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. Nor does it actually include the 2017 graduation rate, just those of years past. And—not to quibble incessantly—it does not note that graduation rates all over the state rose when exit exams were done away with.

It does note that the composite score of the 70 North students who took the college entrance ACT exam last year was 15.7. It’s amazing that 70 Polars took the ACT—really and truly. But that score is more than six points lower than the 22 that’s generally accepted as college-ready and more than five points lower than the score Minnesota State looks for.

(BTW, branding fail? Minnesota State is the new name for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System. The old name was torpid, but the new one just makes me think of that old sitcom about the sad football coach toiling in obscurity.)

Finally, the story notes that the comeback follows former MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s decision to shutter North. It does not note that, faced with community protest, she chose instead to invest in the top-to-bottom overhaul of the school that is currently being celebrated—including the recruitment of rock star Principal Shawn Harris-Berry, whose gifts are not in question.

Nope. In the new narrative mean ol’ Johnson set balls in motion but, and I am quoting the passive construction here, “the school restructured.” So much for the years of hard work that went into making sure the New North, as was said then, lived up to its storied status.

Major shout-out to former Mayor R.T. Rybak for noting this and name-checking some of those involved on Facebook. He’s much nicer than I am, and so did not go on to deflate the other balloons.

There’s broad agreement that sending a young person into the world with a high school diploma, regardless of their academic prowess, is generally a good thing. Without that credential a job is hard to come by, to say nothing of a path into higher ed.

But shouldn’t we at least take note of the fact that diplomas are being handed out to young people who don’t have but desperately need the knowledge and skills high school is supposed to supply?

And what are we to make of the fact that the article takes note of the reality that test scores still lag, but then fails to cite any but the most politically palatable of them? (Because the anti-test crowd currently dominating the narrative hereabouts might hate the state assessments that show a school’s outcomes but they looooove those shiny college admissions numbers.)

Shouldn’t any newsroom ensure that when data is available, it backs assertions? By all means celebrate those Polars in public, but do your due diligence.

(When I was in my first couple of years on the job in journalism I tried like H-E-double-hockey-sticks to make narrative-puncturing facts and assertions go away. They messed with my tidy storylines and—abject terror!—made me wrong about the story I’d sold my editor on. A few public humiliations—the worst of them attached to a national byline—cured me of this impulse.)

In this case, the disconnect between the readily available data and the winning storyline could have surfaced much more interesting story topics. How hard is it to help a high school freshman who has been a struggling reader since day one to catch up? Does anyone know how to do that?

How much did North achieve in terms of growth—which MPS measures—during their four years there? What’s being done, both within the school and others, to capitalize on lessons learned or challenges uncovered?

What’s MPS’ commitment to students it graduates unprepared? Has anyone thought about coaching those young people through the dream-crushing process of remediation—the notoriously weak system in which students try but often fail to catch up, at enormous financial cost and without credit, in higher ed?

How often are leaders who insist on bold change ground to dust by the time their strategizing bears fruit?

It’s the district’s sacred responsibility to help Minneapolis families position their kids for the bright futures that will keep this community vital. It’s the job of the Fourth Estate to make sure residents and policymakers have access to the fullest account possible of how well MPS leadership is keeping that promise.

After all, as Johnson was wont to say, “All our kids are all our kids.”




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  1. Pingback: Grad rates turn up, but not test scores — Joanne Jacobs

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