(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?
Since the latest mass school shootings (this time in Roseburg, Oregon) I’ve been comparing the coverage and commentary on gun violence to education reform. Which may sound a little weird. But the politics and dynamics of gun control and ed reform are so similar, it’s worth taking a closer look.
In both cases:
- There’s a feeling of weary, hopeless resignation because no how many people get shot or how many schools keep failing, the status quo keeps chugging along.
- We’re told the problems are so incredibly big, complicated and cultural, there can be “no easy solutions.”
- Then when someone does propose a solution, we’re told it’s the wrong one and it won’t work. Examples of countries that regulate guns and don’t have mass shootings (like Canada, England, Japan and most of Western Europe) are dismissed. Ditto for the 1,000 or more high-performing (mostly charter) schools all over the country where low-income kids of color are actually thriving and disproving the theory that poverty cannot be overcome.
- We’re told the only true solution is to double-down. The answer to mass shootings is for more people to carry guns. The answer to failing district schools is to invest more money in them while getting rid of charters.
- The two issues are each dominated by powerful lobbies that block even the most mild reforms. The National Rifle Association (NRA) controls the Republican party. National Education Association(NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) wield huge influence over Democrats.
For the NRA, the last eight years have been great. The election of the country’s first African-American president galvanized the NRA’s (mostly white) membership who began buying more guns than ever. Under Obama, the percentage of Republicans who now favor gun rights over gun control shot up to 75 percent. As Talking Points Memo blogger Josh Marshall put it, “It seems clear that being pro-gun has now become a key element of Republican self-identification.”
This is a huge win. Because if you can turn an issue into a key part of self-identity, people don’t have to think much about policies, much less facts or research. Their support becomes tribal and automatic.
As a progressive, I’ve long rolled my eyes over the NRA’s hold on Republicans. But my beloved Democratic tribe has a similar dynamic going on with the NEA and AFT, although, here is where things diverge a bit in the NRA vs. NEA & AFT analogy.
Twenty years ago, conservatives mostly led the education reform movement. This was, in part, because Democrats were loathe to speak up, since loyalty to the teachers union has long been a key element of Democratic self-identity. That self-identity is still there–and the NEA & AFT are working fiercely to reinforce this—but it’s breaking down.
The ed reform movement is now increasing led by people who openly identify as progressives and/or Democrats, starting with President Obama, outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, his successor John King, More people of color are leading reform organizations. Furthermore, public polling still shows strong support for charter schools, especially among black and Latino parents who are the fastest growing segment of the Democratic party and public school population.
In response to these trends, the NEA and AFT are trying to rebrand themselves as “social justice” unions and align themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement as a way to bolster their progressive credibility.
The problem with this is that when it comes to actual education policies, the NEA-AFT positions aren’t very progressive–they are mostly an attempt to block change and innovation. And when we pay attention to the NEA & AFT’s political behavior and tactics, they are remarkably similar to the NRA’s. Which should worry progressives. For example:
1) Both the NRA and teachers’ unions use a classic bait and switch to divert blame after bad news. After mass shootings, the NRA now blames mental illness and calls for better mental health services. After the latest round of dismal reading and math scores, the NEA and AFT routinely blame poverty and call for more social services and justice: better jobs, transit, nutrition, health-care.
It all sounds very noble because truly mental health does matters as does poverty. But by immediately pivoting to bigger social issues, both the NRA and the NEA-AFT are saying, “Look over there! Away from us and the policies we actually have the power to change! You people need to go away and work on these other big things over there and leave us alone. ”
The truth is we don’t have to choose between working for better mental health care and gun control or social justice and re-designing schools to actually work for the students in the building. We can and must do both.
2) Both the NRA and teaches’ unions try to block federal and state agencies from collecting or using data that could make them look bad.
The NRA has long blocked federal research into gun injuries and death while trying to limiting access to databases about gun ownership. The teachers’ unions are now trying to roll back federal accountability requirements and block states or districts from using test data to demand any changes in school staffing or design.
Both the unions and the NRA are doing this under the language of states’ rights and local control. Which should be a red flag for progressives.
3) Both represent members who are mostly white and both defend a status quo in which white people have far more freedom and choice even as black people are disproportionately harmed.
At some point, we really need to call NRA’s right-to-bear arms what it is: White Dudes’ Freedom to Carry. Remember the gang of white guys who casually carried their assault rifles into Target and bought Oreos?
Black men don’t try these stunts for a simple reason: they get killed. Last year, Ohio police gunned down John Crawford, who had casually picked an air rifle off the shelf while shopping at Wal-Mart and talking on his cell phone. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by police within seconds for playing with a toy gun at a Cleveland park. Over all, black Americans are twice as likely to die from gun violence than whites. The burden of living in a country awash with guns is twice as deadly for them.
On the school front, at some point, we also need to call the much-lauded traditional neighborhood district school model what it actually is: school choice by mortgage. Since access to good schools mostly depends on where you live, white children are far more likely to attend effective schools than children of color.
Last year in the Vergara vs. California case, a judge ruled that the union’s tenure and seniority rules put ineffective teachers in front of children of color at grossly disproportionate rates. “The evidence is compelling. It shocks the conscience,” wrote the judge in a decision that the teachers’ union denounced as “anti-union” and “anti-teacher.”
And these are just three examples. I could keep going.
Look, I know I keep harping on this. But If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck….if the teachers’ unions behave like fundamentalists; if they do politics like the NRA; if they make the same arguments as police unions; if their policies keep leading to highly racialized outcomes…..well, these are all signs that we are not dealing with a progressive outfit or agenda, despite all their social justice speeches, massive political donations, and claims to be leftist revolutionaries.
When it comes to their actual behavior, the NEA & AFT act very much like other white conservative groups. They’re struggling to preserve a status quo that—like everything else in our 400-year history–was built on the preferential treatment of white people. As I’ve noted before:
In my state of Minnesota, our schools were created by white middle-class people, for white middle-class people and employ mostly white middle-class people. (Ninety-six percent of our state’s teachers are white, even as children of color now make up 28 percent of the enrollment.) In addition, current school rules, policies and contracts are decided by…Lord, this is getting repetitious…. mostly middle-class white people…..
I’m not arguing that public schools were deliberately, consciously set up for the preferential treatment of middle-class white people. But pragmatically speaking, that’s how the system works. This was easier to ignore or justify back in the day when the vast majority of Minneapolis students were white and doing okay. But it’s harder to morally justify when almost 70 percent of our students are now low-income kids of color and systematically failing. I mean, the whole system starts getting this antebellum vibe.
Why should this matter to progressive Democrats? Because we’ve seen what happens when Republicans make the NRA’s gun rights part of their political self-identity—as a nation we now watch helplessly as the cycles of violence go on and on.
So we should be wary of the teachers’ unions attempt to keep co-opting Democrats in a similar fashion. I am amazed at how many white liberal friends of mine, who are not normally prone to conspiracy theories, will instantly and mindlessly repeat slogans about corporate reformers attempting to destroy public education, etc.
When it comes to mass shootings, many of us hold the NRA and Republicans politically responsible for the endless carnage because they refuse to change our laws no matter how many die.
When it comes to schools, it’s the NEA, AFT and most of our elected Democrats who refuse to change our traditional system, even as we lose generation after generation of young minds.
Our elected officials will not change unless we demand it. We need to get our heads straight and hold them accountable
An earlier version of this post first appeared at Citizen Ed