Category: Accountability

Inconvenient Truths

We Can Greet North High’s Rising Grad Rates with Polar Pride–and Still Ask What Those Diplomas Mean

 

Today in the Continuing Adventures of Minneapolis’ Biggest Buzzkill, we engage in the sad but necessary task of a little graduation-season reality check.

This morning’s Star Tribune carries a heartwarming story about the amazing turnaround at Minneapolis Public Schools’ North High, from which some 50 seniors graduate today. The piece sketches the school’s “comeback” from five years ago, complete with a graph showing the graduation rate’s rise from 44 percent to 82 percent.

Congratulations to those Polars. May their diplomas serve as a formal invitation to bright futures. The world needs bright young people like them more than ever. Let’s agree, as a community, to support them in whatever endeavors come next.

The mellow I feel obliged to harsh? The narrative that has sprung up around the rebirth of the high school—at least as depicted by this city’s newspaper of record—skirts some major potholes. In fact, I’ve been thinking of it all morning as Exhibit A in why, in 2017, regional newspapers need to do like the national ones and realize that public education is not an entry-level, tooth-cutting beat but a hard-edged policy arena in need of watchdogging.

Of the 63 members of the 2017 class who took a state reading exam in 10th grade, seven—or 11 percent—passed. Of the 54 juniors who took the math test the next year, four—or 7.4 percent—passed.

Let’s countersink that nail: Two of 42 North 10th-graders—next year’s presumed grads–last year passed the reading test.

The story takes no note of this. Continue reading

Woodward Avenue

The Other Detroit Comeback Story

A Cross-Section of Education Advocates Set Aside Their Differences to Create a Blueprint for Reshaping the City’s Education Landscape. It Almost Happened.

 

The morning John Rakolta Jr. rode the bus to school with Mrs. Robinson and her two kids it was 7 degrees in Detroit. The four stepped outside the Robinsons’ apartment building exactly at 6:15 a.m. Rakolta’s bodyguard and driver trailed at a discreet distance.

Kids bundled against a wind chill that made the trek even more frigid, they walked to the bus stop and waited. And waited. What time was the bus expected to arrive, Rakolta asked, shivering. 6:50. So why get to the stop half an hour early? Because buses are few and schedules erratic; if the 6:50 came early and they missed it there wouldn’t be another for two hours.

The panoramic windows in Rakolta’s downtown Detroit office look out over the city’s main thoroughfare. Buses go up and down Woodward Avenue, but the reality of relying on them was a rude surprise to him.

The CEO of a privately held company that builds auto assembly plants all over the world, Rakolta’s sideline avocation is race relations. He’d been part of two decades of purposeful efforts to understand his own white privilege and to build relationships between black and white Detroiters. He’s both a conservative and a booster of a black, Democratic city.

John Rakolta Jr.

John Rakolta Jr.

A major fundraiser for the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney in 2012 and Marco Rubio in 2015, Rakolta was riding the bus with the Robinsons because a few months earlier a friend had asked him to join an effort to create some stability in the city’s crumbling school system, often described as the worst in the nation. 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.

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

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

When it’s the Most Successful Schools Threatened with Closure

St. Louis Charter Parents are Denied a Voice in the Reopening of a Decades-Old Integration Case

Not long ago, I met St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, pictured above. I developed a policy crush on Slay within minutes, prompted by his success in using his office as a bully pulpit to dramatically increase quality in the city’s schools so as to keep and attracted families. Keeping the city vital. Which it is. I really liked it.

But then I met John House, who reminded me that big as Slay’s vision is, there’s much more at stake in a controversy that could ultimately shutter those quality schools. House flipped four locks to let me into his perfectly maintained, painstakingly appointed house in a tough neighborhood in North St. Louis. And then after I stepped inside, he quickly flipped them again.

We sat at a gleaming table set with cut crystal place settings for 12 and talked about the long struggle he and his wife had endured trying to find a good school for their three kids, who could be heard cooking quietly in the other room.

To cut to the chase, after years of frustrations, inequities and waiting lists, Houses children were flourishing at a St. Louis outpost of the nonprofit charter network KIPP. So what bitter irony that we were talking because St. Louis’ highest performing charters are now threatened with closure by a lawsuit filed by the traditional school district over a pot of integration funding.

The charters could be forced to return $50 million, or 10 years of funding. “When that happens and you close the doors on those schools, you’re taking the choice away from those children,” House told me, calmer than he really needed to be. “You’re forcing them to be where they don’t want to be. You’re actually going backward.”

Read the rest at The 74.

Opt-Out: White, Wealthy and Willing to Dictate to Other People’s Kids

#Optoutsowhite = So true.

A study released this week confirms it: The nationwide movement to boycott annual assessments that reveal the yawning racial disparities in schools is led by wealthy whites whose largest concern is teacher evaluations.

I knew it, but I’m still gobsmacked to learn just how wealthy and just how white. Researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University surveyed more than 1,600 opt-out movement adherents in 47 states. Turns out 92 percent are white and their median family income is $125,000–more than twice the national median.

Nearly half—45 percent–are educators. Two thirds are either teachers or opt out because of the influence of a close teacher friend. No surprise, then, their highest ranked concern is the use of student outcomes in evaluating teachers.

So the people with the means to send their children to the most desirable schools, which are staffed with the most experienced teachers, are seeking to shut down the data pipeline. Which revealed the immoral racial disparities in students’ access to quality teachers.

Oh yeah—and a majority describe themselves as progressives. Continue reading

On Willful Defiance, Power Plays and Valeria Silva’s Buy-Out

The Nearly-Million-Dollar Question the Superintendent’s Departure Begs: Who Owns St. Paul Public Schools?

 

Last fall I got a phone call from Nick Faber, who is the vice president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. He wanted to talk about the union’s home-visiting initiative, in which pairs of teachers who have received special training visit their students’ homes.

The power struggle that ended last week with the school board’s decision to buy out Superintendent Valeria Silva’s contract was in full swing at the time. The federation was campaigning hard, under the guise of pursuing equity in the schools, for the pro-union board majority that just fired Silva. The home visiting project was Exhibit A.

Faber and I had a nice talk—he’s a swell, passionate guy–but I confess to being shocked. I don’t think he realized, but the story he wanted to tell me neatly illustrates the scope of the issues Silva was trying to address, as well as the adult resistance to change. Continue reading

The Demagogues of the Left

Last night I made the mistake of jumping into a comments thread about the Opt-Out Movement, the teacher-led campaign to persuade students and parents to refuse to take the annual assessments used to identify academic achievement gaps.

Written by Brooklyn civil rights attorney Charles F. Coleman, the piece laid out why black learners are the ones most hurt by the trend. And correctly pointed out that most of those who opted out last spring were from wealthy white communities.

“To put it plainly: white parents from well-funded and highly performing areas are participating in petulant, poorly conceived protests that are ultimately affecting inner-city blacks at schools that need the funding and measures of accountability to ensure any hope of progress in performance,” Coleman wrote.

“This is one of the more obvious examples of the sort of ‘double bonus’ that privilege can create. The ability to opt out of standardized testing without serious concern for the consequences on parents’ school districts is only buttressed by the notion of having greater availability of alternative options.”

It’s a solid article. Yet within minutes it acquired a comment thread rife with hyperbole and venom. Much of it, a little Facebook backtracking revealed, from white commenters who it’s hard not to imagine neatly illustrate Coleman’s point.

Continue reading