Minnesota Governor “Disrupts” Right-Wing Education Reformers

May 22, 2017

In the middle of a stormy legislative session, which is careening to a close at midnight tonight, Minnesota’s Governor, Mark Dayton, has thrown two clear lifelines to public education supporters across the state.

First, on May 18, Dayton took a bold swipe at a shifty, right-wing aligned overhaul of the state’s teacher licensure laws, called HF 140. Citing concern over the proposal’s lack of dedicated funding support, as well as doubts over the tiered approach to licensure offered in the bill, Dayton vetoed HF 140 and sent those supporting it back to the drawing board. “The move came as a shock to Republicans,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported, “who argued the bill was a bipartisan improvement to the often-criticized current system.”

The Republicans–at least, the publicly identified ones–weren’t the only ones shocked over Dayton’s rejection of the teacher licensure bill. A group of Minneapolis-based education reform interests, many of whom share an address on University Avenue, also expressed dismay with Dayton’s decision.

Calling themselves a “coaltion, groups such as Minnesota Comeback, Ed Allies, Teach for America, Students for Education Reform and Hiawatha Academies (a local charter school chain) sent a letter to Dayton on May 17, urging him to support HF 140. SIgning this bill into law, they promised, would help “countless teachers find a pathway into Minnesota classroom.” (They can’t do so now because of Minnesota’s cumbersome licensure laws, the argument goes.)

What’s more, the letter asserts, HF 140 would allow “school leaders to recruit and retain the best educators for our students.” How so? By having a tiered licensure system, offering several levels of qualifications to work in a school as a teacher. What caught Dayton’s eye was the proposed “Tier 3,” where a candidate could have, in essence, an unlimited, provisional teaching license. (Who would hire these teachers? Blake? Breck? Majority white public schools?)

This provision would have provided a fast track to a disposable, non-union teaching force–perfect for staffing the kind of “high performing, innovative” charter schools favored by education reformers. And, it ties HF 140 right back to its beginnings as a model ALEC bill. In 2006, ALEC–a “pay to play operation” that writes legislation for state and federal elected officials on behalf of corporations and conservative, pro-privatization causes such as Right to Work and Stand Your Ground laws–passed its own teacher licensure law, called the “Alternative Certification Act.”

What does ALEC want? A less skilled, less empowered, non-unionized workforce, preferably in charter schools rather than unionized public schools (charter schools can operate with less public oversight, and a more malleable teaching force may be more willing to experiment with personalized learning and other investor-friendly ventures.) ALEC has been heavily funded by the billion dollar Walton Family Foundation, set up by the folks behind Wal-Mart.

Guess who else is heavily funded by the Walton Foundation? Nearly everybody on the coalition letter sent to Governor Mark Dayton. For example:

  • Minnesota Comeback (the group determined to bring “30,000 rigorous, relevant seats” to Minneapolis)
  • Great MN Schools (the fund behind Minnesota Comeback)
  • Ed Allies (the lobbying arm affiliated with Minnesota Comeback)
  • Educators 4 Excellence (an offshoot of Teach for America, designed to supplant teachers unions and promote neoliberal education policies around testing and teacher evaluations)
  • Students for Education Reform (spurred by hedge funds)
  • Teach for America ((which seeks to stay alive by serving as an alternative licensure operation, staffing primarily charter schools)
  • Hiawatha Academies (run by Eli Kramer, whose brother Matt, a former TFA executive, also signed this letter through his new group, the Wildflower Foundation)
  • Prodeo Academy (local charter school prized by reformers)
  • KIPP MN (funded in part by the Minneapolis Foundation, which has received money from the Walton Family Foundation, as have many charter schools in MN)

    Cozy! MN Business Partnership Ed Policy rep, Jim Bartholomew, echoing “broad support” for the ALEC-influenced ed reform coalition

These groups often sell themselves as being all about equity and improved opportunity for marginalized communities. It’s curious to note, then, that both the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership–two pro-business, anti-tax lobbying giants–are also listed as part of this education reform coalition.

Flashback! In 2012, the Minnesota Business Partnership stood solidly behind another ALEC-written law, the Voter ID bill that sought to limit voting rights in Minnesota. This bill was described as an “intentional effort to reduce the voting rolls in order to help corporate conservatives further expand their wealth and power.”

This leads to another sketchy education policy provision recently axed by Governor Dayton. In the wee hours of budget negotiations last night, Republican state senator Roger Chamberlain, listed here as a member of ALEC’s “Public Safety and Elections Taskforce,” acknowledged that the ALEC-sprung measure–neovouchers, or “tax credit scholarships”–had been taken out of the omnibus tax bill.

First, St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger made this announcement:

Chamberlain responded with a terse Twitter statement of his own, declaring that “kids lose again.” Kids lose the opportunity, I guess, to be pawns in a game funded by wealthy ideologues like the Waltons, Betsy DeVos and ALEC’s corporate supporters–all of whom have stood emphatically behind the disruptive” effects of vouchers (using public money for private schools that do not have to accept “all kids.”)

Dayton has skillfully blocked these two attempts to weaken Minnesota’s stance as a pro-public school state. It couldn’t have been easy, since there are real issues wrapped up in the attempts to reshape teacher licensure laws, and elite forces are skilled at creating or using a crisis (teacher shortage!) to push through their preferred solutions.

Now, before midnight strikes tonight, Dayton faces a very heavy lift: getting ALEC-minded legislators and lobbyists to agree to fund Minnesota’s public schools. Without an investment from the state, public education in Minnesota will remain under further attack from right-wing ideologues and their well-funded agendas. 

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Minnesota Comeback Cites “Laggards,” “Fringe Bloggers” as Problematic

May 10, 2017

In an email blast sent to supporters recently, the local education reform advocacy group, Minnesota Comeback, warned that “laggards” and “fringe bloggers”–myself included–are “spew(ing) false descriptions” of their work. 

Brand management experts warn: Don’t be a laggard!

With a subject line that read, “You’re an innovator. Diane Ravitch and fringe bloggers won’t get that,” the email sought to control Minnesota Comeback’s message of being the source of new thinking (and funding) on education. The pep talk continued later in the email, with a direct message to Minnesota Comeback investors, er…innovators:

On the innovation adoption curve, you’re an innovator. You’re a pioneer determined to do what it takes to make sure all kids have access to a rigorous and relevant education. On the opposite end of the spectrum: Laggards.

Laggards! The email then details the group’s current displeasure with Diane Ravitch, who maintains a widely read blog about public education and the political climate surrounding it. Ravitch apparently attracted Minnesota Comeback’s ire by reposting work from local writer and photographer, Rob Levine, who has recently launched a website critiquing education philanthropy in the Twin Cities. 

“It’s inevitable,” the email reads, “as our momentum builds…the higher our visibility in the public eye becomes.” It then goes on to cite the “praise” Minnesota Comeback’s work has earned. The citation–there is just one–is a link to an opinion piece about Minnesota Comeback’s good work, written by one of its own affiliates, Antonio Cardonia. This might actually be PR rather than objective praise, but I digress. 

Success, it seems, has led to unwarranted attacks from bloggers–like me, Ravitch and Levine–who avoid data and instead run on speculation and a laggard-like lack of dedication to rigor. “A growing trend of bloggers like Sarah Lahm, Rob Levine and Diane Ravitch spew false depictions of our work,” Fan advises the group’s email recipients, before complaining that, “what’s most troubling is the lack of accountability.” 

The email encourages supporters to go to Ravitch’s website and contribute positive comments about the group, so that Ravitch might be persuaded to interview Minnesota Comeback and offer a “fair” depiction of their work.

In the interest of fairness, I think it is important to consider a few things. First, Minnesota Comeback is part of a national organization, Education Cities, that is funded by a heavy hitting collection of billionaires, including the Gates, Dell, and Walton foundations. (For a review of the pitfalls of this kind of support, read Joanne Barkan’s 2011 piece, “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools.“)

Education Cities is also funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Arnold is a former Enron executive who walked away–wealthy and unscathed–from that company’s collapse. He went on, while still in his thirties, to lead a campaign against pensions for public employees. Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi included Arnold in a 2013 article about Wall Street-led campaigns to destroy public pension funds:

As Enron was imploding, Arnold played a footnote role, helping himself to an $8 million bonus while the company’s pension fund was vaporizing. He and other executives were later rebuked by a bankruptcy judge for looting their own company along with other executives. Public pension funds nationwide, reportedly, lost more than $1.5 billion thanks to their investments in Enron.

–Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone Magazine, “Looting the Pension Funds”, 2013

After leaving Enron, Arnold became a billionaire through natural gas trading. This led to the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, which was, according to Taibbi’s article, “among other things, dedicated to reforming the pension system.” Pensions had been subjected to raids for years by politicians looking to fill other budget gaps, and were being painted, by Arnold and others, as an “unfunded liability” immersed in crisis (and thus desperately in need of reform).

Sound familiar? Arnold has a history of supporting campaigns that gut public entities amid a climate of “crisis.” The claim is always that there is no money. (He’s also helped rescue Head Start and provided money for “science reform.”) This might explain why the Arnold Foundation, along with the Waltons and Gates, and other titans of runaway capitalism, is supporting Education Cities, which in turns provides–if nothing else–the policy framework for Minnesota Comeback. (Local philanthropic foundations and individuals, in addition to the Walton Foundation, provide financial support for Minnesota Comeback.)

The Walton Foundation’s K-12 priorities–backed by over one billion dollars–can be found here, and analyzed here. (Analyzing the Walmart heir’s actions does not necessarily equal the “spewing of false descriptions” of their work.)

Here’s the thing. Minnesota Comeback is less of a new organization, rife with an unquestionable devotion to public education, and more of a sophisticated repackaging of familiar, market-based education reform priorities. After all, director Al Fan left a career in brand management at General Mills to focus on “social philanthropy, with a special interest in working with high-performing charter schools in Minnesota,” according to an online profile.  He may have left General Mills, but undoubtedly not without his brand management skills.

Fan first landed at Charter School Partners, a Walton Foundation-funded group with office space at 2800 University Ave SE #202 in Minneapolis (keep this address in mind). As recently as 2014, Fan was still leading Charter School Partners, whose stated goal, at one point, was quite audacious:

Charter School Partners strategic focus for New Schools for the Twin Cities is to help create 20 new high-performing, high-achieving charter schools in the next five years serving Twin Cities-area families who previously have not had access to excellent schools. This aggressive timetable reflects CSP’s sense of urgency that all children deserve a world-class education no matter their zip code or income levels.

–archived Charter School Partners website

This “aggressive urgency” might have come across as unbridled hubris–especially since it appears to have been accompanied by a lack of success. (For evidence of this, watch this Charter School Partners promo video, posted to YouTube in 2015, which showcases the talking points and plans for this group.) Charter School Partners dove, rather than waded, into tricky political waters by embracing naive charter school expansion plans, while also proudly announcing partnerships with Teach for America and financial support from the Walton Foundation (who profess to care about communities of color but won’t provide living wage jobs?). 

I’ll get you those high-performing charters!

Just a few years ago, under the Charter School Partners banner, Fan was clearly devoted to “aggressive” charter school growth plans (someone really needs to do a study of the he-man language around ed reform). A 2012 policy document from Fan’s organization displays the thinking behind the brand management. 

Here are a few examples from the document, called “Charters 2.0”:

  • Improve the “teacher talent pipeline” for charters that serve “high populations of poverty.” (This is a frequent reformer goal, intended–many analysts think–to benefit organizations like Teach for America.)
  • But…in the case of “blended learning” (a key area of interest for venture edu-philanthropists), Fan’s proposal advocated for teacher-less classrooms. Instead, teachers could “supervise delivery of instruction to online learning students” without being “physically present.”
  • And…maybe teachers aren’t that essential after all. The “blended learning revolution” could allow for “non-licensed staff supervising students working computer curriculum, without necessarily the direct supervision of the licensed teacher of record”–at charter schools.
  • It also sought to “incentivize” charter schools that outperform traditional public schools on standardized test proficiency rates. On the surface, this could seem like a great way to foster competition and a greater focus on student (testing) achievement. But, in the context of today’s education reform climate, it’s not really that simple.

These are the reform policies favored by the one-percent. They are also part of an ongoing, bipartisan embrace of a top-down “disruption” of public education. It doesn’t mean that every idea or person associated with these plans should be immediately dismissed. It just means that this is the framework–elite, philanthropist-funded, pro-privatization (sector agnostic!)–that comes along with these policy preferences.

Fan was promoting these policies as recently as 2014, before Charter School Partners morphed into Minnesota Comeback. And why did it morph? Maybe because charter schools became problematic, necessitating a rebranding. In 2015, for example, the Star Tribune published an article showing that, in Minnesota, charter school students were not doing as well as their public school peers. (They have become quite segregated, too, along with traditional public schools–a byproduct of this country’s move towards school choice rather than desegregation.)

Click to enlarge

Public awareness of market-based education reform and its connection to plutocracy, hostile takeovers of entire districts and lack of actual choice and voice for parents has grown. Enter Minnesota Comeback and its more “nuanced,” less bombastic approach to education reform. Same players, same funders–with a new name and a new game plan. (But still a lot to learn.

We can tell a lot, in fact, by reviewing the addresses of Minnesota Comeback and its affiliates:

  • Charter School Partners was housed at 2800 University Ave SE #202, Minneapolis. 
  • Minnesota Comeback is now housed at 2800 University Avenue, SE #202 Minneapolis. (Former Minneapolis school board member, Josh Reimnitz, was also a part of Minnesota Comeback’s launch, apparently.)
  • Morgan Brown, former Director of School Improvement for Charter School Partners, is now associate director of Great MN Schools, “ a venture philanthropy fund that aligns and maximizes investments in growing high-performing and high-potential schools in Minneapolis.” This org is also housed at 2800 University Ave, SE, #202.
  • Great MN Schools was “incubated” by MN Comeback, and appears to be oddly embedded within the Minneapolis Public Schools, where it is “considering a request for proposals from three Community Partnership Schools in the Minneapolis district.” (Beware public-private partnerships!) A Minneapolis school, Bancroft Elementary, even appears on the Great MN Schools website, as one of “their” portfolio schools–along with a handful of charters. 

There’s more.

That’s one tightly knit cabal of transformative innovators, with incredible access to more money than, perhaps, the Minneapolis Public Schools, with no obligation to hold open meetings, comply with public information requests or otherwise bow to the kind of accountability and transparency so often demanded of our put-upon public schools.

I have no doubt that many of the philanthropists and foundations that give their names and their money to Minnesota Comeback believe in the group’s stated mission, to “collaborate with diverse stakeholders in our K-12 ecosystem” in order to wipe out “education gaps.” The ultimate goal, according to Minnesota Comeback’s official communications, is to “ensure all K-12 students have access to a rigorous, relevant education.” 

We do need innovation, collaboration and support from wealthy investors (especially those who understand that education alone cannot fix poverty or wipe out institutional racism). We also need a free and fair press, fully equipped to check the claims–however well-intended–of those with the most power, wealth and influence.

Raising the minimum wage, or providing a guaranteed income, which the last time we talked seriously about that was in the late 1960’s, increasing workers’ bargaining power, making tax policies more progressive—things like that are going to be much more effective at addressing inequality and economic security than education policies. That argument is often taken to mean, *schools can’t do anything unless we address poverty first.* But that’s not what we were trying to say.

–Harvey Kantor. Education Can’t Fix Poverty. So Why Keep Insisting That?” Have You Heard Blog (fringe!)

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On Buckthorn, Neoliberalism and Other Invasive Things

May 1, 2017

Last week, as I was driving my South High School student to an event, she began naming all of the trees lining the street. There’s a River Birch, she called out, and my favorite, she said excitedly–the Scotch Pine. See how they bend, close together? 

River Birch in bloom

Another time, we went for a walk near Lake Harriet. It wasn’t long before she was naming the birds around us, based on their look and sound. She hasn’t learned any of this from me, although I have lived most of my life in Minnesota, surrounded by our trees, lakes and birds. Instead, she has a Minnesota Ecology class this semester, at South. It is taught by a teacher I’ve never met, but someone my daughter has taken to with eager enthusiasm. 

Recently, the class went on a field trip to a wildlife refuge along the Mississippi River. They spent the day clearing buckthorn and learning about other invasive plant species. It was grubby, thrilling work–rewarded with a free lunch buffet. My kid was over the moon with joy. It was the kind of dirty work she, and a lot of kids, I imagine, long for. It feels real, and it beats sitting in a windowless classroom on a spring day (or any day, to be honest).

Her experience at South has been far from perfect. We’ve navigated communication breakdowns with teachers, and tearful moments of panic over due dates, friendships and the prison-like look and feel of South. But we’ve reached the heights, too. She’s on the honor roll. She just got inducted into the National Honor Society with seventy-four of her tenth grade peers; the Society’s new president is a Somali-American student who promises to bring a new style of leadership to the service-oriented group.

She has friends from all over the city. She’s learning another language. She interacts with people from many walks of life. On a Saturday afternoon, she went to a Battle of the Bands, sponsored by South and held on the school’s bleak track field. This week, I’m helping her pick out frames for some of her own artwork, which made it into Intermedia Arts’ spring show. (Her Advanced Art teacher encouraged students to submit their work for review.)

Why am I writing all of this? Isn’t the Minneapolis Public Schools burning to the ground? The district has no money and stagnant test scores. The public is angry; district principals are even more upset. 

But on the ground, the district succeeds in many ways. I have spent a fair amount of time this year at north Minneapolis’s Lucy Laney Community School, observing, writing and getting to know the kids and their teachers (and food service workers, engineers, behavior support people and administrators). Mostly, I have been embraced by the kids, especially a handful of third graders who greet me with hugs and a warm “Ms. Lahm!” whenever I show up. 

Last Friday, I sat with a few of them as they relaxed and drew pictures. One boy wrote a love note to a beloved support staff member, Ms. Kim. Another girl drew a geometric pattern in black, telling me that her dad thinks she’s good at drawing. She gave me the picture to take home. 

A week or two ago, when I pulled up at Laney, there was a police car in the parking lot, its doors flung open. I had no idea what was going on, but it seemed to involve a minivan that was stopped at an angle just outside of the school’s front windows. Once I got inside, I learned the school was on alert. “There’s a Code Yellow going on,” one of my young friends told me, before asking, with a tap on my shoulder, if I was okay.

It turns out that someone had dropped their kid off at school in a stolen car. The police confronted the parents in the parking lot, guns drawn, in full view of a kindergarten classroom. The kids never learned the details of this, I’m sure, thanks to the watchful oversight of Laney staff. No one seemed particularly upset, either.  

It was just another day. Another day in a district perpetually on the verge of being undone by neoliberal interventions, declining public investment and school choice escape hatches. Our schools are more racially and economically segregated than ever, whether they are district schools or quasi-private charters. (Now, place your bets as to who that benefits, to steal a line from Hamilton.)

On April 18, the Minneapolis school board responded to public protest by reinstating the jobs or employment status of seven district staffers who feel they were dismissed unfairly–for a variety of reasons that center on race and toxic working conditions. I shared the stories of some of these employees in previous blog posts, and wrote about the meeting’s outcome, too.

I don’t regret that. But I have tried to listen further, to the stories of district principals–who held their own come-to-Jesus meeting with board members last week–as well as to the staff who’ve been victimized by a system that often seems to be its own worst enemy. There are reams of anecdotal evidence to support the conclusion that MPS has an HR problem. Not everywhere, but in enough sites that some closer scrutiny of management should be a high priority. Is it?

There are some great principals in MPS; my own kids have attended schools led by competent, friendly, fair-minded administrators. It’s also important to acknowledge that the job description for principals has changed a lot in recent years, to encompass scores of box-checking and classroom micromanaging. (Dig into the RESET Education plan, for some background info.) Good relationships are not built through spreadsheets and scripted teacher observation forms.

This is failure by design, of course. MPS once served over 50,000 students–with one superintendent and maybe two or three associate superintendents helping out. Today, we have seven or eight associate superintendents for 36,000 students. Which sites, under which associate superintendents, continue to crop up as problematic? Does anyone have data on that?

Which aspects of the district’s strategic plan, written pro bono by McKinsey & Co. consultants in 2007, continue to undermine strong principals, teachers, support staff and students? (McKinsey & Co. is a global capitalism consulting firm, with close ties to business, civic and philanthropic leaders in the Twin Cities via the Itasca Project.

Accepting McKinsey & Company’s free strategic plan was a trap. It promised big things, including a never-reached 80 percent, district-wide proficiency rate on standardized tests by 2012. And it continues to dominate MPS’s plans and budgetary priorities, such as the recent attempt to balance the district’s budget on the backs of building engineers.  

Meanwhile, Minnesota legislators sit on a billion dollar budget surplusIf we want real change, maybe we have to start asking the right questions.

Neoliberalism is embraced by parties across the political spectrum, from right to left, in that the interests of wealthy investors and large corporations define social and economic policy. The free market, private enterprise, consumer choice, entrepreneurial initiative, deleterious effects of government regulation, and so on, are the tenets of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism and Education Reform, 2007

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Minneapolis Parents Choose Community Over Testing

April 24, 2017

In early April, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published the results of a new online survey, completed by parents with kids in the Minneapolis Public Schools. The results offer a surprising revelation: most parents in the city do not choose schools based on standardized test scores.

Like many public school districts across the country, Minneapolis has had to focus in recent years on regaining its “market share,” in an era of ever-spiraling school choice schemes. Another Star Tribune article, this one from 2015,  laid the district’s challenges bare in the headline: “Thousands of Minneapolis children leave district for charters, suburban schools.” Thirty-six thousand students in the city attend the Minneapolis Public Schools, but, the article showed, more than 17,000 school-age kids do not.

The recent survey suggests that it isn’t test results, that induce parents to switch schools. Molly Leutz, a Minneapolis parent portrayed in the most recent article, said that test scores “didn’t even cross (her) mind” when looking at schools for her young daughter. Instead, word of mouth among parents, as well as “diversity,” ranked high on Leutz’s list. In the end, she chose to send her daughter to their neighborhood public school.

Other parents echoed Leutz’s priorities. Sixty percent of the 2,000 survey respondents based their decision on two factors: after-school opportunities (and other enrichment programs) and the “makeup of the student body.” These results further reflect studies done with parents in other communities, such as New Orleans. In 2015, National Public Radio education reporter, Anya Kamenetz, published a story showing that New Orleans parents—who live in what is supposed to be the most “choice-filled” city in the United States—do not put academic factors first.

“Parents, especially low-income parents,” Kamenetz found, “actually show strong preferences for other qualities like location and extracurriculars” when choosing schools for their kids. Despite the efforts of outside education reform interests, which have sought to create a network of New Orleans-style charters in place of neighborhood schools, “distance matters a lot” to parents there. This implies that, when it comes to school choice, community and convenience outweigh perceptions of test-driven success.

The Minneapolis survey also found parents ranked old-fashioned techniques such as report cards and parent-teacher communication much more highly than standardized test scores for “gauging student success.” Parents also believed that “hearing from a child” was more important than test scores “when grasping how a child is performing in school.” Perhaps even more compelling, the Minneapolis survey indicates that white and Asian parents were far more likely than black, Latino and Native American parents to “look to” test scores.

The article does not delve into why this may be true, but it does stand to reason that parents of kids who tend to score the highest on standardized tests—i.e., white and Asian-American students—may place more value on such outcomes. White and Asian-American students also, statistically, tend to be wealthier than other students, and standardized test results often reflect a student’s socioeconomic status.

In 2013, a survey of parents in Georgia by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (a conservative think tank that typically favors charters) also showed that a majority of parents identified non-academic factors as the primary reason why they chose one school over another. The Georgia survey was done to support the concept of tax-credit scholarships (also known asneovouchers), used to send more students to private school.

In a way, the effort backfired. Less than 10 percent of parents said they looked for “higher standardized test scores” when selecting a school. Instead, things like smaller class sizes, safety and a “better learning environment” mattered more. Currently, many states are in the throes of preparing school accountability plans, as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. While the transition to the Trump administration has brought some uncertainty for this new education policy, so far, it will allow states to move away from an over reliance on test-based measures of success.

Survey results such as the ones from Minneapolis should, if taken seriously, help policymakers understand that school choice systems built around standardized test scores may not be as important as having a safe, welcoming school in every neighborhood, where relationships and teacher-parent communication rank high.

–Originally published by The Progressive on April 20, 2017

Minneapolis Teachers and Staff of Color Get Jobs Reinstated

April 19, 2017

On April 18, the Minneapolis Public Schools was forced–under public and school board pressure–to rehire or reinstate seven recently fired teachers and staff of color. With the familiar chants of “Si Se Puede!” and “What do we want? Justice!” ringing through the oak-paneled board room, the board’s business as usual was disrupted until the protesters’ demands were met.

Protesters were initially denied entrance to the board room

It was a striking sign of (forced) progress for a board and district that often manages to hide behind protocol, privacy laws and confounding, community-killing procedural niceties. But the night did not belong to propriety and platitudes. Instead, teachers and staff who’ve felt bullied by the Minneapolis Public Schools and pressured into either resigning or being fired spoke publicly about their experiences, and were backed by the room-filling chants and signs of a supportive audience. (Organizing credit goes to the Twin Cities Social Justice Education Movement.)

In a write-up of last night’s meeting, the Minneapolis Star Tribune mistakenly characterized the staff members’ situation as that of budget-driven layoffs. But those who spoke out at the meeting, or beforehand, described falling victim to a systemic, deeply rooted practice of pushing out and punishing teachers and staff of color, as well as employees who advocate for students’ rights. (The Southwest Journal’s Nate Gotlieb wrote a very succinct, articulate review of last night’s meeting.) 

After a lengthy public comment period, when staff and supporters shared stories of being ushered out of their jobs, thanks to allegedly trumped-up charges of insubordination and so on, the board attempted to adhere to its previously outlined agenda. New board member Kerry Jo Felder, representing District 2 in north Minneapolis, insisted that the board address the employees’ concerns, although she recused herself, as a union employee, from officially weighing in on the matter. 

Several board members expressed discomfort over reinstating the dismissed employees, especially since there may be others in the same position who were not able to be at last night’s meeting. Board Chair Rebecca Gagnon warned that a rush to judgment may lead to unintended consequences, while citywide representative Don Samuels cautioned against making key decisions based on limited input.

Still, the protesters kept pushing, and they won. 

El pueblo unidos jamas sera vencido

–A chant heard at the Davis Center last night

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Minneapolis Teachers of Color to Protest Recent Firings

April 18, 2017

Budget cuts–and heads–are rolling in the Minneapolis Public Schools, prompting lots of behind the scenes chatter and a public rally, set for tonight’s school board meeting. The rally is being planned by the Social Justice Education Movement (SJEM), a local group that also produces the annual Social Justice Education Fair.

In a press release sent out on April 17, SJEM organizers said “six educators of color” will be speaking out tonight against “racist pushouts in the Minneapolis Public Schools.” These six educators, according to SJEM’s announcement, will be advocating for a change in district policies that are said to target students and staff of color. They will also be demanding that their jobs in the district be restored. 

SJEM logo, by Ricardo Levins Morales

Among these six are Lor Vang, whose story was shared on this blog last week. Vang was recently fired from Hmong International Academy without due process, he reports.  The SJEM press release also says that an African-American co-worker of Vang’s was fired around the same time, after being charged with insubordination. 

Michelle Barnes, who until recently was working as a special education assistant at the district’s River Bend site for students with “significant emotional, behavior, and mental health needs,” will also be there tonight.

Barnes’s experience of being fired from River Bend for “expressing concerns with punishing students who ‘misbehaved’ with cold instead of hot lunch” is included on SJEM’s press release, and taps into what appears to be a growing concern: the ease with which some MPS staff–tenured or not–are being dismissed from the district for seemingly small infractions. Stories often float along the edges of various MPS communities, of teachers being forced to resign or be fired (as Vang says he was) for clashing with administrators, or of support staff pegged as troublemakers for, as Barnes alleges, advocating for students. 

Eduardo.jpg

Eduardo Diaz

Bilingual teacher Eduardo Diaz will also speak out at tonight’s board meeting. Diaz is an ESL teacher at Andersen United Community School, a south Minneapolis K-8 site that serves a large percentage of students in poverty (98 percent), as well as English language learners. On SJEM’s website, Diaz, who is not yet tenured, relates a painful story of being told recently that he will not be rehired at Andersen next year, because he is “not making the progress they expected to see in a second year teacher.”

It may be impossible to know all of the factors at play in Diaz’s story, yet he says he has noticed a trend at Andersen:

I was made to feel inadequate, not good enough, and a bad educator. I found it odd that MPS advertises that it wants teachers who think differently and go above and beyond for students, yet they seem to get pushed out of the district at alarming rates.

The number is even greater when you analyze the teachers of color that were let go at Andersen over the last ten years, at least 17% out of 62 or 27% of teachers let go were teachers of color. 

I do not mean to say that the reason I was let go was because of my skin color but I find it hard to think that MPS would want to get rid of a male, veteran, immigrant natively bilingual Spanish speaker. 

Often, district personnel decisions are hidden behind data privacy concerns, making a full analysis of every situation difficult. In the sometimes harrowing void that falls from this, workers can easily be made to feel alone and, as Diaz describes it, “inadequate, not good enough.” This begs the question of whether or not there is enough (or the right kind of) support, transparency and coaching of MPS staff, especially for the teachers of color said to be in high demand.

Hanging in the background is a stark reality: the Minneapolis schools have been facing budget cuts for years (thanks to a statewide disinvestment in public ed), while the district’s percentage of higher needs students has grown significantly. Amid increased special education costs, as well as rising levels of inequality and poverty, MPS has pursued various neoliberal education reform “fixes,” adding to greater destabilization across the district. (Questionable alliances with corporate reform interests, teacher evaluation schemes, Teach for America staffers, Focused Instruction, outsourcing bus drivers and engineers, telling administrators they “have no voice” until test scores go up, destroying whole departments–these are some of the many viruses that have plagued the district in recent years, fueling dysfunction and a pervasive failure narrative.)

The destabilization makes the district more vulnerable to outside influences, such as Minnesota Comeback (at least two MPS employees appear to be active members of this group). Minnesota Comeback belongs to a national campaign, funded in part by Wal-Mart heirs, to reinvent (er, privatize) public education and turn it into a “sector agnostic” sea of “high performing seats,” rather than schools. The goal? To miraculously churn out kids for whom poverty and systemic racism is a thing to be overcome with standardized test scores. 

Into this mix, teachers and staff of color–as well as those who speak out–may find themselves feeling less protected.

In addition to being a dedicated teacher that is well-respected by staff, students, and families, Eduardo is also the only Latino middle school teacher at a K-8 school where over 50% of the students are Latino. Andersen needs Eduardo and the district needs to stop disproportionately pushing out educators of color. Come to the school board this Tuesday April 18th at 5pm to stand with Eduardo and others as we urge the school board to do the right thing! Let Eduardo continue to teach at Andersen! https://www.facebook.com/events/1901032760176615/

–Social Justice Education Movement

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Minneapolis Social Worker Fired for Being Too Ethical?

April 14, 2017

A handful of Minneapolis Public Schools administrators and school board members recently took a trip to Chicago, paid for by the deep pockets of Minnesota Comeback (a local “harbormaster” in the Education Cities sea of market-based reform) and the Minneapolis Foundation. The purpose? To see how “social-emotional learning” is being utilized in Chicago schools, and, perhaps, to convince philanthropists to throw dollars something other than test prep and charter schools.

Lingering in the background, however, are toxic situations in the Minneapolis Public Schools that seem impossible to manage. Take the story of Lor Vang, a Minneapolis school social Image result for social emotional learning latest fadworker. Until recently, Vang worked at the district’s Hmong International Academy, a K-8 in north Minneapolis. The school serves a high level of English language learners, as well as homeless/highly mobile kids, students living in poverty and those who qualify for special education services.

HIA is a troubled MPS site and has been for a while. Allegations of corruption, nepotism and an abusive working climate have been popping up for years, mostly in connection to HIA’s former principal, Halee Vang. While supported by some, Vang’s leadership at HIA has reportedly caused high staff turnover, a divided, “us against them” school climate and some shady operating procedures. 

Halee Vang was forced out of HIA last fall, but at least two of her close associates (including one family member) remain in high level administrative positions at the school, as the Assistant Principal and as the site’s building manager. Lor Vang, who is not related to Hallee Vang, says he was not fully aware of this deeply entangled, troubled environment when he started working at HIA in 2015.

Still, Vang eagerly took the job and tried to focus on building positive relationships with students and families at HIA. Before long, he found himself unwittingly cast as “against” then-Principal Halee Vang, after nominating another staff member for an award. It turns out the nominated staff member was seen by Vang’s team as a troublemaker, which pushed Vang into HIA’s political minefield.

When school started this past fall, Halee Vang was still HIA’s principal. Vang says she asked to meet with him early in the school year, to express displeasure with his work. He felt, instead, that she was “attacking” him, and had him marked, now, as another troublemaker. Vang says he then turned to MPS’s special education administrators for support, but was told that it was up to him to “make it work” with his principal.

Lor Vang

Then, Halee Vang was pushed out of HIA, and a new interim principal, from within MPS, was brought in. Vang wanted to do his part to improve HIA’s reputation; for him, making sure not to further antagonize families that were upset with the school was part of that. Along the way, Vang says he was pressured into rushing through a special education evaluation for a student–a move he feels was not only unethical, but sure to further anger the student’s family members. 

When asked by current school administrators–including Halee Vang’s associates–to quickly write up a plan for the student in question, Vang insisted he could not do that. “We need data for any evaluation,” Vang says he told HJA administrators, “and we don’t have that.” In response, Vang says he was forced to log into his school laptop, which was then “grabbed” from him. Without Vang’s approval, the school’s interim principal allegedly entered inaccurate data about the student into his computer, in order to hurriedly prepare for an upcoming meeting.

Vang says he then emailed his supervisor in MPS to ask whether or not he was correct in wanting to properly build up a diagnosis for the student, instead of just quickly filling in information that could then be shown to the child’s family. He copied HIA’s current principal on the email. The district supervisor agreed with Vang, but the next day, he says the principal denied asking him to expedite the special education process.

Shortly thereafter, Vang was told he would not be “recommended for rehire”–not just at HIA, but throughout the district. He says he was told that his “lack of communication” was the reason, but he had been given no warning or due process regarding this allegation. Instead, he is sure it connects to not only Halee Vang’s legacy, but also the current situation at the school. (Last spring, there were several similar instances of MPS employees being retaliated against for speaking out or advocating for students or staff of color.)

Vang asked for a copy of the documents prepared against him, and was told to come back later. When he did, he says he was treated aggressively and told by the HIA building manager that he “can’t come in here demanding anything,” since she is his supervisor. The next day, he was fired and asked to leave the building immediately.

“It all happened in a bang, bang, fast, fast kind of way,” Vang recalls, believing that this was on purpose, so that he would not have time to organize his thoughts or seek adequate support. He feels he was “forced” to sign paperwork by the school’s assistant principal, who told him–when Vang said he didn’t feel comfortable signing it–that he could not leave the building without signing the paper.

Vang says he did seek help from his union (the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers), but was told that, because he doesn’t yet have tenure, he “doesn’t have a strong case.” Although pointing out that the school’s release paperwork for Vang was incorrectly filled out, the union rep told Vang that his best option was to resign rather than be fired.

I have been dedicated to my work at Hmong International Academy and have advocated for creating a positive environment in our building for our staff and students…I believe that I was wrongly let go from Hmong International Academy. I have been a positive part of the school and would love to continue to be a part of it.

–Lor Vang, on losing his job at HIA

A rally for the April 18 Minneapolis school board meeting is being planned by the Twin Cities Social Justice Education Movement, on behalf of not only Vang, but also what the group says is a troubling pattern of retaliation inside MPS. There is a Facebook event set up for the rally, which includes this message:

In the last month, our small network of social justice educators know six people, all but one staff of color and Northside educators, who are getting pushed out of MPS for advocating for students. This is unacceptable – and only what we’ve heard about, we’re in this fight together!

How’s that for social-emotional learning? Or, as Minneapolis Foundation president and neoliberal ed reform advocate R.T. Rybak recently observedafter heading to Chicago to catch social-emotional learning in action, “When adults come together in the name of doing better for our kids we can do big things.”

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Parents of Special Education Students Protest Minnesota’s Neo-Voucher Proposal

March 27, 2017

Minneapolis-based attorney Sarah McLaren should be forgiven for dissolving into tears while testifying at a Minnesota Education Policy Committee hearing in early February, since she had not planned on speaking out that day. Instead, she was on her way to work on February 9 when she heard a brief news report on public radio, detailing a new tax credit scholarship, or neo-voucher,” education bill that was moving through the state legislature.

“Right away,” she recalled over coffee recently, “I turned my car around, drove to the Senate Office Building and testified that day.” In a video recording of McLaren’s testimony, she can be seen dressed in a black and white speckled suit jacket, clutching a framed picture of her six-year old daughter, Eleanor. Eleanor, McLaren’s only child, has autism spectrum disorder; because of that, McLaren says, “it will always be more expensive to educate my daughter.” 

This realization is what compelled McLaren to make a detour to the Senate Office Building on February 9. Once there, McLaren says she “surprised everyone in the room” by delivering an unscripted, at times tearful rebuke of Republican representative Ron Kresha’s tax credit scholarship bill. Kresha’s bill, whose roots can be traced to similar, “cookie cutter” ALEC bills being proposed around the country, seeks to give wealthy individuals and corporations in Minnesota a tax break–up to $35 million, statewide–for donations to private school scholarship funds. These funds are then supposed to help lower (and middle) income students afford tuition payments. 

Proponents of this approach bristle at any obvious comparison to school voucher plans, which drain money directly out of a state’s general education fund–after tax funds have been collected. Vouchers have proven to be both unpopular and unsuccessful, leading school choice advocates to instead propose Kresha-like tax breaks that divert money from the general education fund before it is collected. Such schemes can then be considered voluntary “tax incentive plans,” rather than outright, distasteful voucher programs.

Either way, the public school funding pool would take a hit, while religious and private schools stand to benefit. While observing a January rally for the tax credit bill, I spoke with a rural Minnesotan who helps run a small Lutheran school. One reason he is so in favor of Kresha’s bill is competition from charter schools. Because charters are free, he explained to me, they are siphoning students from the Lutheran school’s already limited enrollment base. This taps into one reason religious schools tend to favor these tax credit scholarship schemes: survival.

Catholic schools in particular have been out front about how such diversions of public tax dollars could benefit their schools:

Enrollment in US Catholic schools peaked in the 1960s with more than 5 million students, and in the last 20 years, more than 1,500 Catholic schools have shuttered. Supporters say that without an infusion of funds – either in the form of vouchers or tax credit scholarship programs – the very future of Catholic education in this country is at risk.

“Catholic schools look to tax credits to save them,”  The Crux, 2015

But McLaren wasn’t drawn to the neo voucher issue because she is opposed to religious or private schools. Instead, she insists that expanding school choice schemes will leave children like hers behind. As an infant and toddler, McLaren’s daughter attended a private center near her home–a “well-regarded program,” McLaren recalls, that billed itself as being “experts in early childhood care and education.” Along the way, Eleanor’s as yet undiagnosed autism began to surface, through biting incidents and other behavior issues.

Around age three, Eleanor’s autism was identified, and it soon became clear that the private program was neither equipped, nor particularly interested, in adapting to her needs. McLaren remembers being called to an “urgent” meeting about Eleanor’s behavior, where she was told that the school “had to think of the other children.” Eleanor was biting other students and parents were not happy about it.

“It was distressing,” McLaren notes. “The focus was immediately on Eleanor as the problem, and nothing about the environment” at the school. The school did not seem invested in supporting Eleanor, and staff were perhaps puzzled by the girl’s behavior. “She seems to repeat our questions a lot,” they told McLaren–with little apparent awareness of how to work with a child with autism. The expectation seemed to be that it was up to Eleanor’s parents to “fix” her behavior. (McLaren believes these messages stigmatize special education, and may make families reluctant to speak out.)

McLaren then describes an up and down journey, of first getting Eleanor placed with a preschool teacher who had some autism experience. When that teacher left the school, it became clear that Eleanor was struggling. “She was overwhelmed,” McLaren says, and responded by “removing herself from the group and spending the whole day alone.” Soon, McLaren and her husband moved Eleanor to Fraser, a Richfield preschool and childcare center that provides services and support–including access to “typical” peers–for special needs children. (Chicago teacher and activist, Xian Franzinger Barrett, has written about how low-income students of color–without access to extra resources–stand to lose the most when public schools are underfunded.)

From there, Eleanor graduated to kindergarten and has been attending a public school in her suburban neighborhood. McLaren quickly asserts that, at both Fraser and Eleanor’s public school, the message has always been, “How can we support her?” In response, Eleanor is thriving. She is at or near grade level, thanks to what McLaren says is “generous support for mainstreaming.” 

That support, though, is expensive. Eleanor’s school provides her with extra personnel, skilled at working with special education students, and Eleanor has access to a variety of strategies that make her school day possible. McLaren says these strategies include “access to sensory tools (headphones, chewy, weighted vest), and breaks as needed. For example, at group time, Eleanor can sit in a child-sized rocking chair instead of on the floor with peers since that is difficult for her.” Eleanor is also allowed regular breaks from the classroom, including “trampoline jumps” in the school’s special education resource room.

Rather than an indulgence, McLaren calls these breaks “essential.” And seeing how Eleanor has benefitted from an inclusive, supportive environment has turned McLaren into a fighter. In January, McLaren watched Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s cringeworthy confirmation hearing, and was appalled by DeVos’s “stunning lack of knowledge about educating kids with different needs.” (DeVos infamously displayed little awareness of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which protects the needs of special education students.)

McLaren then knew she had to “get more public” with her concerns because private schools do not Image result for individualized education planhave to educate students like Eleanor. “Choice sounds good,” McLaren acknowledges, “but I don’t think people realize that private schools do the choosing.” She maintains that religious schools, for example, do not have to follow Minnesota’s Human Rights law, while private schools do not have to adhere to federal special education mandates. The fallout, McLaren fears, will be more segregation in education, with “high needs kids left behind” and public schools left with even fewer resources.

McLaren returned to the Capitol one week after her first, spontaneous shot at testifying against Kresha’s bill, and came armed with–again–Eleanor’s framed picture, as well as some support of her own. Flanking McLaren on February 16, when she spoke before the House Tax Committee, was a cohort of fellow parents of students with special needs, as well as representatives from special education advocacy groups like PACER.

If you’ve got a few minutes, and a handkerchief nearby, watch these parents and special education advocates stumble through their testimony, doing their best to be civil and resilient while pointing out what seems painfully obvious:

The children that need the resources most desperately in special education are those that will pay the price if you divert money away from public school resources. That’s why we speak against this.

–Don McNeil, PACER Center representative and parent of special needs students

Minnesota’s tax credit scholarship bill is currently in limbo. It sailed through various policy and finance committees, thanks to party-line votes, and may be included in an end of session omnibus bill. Governor Mark Dayton, however, has remained opposed to such “voucher-light” proposals.

*Some perspective from Texas, where similar bills have been proposed:

Proponents claim donations will help families pay their private school tuition and that will relieve the enrollment burden on public schools or provide access to good schools for disadvantaged students. That’s the sales pitch. In reality, the result is to hand tax dollars over to private schools, increasing the financial strain on public schools and possibly increasing local property taxes in the process to make up for lost funding.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Opt Out Numbers in Minnesota High Schools Skyrocket

March 11, 2017

As testing season begins in full force across Minnesota, publicly available data from the state Department of Education indicates a striking trend: the number of high school juniors refusing to sit for the state and federally mandated MCA tests is growing–rapidly.

Sidebar: In order to qualify for federal Title funding, Minnesota is required to give annual, standardized tests (MCAs) to public school students in grades 3-8 and 10, for reading; grades 3-8 and 11 in math, and science in grades 5, 8 and once in high school (English Language Learners are given many additional ACCESS tests each year, K-12). Although the state is required to give the tests, parents and students in Minnesota have the right to refuse to participate in them.

The Monticello, MN schools recently canceled science in favor of MCA test prep

In 2016, 2,227 high school juniors opted out of the MCA tests statewide. That’s just a drop in the bucket, compared to the 55,975 students who did take it. But it is more than three times the number of eleventh grade students–694–who opted out of the MCAs in 2015. 

This is a startling jump, taking place in schools and cities as diverse as suburban St. Louis Park, rural Pine City and Minneapolis. (The examples below pertain only to the Math MCA tests for high school juniors.)

In 2016, ten Pine City juniors refused the MCA tests; that’s a small but significant bump up from the three students who refused the tests in 2015. At St. Louis Park High School in 2016, 66 juniors opted out. But in 2015, just one student refused the MCAs.

An eye-popping 209 juniors at Minneapolis’s Henry High School opted out of the math MCAs in 2016. That’s a huge leap from 2015, when just eleven students refused the tests. Only seven percent of Henry’s 1,100 students identify as white and eighty percent live in poverty, according to federal standards. This might help poke holes in the story that onlysuburban momsand white, wealthier kids are pushing the opt out movement. And, across town at Roosevelt High School, 98 juniors opted out of the math MCAs in 2016. Like Henry, Roosevelt is not a majority white school and almost seventy percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Over at South High School–Minneapolis’s largest and most diverse–so few students took the MCAs in 2016 that there are simply blank spaces on the Department of Education’s spreadsheet for the school. That’s because, when fewer than ten students take the tests, the data has to be blocked out for privacy reasons. In 2015, 306 students–or nearly ninety percent of eligible juniors–at South did not take the tests. (The city’s Washburn High also had 81 MCA math test refusals in 2016; in 2015, there were eleven.)

Minneapolis’s two smaller high schools–Edison and North High schools–had very few opt outs in 2016 and 2015 (0 at North, both years), while Southwest High School has had large and growing numbers of opt outs–191 in 2015 and 251 in 2016. High schools in St. Paul are also reporting an increase–often from zero up to double digits–in the numbers of students refusing the tests, but the opt out movement appears to have more legs in Minneapolis.

Point of confusion: In Minnesota, districts can set their own graduation requirements, and, reportedly, some are putting MCA scores on high school transcripts to indicate whether or not a student is “college and career ready.” A student’s MCA scores can also be used, per Minnesota statute, as part of a course grade or as a way to try to avoid being placed in remedial classes in college. Students, however, still do not have to take the MCA tests (test refusal can be noted on a transcript as well). Most college-bound high school students undoubtedly choose to focus their energies on either the ACT or SAT test, even as more and more colleges are becoming “test optional.”

Districts in the metro area and beyond also reported large numbers of opt outs among eleventh graders in 2016. Examples: last year, Hopkins High School had 158 refusals, up from zero in 2015; Wayzata High School had a tiny number of opt outs in 2016–just 12, out of 786 eligible juniors–but that’s up from zero opt outs the year before. Blaine High School, a large, suburban school north of the Twin Cities, saw 100 MCA refusals in 2016; Burnsville High School, south of the Twin Cities, had 30.

Not much of a crowd–except when you consider that zero Burnsville students and only three Blaine juniors refused the MCAs in 2015.

This week, the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report on standardized testing in Minnesota. The report noted that the state spent $19.2 million on testing in 2016, with one-third of that paid for with federal dollars. Ninety percent of this tab went to the companies such as Pearson that produce the tests and help the state assess test score data. 

The auditor’s report revealed a number of problems with standardized testing in Minnesota, including the conclusion that the legislature has piled too many tasks and expectations on the MCA tests in particular. MCA scores are now expected to show proficiency on the state standards, as well as growth (through the addition of test questions that push students above or below grade level) and a student’s “college and career readiness.”

From the state report on standardized testing (page S-4):

The Legislature has required MDE to develop tests and report test scores in certain ways. Some of these requirements are ill-advised.

State law requires that the MCAs include questions above and below a student’s grade level. However, due to federal requirements, MDE has been unable to use these questions in calculating most of the test scores it reports. As a result, statewide tests have been lengthened for all students without much benefit.

Dolores Ramos, 16, right, joins dozens of Highland High School students in Albuquerque, N.M., as students staged a walkout Monday March 2, 2015, to protest a new standardized test they say isn't an accurate measurement of their education. Students frustrated over the new exam walked out of schools across the state Monday in protest as the new exam was being given. The backlash came as millions of U.S. students start taking more rigorous exams aligned with Common Core standards.

Albuquerque, New Mexico high school students; AP photo

State law also requires MDE to report a score based on the MCA describing each student’s progress toward career and college readiness. But such scores for elementary and middle school students are methodologically problematic. Projections extending far into the future have a high level of uncertainty, and some of them are likely to be wrong.

MCA tests scores are also used in teacher evaluations (per state requirement) and, in some districts, to evaluate principals, too. Another key finding from this report? Across the state, “Many principals and teachers do not feel prepared to interpret much of the testing data reported by MDE.”

In response to this, at a March 5 presentation of the auditor’s report, Republican state representative Sondra Erickson (who has served on ALEC’s education task force) suggested that perhaps teachers need more training in how to interpret test data.

If more students continue to refuse the tests, perhaps such further training will not be necessary. 

The level of testing nonparticipation among high school students in Minneapolis Public Schools has reached the point where it is no longer appropriate to endorse the test results as a valid measure of districtwide student learning.

–Office of the Legislative Auditor’s 2017 report on standardized testing in Minnesota (79)

Meanwhile in Minnesota: Lack of school counselors have experts worried,” as the state has no mandate to fund counselors or maintain a certain number per student.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you very much to those who have already donated!

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It’s Testing Season. Ethics Lesson, Anyone?

March 1, 2017

With Betsy DeVos in the background, whitewashing segregation and the Jim Crow era, the annual standardized testing season is here, ready to do its part to keep our schools separate and unequal. 

How’s that? Consider two local lessons in how the testing regime is propped up in our public schools on some pretty shaky ethics.

First, parents in the Becker, Minnesota school district recently received a jaw-dropping letter in their kids’ backpacks. The letter announced that the district would shortly be “adjusting (its) academic schedule,” by dropping–temporarily!–science and social studies classes in favor of an extra “Power Hour” of math and reading for each kid.

“Grade level teachers will work during this time to teach skills in the area of reading and math at your child’s instructional level,” the letter states, before assuring parents that district staff are “committed to working together to best meet the needs of all of our kids.”

Hmm. What theory of education or child development would suggest that the best needs of all kids would involve doubling down on math and reading test prep, to gin up scores on outsourced standardized tests made by for-profit corporations?

Here is the letter that was sent home:

Becker is a majority white, middle class, exurban district. Research shows that students in districts such as this often rake in the highest scores on standardized tests, and state education data for Becker backs this up. In 2015-2016, the Becker schools “surpassed the state average in every grade level for every test,” crowed a statement on the district’s website. What’s more, “most grade levels improved the number of students proficient in comparison to last year.” (That means they achieved “growth,” but don’t ask DeVos to explain any of this.)

But at what price? Replacing science and social studies with a super, extra fun Power Hour of reading and math does not seem like an ethical way to ensure dominance on top of the standardized test heap.

Parents in the Becker schools didn’t like it, either. A source tells me that as soon as the Power Hour letter hit home, parents loudly informed the district that they did not approve of their kids being given concentrated doses of test prep. In response, the district reinstated science and social studies (even though data showed there “would be a benefit to incorporating a ‘Power Hour’ of intensive instruction to our day”), and sent the following chagrined letter home:

 

I don’t know the opt out rates in Becker–the data does not appear to be easily available–but in Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs, a growing number of students are choosing not to take the annual MCA tests. This has been building for years, especially for high school students who are–surprisingly!–savvy enough to realize that the MCA tests are of little consequence to their lives and their futures. MCA test scores are not required for graduation, nor are they part of college admission decisions. In other words, they don’t really matter.

And that’s partly because everything else matters so much. In 2015, I interviewed a handful of students from Southwest High School about their decision to blow off the MCAs, and their answers were very revealing:

As we talked, one thing was very clear: the MCA test is the least of these students’ worries. They are the most tested generation ever, but that’s just the tip of the rigorous homework/grades/college prep iceberg that’s always straight ahead.

Here’s the ethics connection. In a February message sent to teachers at Minneapolis’ Southwest High School, the school’s testing coordinator informed them that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) had recently added “encouraging parents or students to refuse the test” to its list of “unethical” test administration practices. This is the email sent to Southwest teachers:

Hello All,

The MCA testing window opens March 6th (overlapping with ACCESS, ACT & Make-up ACT administration) through May 5th.

Additional information will be provided in the next week or so with specifics on student testing dates, locations, proctor assignments, and other ways we can support each other in this effort.

To whet your appetite for that additional information, below are a few points regarding Parent Refusal Forms picked up from yesterday’s training session at The District.

  • MDE has added encouraging Opt Outs to the list of unethical practices in test administration.
  • Schools are expected to have a 95% participation rate to qualify for MMR funds.
  • To underscore the point, REA sent me the following message (highlights, theirs): 

    Page 40 of (MDE) procedures manual. 

The testing coordinator acknowledges that this message is being sent to Southwest teachers because “in the past SW has had a lot of opt outs.” And that must be stopped by threatening to withhold funds, apparently.

It is clear that we have built a whole industry around testing, as our schools have become more racially and economically segregated–partly because test scores are made public, allowing parents to “opt out” of schools with low test scores. And who is most likely to attend a school with low test scores? In Minnesota, like most other places, it is marginalized students of color living in underserved communities.

The more we double down on trying to force students and teachers to comply with standardized testing, the more, it seems, we avoid difficult conversations about ethical concerns around segregation and the unequal (current and historic) allocation of resources, not to mention the fallacy of reducing educational achievement to multiple choice tests. 

Ceresta Smith is a Florida-based teacher and leader in the Opt Out movement (we met a few years ago at an education justice conference). On Monday morning, after Moonlight was awkwardly awarded Best Picture at the Oscars, this is what she wrote on Facebook:

Big ups to Moonlight!!!🤗These folks came through arts magnet programs in majority Black community schools with majority Black faculties composed of great teachers! Big up to the arts!!! Down with culturally biased worthless testing! Those tests do not make award winning art and artists!!! The teachers and students just put Miami in the big league for talent for writing, acting, and sharing truth about growing up poor and gay! Wow, big task for schools, Miami Northwestern High and Norland Middle, which a fraudulent grading system likes to label as less than.

In our questionably ethical pursuit of test scores, silence, secrecy and compliance, are we missing key conversations about what students, parents, teachers actually want from our schools?

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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