rip on members who dared to question the party line in a way that leaders of AFSCME and SEIU would never do. For a union made up of supposedly smart people, it is remarkably devoid of tolerance for differences of opinion.”
This is so true. Over the years, I’ve belonged to two different unions and observed a variety of different negotiations and nothing comes close to the dogmatic, self-righteousness, entitlement, and sense of aggrieved victimhood of the teachers’ union, although the police unions are also right up there. I’m still puzzling over why this is.
Five days later, the paper ran a counterpoint (“Union-bashing views are also rigid”) from Minneapolis Public Schools teacher Alan Husby. Husby’s piece basically proved the above points #1-3. It was also full of so much classic disinformation that New Orleans educator and blogger Peter Cook added it to his fact check collection.
Click here to read Husby’s piece—and if you click on the highlighted sections, you will see Peter’s comments and corrections. My thanks to Peter for his good reporting, especially regarding what’s happened in New Orleans—a city that where he’s lived and taught since 2002.