Category: Accountability

Opt Out So White: The Self-Reflection Edition

In Which A Couple of Teachers Argue Parents Shouldn’t Question Whether Their Children’s Needs Are Being Met

Once upon a time, meaning back when I went to journalism school, reporters were told not to think about what readers wanted. We were the vaunted “gatekeepers” who decided what was important and therefore merited space in the newspaper.

If readers couldn’t muddle their way through our expert, if hideously turgid, explanation of what happened last night at the public works subcommittee meeting? Why, they were dullards! Secretly, we hoped they never got called for jury duty.

This assholish contempt for readers persisted well into the age of the internet, when it became possible to measure traffic. Not only could we see what people clicked on, we could discern how long they spent on a webpage, which told us whether they actually read the story.

Ah, when that worm turned? You shoulda heard the howling. Suddenly no one wanted to write about regulatory reform on Wall Street, just Britney and Paris. And for a moment—with Craigslist decimating the classifieds and digital advertising slashing display ad revenue–newspaper editors lost their collective minds and assigned rivers of clickbait.

At first we were all freaked out about all of this data being used to inform news judgment and personnel decisions. I mean, is it fair to use the same traffic expectations to evaluate the reporter who covers Michele Bachmann, the subject of Google searches in Khazakstan, with the Labor Department reporter?

In some corners of the news industry, a few of the lemmings took detours, and discovered some interesting things. Turns out people are hungry for news. And contrary to popular journalistic wisdom, they want voice and context and analysis. They want public affairs journalism to be more like “The Big Short” and less like a turgid regurgitation of, well, anything.

Continue reading

Opt-Out So White Redux: White Minnesota “Progressives” Address School Disparities by Choking Off the Data Identifying Them

The other day my older son told me a revealing story about his final days as a student in Minneapolis Public Schools. One day last spring one of his teachers informed the class that if they wanted to take the state science exams they were welcome to go down to the office and schedule a time.

This was the International Baccalaureate section of a hard science course, a dozen kids who presumably would make Southwest High School and its teachers look shiny and successful. And who were all, at the time, prepping for a solid month of IB testing—something the school brags about in its marketing efforts.

As he talked I looked up the recently released results of the assessments. At his school 43 kids, or a little more than a 10th of the class, took the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments in math. Sixty-one 10th graders took the reading test. Resulting involving fewer than 10 students are not reported publicly for privacy reasons; too few 11th graders to count took the math test.

So like 104 of about 1,400 kids who were supposed to take the test did. And what have we heard about it from the higher-ups? Zip.

This is the third year running district and state leaders have done nothing when confronted with abundant evidence that teachers are putting up roadblocks to the collection of data. I mean, for fewer than 10 kids to take the math test how many people had to turn a blind eye–or collude–all the way up to the highest levels of the education system? Continue reading

Minnesota’s Grand Plan to Collect a River of Data—And Then Bury It

Confidential to the Denizens of Lake Wobegon: You know that whole Garrison Keillor shtick about all the kids being above average actually makes fun of our collective tendency to engage in magical thinking, right?

What’s that? You get that the shtick is a shtick—but your kid really is one of the above average ones? You willing to bank their future on that?

For the second year in a row, the parent resource hub Learning Heroes reports that Americans dramatically overestimate their kids’ academic achievement. Ninety percent of us believe our kids are on track in school, while in fact an apples-to-apples test administered to a cross-section of U.S. students every four years puts the number at one in three.

It astounds me that increasingly the reaction to news such as this—particularly among affluent white parents and at least here in the Twin Cities many of the educators who staff their schools—is to attempt to get rid of the flow of data. Or failing that, to bury the numbers.

I mean, we’re talking about the very same class of people for whom worrying about the kids’ economic and social advantages is a competitive sport. And yet here we are, in perfect Minnesota form, responding to a federal law requiring an overhaul of the way we track schools’ performance by creating a new system that will collect terrific data but minimize its practical uses—to help children in poverty and with disabilities. Continue reading

If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Co-opt ‘em

With the dust settling, turns out this year’s legislative session might have been a good one for kids

 

You might be forgiven for tuning out as this year’s state Legislature ground its way toward adjournment, adjourned, went back into session, adjourned, went back into session and finally, mercifully, adjourned for good.

I know I did. From reading the headlines it seemed like Minnesota SOP: Incremental gains in both policy and finance that let the electeds from both parties to go back to their districts claiming to have delivered for kids–if nothing transformative.

And so I have been reading and rereading a newly released wrap-up of the session’s finer points put together by EdAllies, a policy advocacy group, with a mixed mind. Because despite the relatively narrow cast of this year’s headlines, it looks like a lot of solid policy got hammered out.

And the DFL governor, who has not been an advocate of many of the policy changes he nonetheless signed into law, got a lot more money for education out of the GOP than looked likely at the start of the year. Which is huge, given that the state has fallen far behind education funding levels of the early 2000s.

So what’s mixed about my mind? More money for kids and good policy should be a slam-dunk, right? And it could be, but if you look at the arenas in which long-sought progress was won you’ll note that many of them are areas where legislatures past have voted in changes only to watch them founder in the quicksand of bureaucratic resistance.

I say we set cynicism aside for a while and see whether the third time’s the charm. Continue reading

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