Category: High Standards

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.

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.

 

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

Meet the Inspirational Dwan Quinn

My job is just unfathomably, absurdly great. Dwan Quinn graduates from high school tomorrow in New Orleans and you really do want to know what that means to generations of Quinns.

The lede to my latest story for The74Million:

 

His grandmother, his mother, his father, all three of his uncles, his auntie and cousin — Dwan Quinn is hard-pressed to think of a single relative who did not attend George Washington Carver High School. Located in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, the school is an ever-present fixture in the family’s stories.

“My grandma worked in the cafeteria at Carver while my mom went there,” says Quinn. “They talk all the time about the traditions that went on in that building. I saw how much fun they had with the band especially, and the football team.”

Lots of cities have a high school that’s the equivalent of Carver, where everyone knows the names of the neighborhood kids who went on to become elected officials, professional athletes, scholars or musicians. By the numbers, the schools might be failure factories. Yet they are often a community’s emotional lynchpin.

On Friday, Quinn will become his family’s first male member to graduate from high school. In the fall, he’ll be the first family member to go to college, to Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana.

 

Want to know the rest of the story? Yes, yes you do. You really do.