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Show up, work hard, fall farther behind: the latest results in Minneapolis should make us wince

(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:

Student demographics

First, the good news:  

Then the so-so news:

MPS Graduation trends

And now the bad news:

Reading scoresMath scores

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:

African-A, Growth scoresAfrican growth ratesAm. Indian Growth ratings Hispanic growth scores

white growth scores


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 the 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?

—–Lynnell Mickelsen

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