A Voucher is a Voucher is a Voucher–And They’re All Wrong

This is a rant about school vouchers—which I oppose. And it’s a shaggy dog story of sorts. It ties together in my mind, so if you care at all about the former, I hope you will stick with the latter. Because Minnesota, in the Crazy Mixed Up World window that is 2017, is actually entertaining the notion of sending tax dollars to private schools.

Calling them tax credits, or scholarships, doesn’t change the basic calculus. We are talking about sending public money—which people of myriad creeds contribute, because way back when we decided we were one nation, indivisible—to institutions that may decide to flaunt civil rights.

Not long ago, I was in Texas interviewing parents at, among other events, a school choice fair. I stopped at the booth of a school serving students on the autism spectrum that claimed to get great results via novel methods. After chatting with the school’s founder for a little while, I arranged a visit.

The school was private, not a public charter. Special ed is a notoriously bureaucratic corner of education. The decision to open a private school was driven by his and his colleagues’ desire to be free to adhere, unfettered, to their approach.

When I got to the school, all I could see were red flags. Texas-sized, fire-engine-red flags. Flags Christos could unfurl across a cattle barony big enough to encircle Delaware. I left. I hit one last taqueria. I flew home. Continue reading

Shooting Every Single Messenger—and Expecting the News to Change

Comes now the news that Minneapolis Public Schools’ communications chief has resigned some three months after her appointment.

Is this good news? Bad?

Who knows. Seriously.

When the news rolled in Monday I was in the process of wading through all 123 pages of the PowerPoint presented at the Minneapolis School Board’s March 28 meeting. I was in search of a particular factoid, and I was falling into a familiar rabbit hole.

The presentation had pages of graphs and charts showing increases in Minneapolis Public Schools graduation rates, including a long dissection of how better record-keeping contributed to the rise–but no actual numbers showing how much of the increase was the result of improved tracking.

There were also charts outlining the results of a survey that found—unbelievably and in total contradiction even to other data in the same presentation—that almost all families are thrilled with their children’s experiences with MPS, that they feel affirmed culturally and are asked for their feedback on the school’s operations on a regular basis.

Not surveyed: The third of Minneapolis families using public education who enroll their school-aged kids somewhere other than MPS—a percentage that rises to half on the north side.

And, the piece de resistance: a communications plan including the sharing of positive stories about MPS, “proactive communications and issues management” and an “eventual” marketing campaign aimed at retaining and recruiting families to district schools. Because none of that EVER occurred to communications regimes past. Continue reading

 To be a Woman in the Age of Trump

 

Did you wear a pink hat? Stay home? Help a girl make sense? Reactions to the post-inaugural marches were as varied as womankind

 

After pretty much everyone I knew marked #45’s inauguration by marching in St. Paul, I reached out to a list of women I know who all write about education to start a dialogue about our varied perspectives and our shared passion–equity for kids. I had no idea the reaction it would get. Hard truths, spoken word? We’ve got it.

After a long series of emails, we decided to edit the best parts of the conversation into a blog post to share. My colleague Kerry-Ann Royes in Florida–helpful context: Jamaican by birth–hosted the effort at her blog Faces of Education, which is hyperlinked below. My friend Vesia Hawkins in Nashville has added to the project by making a short, shareable video. The woman in the photo above on the right is my friend Maureen Kelleher; the moppet next to her is her daughter.

It’s our collective hope you’ll want to contribute by commenting. Read on, and you’ll know why I love this group.

***

Fellow women writers, education advocates and mama bears: I didn’t go to the Women’s March the day after the presidential election–I’m too much of a journalist at heart to participate in protests–but I followed all of your Facebook posts and tweets as closely as if I’d been there.

I was astonished to realize that in the incredible diversity of opinions we had about the event and about the need to keep showing up for children. Some of you took your children to introduce them to a kind of civic activism that fuels you. Some of you support our kids just as fiercely, yet did not find the same meaning in the march.

I’m moved, in the wake of the largest peaceful protest in U.S. history, to open a dialogue. What does it mean to be, raise and educate women in the age of Trump? Let’s share with each other and then with our readers. I’ll kick it off:

Schools are full of girls learning to be women. They are full of women trying to have an impact on the dreams of the girls coming up behind them. This is no trifling thing. Did you know that when I was a schoolgirl there literally was no such thing as a woman’s athletic shoe? We wore smaller men’s shoes. My mother could not get a credit card or buy a house. I could go on. Continue reading

How Parents Benefit from School Accountability

How many of you remember the late, great Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America”? It’s been the soundtrack in my ur-brain over the last few weeks as a new and challenging project has kept me from this blog. The winter in question back when I got to hear Scott-Heron play that song at First Avenue was the start of the Reagan Administration. Bleak as that time was, January 2017 feels darker.

Those national headlines are squeezing out important local news. All anyone can think about in education circles at the moment is Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Education Department, Betsy DeVos. I took a look at her influence on my beloved Detroit last spring, and I have nothing optimistic to say to you about her–except that at least in the near future her potential influence on local schools is not likely to be as big as that of Minnesota education officials.

Among those local headlines not being generated are any comprehensive looks at how Minnesota will among other things, collect and use information on how well schools are serving our kids. Discussions on this really important issue are underway in St. Paul right now.

My colleague and friend Laura Waters, who serves on the Lawrence Township Board of Education and blogs at New Jersey Left Behind, has written something clear and smart about why the topic matters to parents. I love her “inputs and outputs” approach, so I’ve borrowed her post and offer it to you here:

Beyond Staples: How Parents Benefit from School Accountability

By Laura Waters

If you’re a parent like me, at the start of each school year you eagerly learn all about the course content your child will study, the enrichment opportunities available, the field trips your child will take and the school supplies your child will need as you brace yourself for that evening’s trip to Staples.

If you’re a taxpayer like me, you know how much of your money goes to public education. In other words, you are well-informed about everything that goes into your child’s educational experience, which we can call “input.” But what about the output? How much do you really know, outside of parent-teacher conferences and the quarterly report card, about your child’s learning outcomes?

The answer is likely “not much,” and that’s true across America, both at the micro-level of your specific child and at the macro-level of schools, districts and historically under-served subgroups like English-language learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and students from economically-disadvantaged homes.

Yet, according to federal law—once called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), now called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—schools and states are responsible for both inputs and outputs in order to ensure adequate school quality and equity.

Another word for this sort of responsibility is “accountability,” a much-maligned word in the education arena, often clustered with other imprecations like “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” “standardized tests,” and “value-added teacher evaluations.”

But accountability simply means that states are responsible not only for adequate inputs like sufficient funding, ambitious course content standard and high-quality instruction, but also for outputs like accurate measures of student learning and teacher effectiveness. They are also responsible for intervening in the lowest-performing schools through extra funding, new leadership and other turnaround strategies.

These strategies, of course, are mere inputs. If student achievement—the ultimate output—remains stagnant then those initiatives represent wasted resources and, more urgently, wasted time for that school’s students.

Over the last several years federal and state accountability legislation has come under attack from a duo of strange bedfellows: Tea Party/Trump-ish acolytes who wave the banner of local control and teacher union leaders who disdain objective measurements of student learning, at least when they’re tied to teacher evaluations and job security.

ESSA, America’s new federal education law, provides wiggle room to accommodate this political pressure, a kind of NCLB-lite, extracting federal teeth to gum onto the cachet of hands-off government.

Yet states still must, like under NCLB, administer annual standardized tests to students in grades three through eight, intervene in the lowest-performing schools, report progress for historically under-served subgroups, and submit accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education.

But states can also play limbo (how low can you go?) with tying student outcomes to teacher evaluations and with how they measure school quality.

Daria Hall of Education Trust warns:

We have to be really cautious because we know that states have a long track record of not making tough decisions when it comes to the interest of low-income students, students of color, English-language learners. If states are going to walk away from those students, we are going to lose whatever progress we’ve made with those students, who now make up the majority of our public school population.

Clear and sober data can help parents make informed school choices and learn more than what goes on that Staples shopping list. That’s a key goal of accountability systems. Now if only states could accept responsibility for the elements necessary to ensure that all students have access to the input of effective instructional services and the output of developmentally-appropriate proficiency.

At Toasty’s Coffee Shop, They Just Want to Warm You Up

Inside a New Orleans School That’s Found a New Way to Help Graduates with Disabilities Work Toward Independence

There are two really good reasons why you should read my latest story:

  1. Because Duong and Torian, who served me a mighty fine cup of coffee at their school’s coffeeshop, are heartwarming charmers. That’s Torian in the photo above, and he is just that smiley!
  2. Because the way that New Orleans has restructured services for students with disabilities has game-changing potential. In short, schools can now concentrate on what each individual young person needs to reach their highest potential without worrying that meeting those needs will drain the budget.

 

St. Paul School Board Shores up Public Trust… by Meeting in Secret

Did you hear the one about the school board members who, realizing they had a public trust problem, decided to fix it by meeting in private?

State officials have advised St. Paul Public Schools that board members may conduct closed-door meetings with school administrators and teachers union leaders to work on “trust, relationships, communication and collaborative problem solving.”

According to its petition to the state, after a year of tension and chaos the district wants to “strengthen community engagement and commitment among [the Board], district administrators, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT), parent advisory councils (PACs), students, and other stakeholders.”

They’re calling it—wait for it—the Collaborative Public Engagement Project.

The notion that these private confabs don’t violate the state’s Open Meetings Law is astonishing—and debatable. But it’s positively gobsmacking that the school board, whose leadership is all in favor of the meetings, thinks that more secrecy will strengthen community buy-in. Continue reading

New Orleans’ Near-Zero-Bluster School Board Race

And why it’s Relevant to Minneapolis’ and St. Paul’s History of Ugly School Board Elections

Are you headed out tonight to what might be the last, and most comprehensive, Minneapolis School Board candidate forum? You should be. It’s being hosted by Animate the Race and sponsored by a host of local organizations including the Children’s Theatre, where the event will be held.

This is important for any number of reasons, not least that those elected next week in this most down-ticket of races will join the board at a pivotal moment. Beyond that, though, there’s the matter of democracy. The DFL chose its four endorsees last spring at an unbelievably ugly citywide endorsing convention in which a small number of people chose a slate–a mechanism that has historically mostly resulted in the anointing of board candidates acceptable to the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

This isn’t unique to Minneapolis, or to Minnesota. With what’s often a single-digit turnout, school board races are notoriously easy for special interests to dominate. You might think that’s okay if it’s your interest that’s ascendant in any given election cycle, but it’s not a truly healthy way to approach governance.

In service to this assertion, I offer you a story of mine that went live today, in which the politics of two school board races–the board that soon will oversee New Orleans’ schools and its more conventional next-door neighbor–provide an illustrative contrast.

This is the tale of two school districts: New Orleans, the most intently watched, politically charged experiment in modern education reform, and Jefferson Parish, the suburban bookend to New Orleans’s mossy, Creole charms.

In one, bold and effective reforms that enabled the district to change the way it staffed schools provoked a backlash — $650,000 in spending by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to elect a pro-union school board.

In the other, bold and effective reforms that enabled schools to change the way they staff themselves and structure their days have sparked the quiet, all-but-decided election of a board that — at least, in principle — favors continued change.

Paradoxically, the hard-fought, big-money contest was Jefferson Parish’s 2014 school board election. And national ramifications notwithstanding, this month’s Orleans Parish School Board election is the sleeper.

Why the DFL’s Addiction to ‘Fakequity’ is the Real Problem with the Minneapolis School Board

Twin Cities school board elections are not very democratic, and the big-D democrats hereabouts are just fine with that

Have you heard the term “fakequity”? It’s a genius bit of shorthand. It means to talk about racial or socioeconomic equity–to study it, appoint task forces, tweak the nomenclature—without actually disrupting the way that power and its corollary, money, accrues.

I raise this because with the election just weeks out, we’re keister-deep in urgent, breathy talk about equity. Some of these narratives are much more palatable to the white and the privileged than others. The most dispiriting aspect is the vigor with which the defense of the status quo is being depicted as a crusade for racial and socioeconomic justice.

Nowhere is this more true than in races where public education is an issue. It was the dominant storyline last year regarding the St. Paul School Board, where an equity-branded DFL and teacher-union slate, now ensconced, is attempting to figure out how to square its campaign promises with some harsh choices.

And it’s the story in Minneapolis, where the impending school board election—again, possibly a sweep by a DFL and teacher-union slate–is positively shellacked in talk of equity. Never mind that the new candidates’ position statements are heavy on nostalgia for a perhaps-imagined era where recess ruled and someone else worried about that pesky poverty.

The slate’s election would give DFL traditionalists five and possibly six seats on the nine-member board.

It’s not just a St. Paul and Minneapolis problem. DFLers who have bucked party traditionalists at the state level on education have found themselves exiled to committees and caucuses where they have no influence, or have come up against primary challengers backed by their supposed partisans.

Which is exactly as our liberal chattering classes would have it. The process of choosing school board members is undemocratic and punishing and the visibility of the people willing to say so just increases. Yet the rhetoric-reality divide isn’t going to close until the DFL grapples honestly with the inequities that lie at the root of Minnesota’s nation-leading gaps in outcomes for wealthy white children and everyone else. Continue reading

Meet Erin Ecklund Clotfelter, Champion for Kids with Disabilities

Erin Ecklund Clotfelter is the mother of four: 7-year-old twins who were diagnosed with autism at age 2, a 6-year-old recently diagnosed with ADHD, and a 2-year-old. She lives in Minneapolis’ Northeast neighborhood, where her older sons attend Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS).

Clotfelter is the co-chair of the district’s Special Education Advisory Council, a role she took on just as Minneapolis was beginning the process of inclusion. Like many districts, MPS is working to move students with disabilities out of isolated classrooms and in to the same academic programming and social opportunities as their peers.

Most of the headlines involving this sometimes-controversial push have decried the disproportionate number of African-American, American-Indian and Latino children placed in special education for willful or defiant behavior. But children with intellectual and developmental disabilities are often caught in the belief gap, too.

Read Erin’s interview here. Continue reading