Monthly Archives: March 2015

Jesse Hagopian: Test and Punish has Got to Go

So, did you know that the very thing that’s guaranteed to close the “achievement gap” (standardized testing, duh) has its origins in the eugenics movement?

Awkward! 

Teacher Jesse Hagopian, during a 2013 “Scrap the MAP” protest

And, did you know that some of the first people to speak out against these purposefully racist tests were radical black intellectuals?

Ooh. Double awkward.

These were some of the fun facts Seattle high school teacher Jesse Hagopian–one of the nicest radicals you could ever hope to meet–dropped during his recent swing through the Twin Cities, on a book tour for More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.

Jesse covered a lot of ground during his two-day visit to the Twin Cities. From the dimly lit auditorium at Minneapolis South High School to the comfy John B. Davis hall at Macalester College, and on to St. Paul’s labor-focused Eastside Freedom Library, he wowed groups of students, teachers, parents, and community activists with his views on education, testing, and the power of communal action.

I was lucky enough to attend all three events, but I think my favorite experience was listening in at South High School, as some of the school’s students interviewed Jesse after he spoke in the auditorium.

First, let me congratulate the South High School student journalists on their excellent interview prep skills–these kids had some great questions ready for Jesse. And, they were joined by three additional student leaders who are not on the paper, the Southerner, but came to listen and ask their own questions. 

High school students are so great, and so were their questions. 

Jesse gets grilled

Jesse gets grilled

Here’s a few of them, with a summary/paraphrasing of Jesse’s answers:

Isn’t it mostly privileged white kids that are opting out of testing? (Don’t hold back, kids!)

  • Jesse: This is a question about who has access to information. Even though low-income people of color are most impacted by test and punish policies, they might not have the same access to information as whiter, wealthier people. And there are a lot of people of color, like Karen Lewis of Chicago, who are currently leading this movement because these tests measure access to resources, not someone’s intelligence. And, we need to reveal the racist origins of standardized testing. 

How can students legitimize the movement?

  • Jesse: I think it’s happening. Thousands have opted out in Colorado, where tests were tied to graduation. Well, they can’t deny everybody a diploma, so it worked. And, in Santa Fe, the student-led walkout was huge. We need to uncover the first cadre of test resisters, and get back to education with a purpose. In the Freedom Schools from the 1960’s students had to go vote as their final exam. We also need to move away from global competition, and practice global collaboration. The 1% is doing just fine, but meanwhile we have endless wars and have spent trillions of dollars just to lay waste to the Middle East, and get oil. Public education should be about global solidarity instead.

But, with a government that values top down change, can it ever come from the top?

  • Jesse: All important changes that have come about have come through grassroots movements. The 1% wants to eliminate critical thinking in order to maintain gross inequality. A global struggle against high stakes testing is an important way to fight this.

If we don’t have tests, how should we evaluate teachers?

  • Jesse: Let’s apply some scrutiny to politicians and ask them, “Are you funding our schools properly? No? Then you’re fired.” Look at Finland, too. We should be making teaching a sought-after, prestigious profession. Flood the schools with resources, to set the teachers up for success. Observations are important, too, and time for collaboration with other teachers. A main problem with education is that we don’t support our teachers.

We have heard people say that opting out will hurt our school. Does it impact funding?

  • Jesse: There were over 67,000 families who opted out of testing in New York last year, and there has been no impact on funding. It is an empty threat. Every school in Washington state is a “failing” school, because we have not agreed to tie student test scores to teacher evaluations (a demand of the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” plan). Every principal had to send a letter home, saying “your child attends a failing school,” because every student was supposed to be “100% proficient” on testing by 2014, under the No Child Left Behind law from 2002. That is ridiculous.

Finally, on the important topic of race and test scores, Hagopian had sympathy for parents and students of color who may be slow to embrace the opt out movement:

  • Jesse: We have a legacy of deep, entrenched racism, and there are legitimate concerns from families of color about whether or not their kid’s needs are being met at school. People are trying to carve out sanity in an unequal world, and opting out may not seem worth it. But, rote learning and an individualistic approach to education (that pits students and schools against each other) is not going to end institutionalized racism.

Radical black intellectual indeed.

Jesse Hagopian with veteran SNCC activist Frank Smith

School to Students: Shoot for the stars, but don’t expect to get there

By Sarah Lahm

Testing, from the inside out: I recently sat down with five Minneapolis Southwest High School students to find out why they–along with over 500 of their classmates–had chosen to opt out of the annual, standardized MCA test. I assumed, like another Minneapolis education writer has, that these students were opting out only because their evaluation-fearing teachers told them to. What I found out instead, by actually talking to them, was much more interesting and much more uncomfortable. 

If I had to boil my conversation with these five students down to one sentence, it would be this: It’s not the MCAs, stupid; it’s everything else. 

Just Kids

Just kids

The students I spoke with–Makenna Kirkeby, and her friends James, Emma, Harrison, and Will–are all juniors at Southwest High School, which is consistently ranked, by the people who love to rank things, as a top performing high school. And they are all top performers, or striving to be. 

And that is the problem. They are not anxious about the MCA test; they don’t have time for it. If they miss class time to take a standardized test, then, they told me, they would have to somehow find time to make up the class work they had missed.

And they don’t have time–that much is clear. Here is a snapshot of my conversation with them, which took place on a weekend afternoon, as they sat around doing homework. My questions/prompts are in bold; their responses are the bullet points that follow:

Tell me about the MCA test. 

  • The MCA test is really a low priority at our school. It’s not hyped at all; there’s no test prep for it, not like there was in middle school. 
  • The tests we care about are the ACT and the SAT because that’s how we get in to college. The MCA test doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a graduation requirement, it’s not about getting in to college.
  • We don’t learn anything from the MCAs.
  • Honestly, a lot of students just click through it, to get it done. Some students have even had races to see who could finish the test first; I think the record is one minute and forty-five seconds.
  • Yeah, some students have used it as an excuse to get out of class, because it’s not a timed test, so they’ll just sit there in front of the screen, getting out of class.

Dumb question time: So, why are there so many kids opting out of the MCA test this year?

  • Because we found out we could from our teachers, and the school’s “test guy,” who comes around to round people up to take the test.
  • As soon as we found out, we were like, “Great. Where do we sign?” 
  • Also, we’re supposed to take the MCAs close to the end of the quarter, when we have finals. It’s like sliding another test in, right when things are really stressful in our classes. That’s why.

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.

First, the students did not seem to know what the MCA test was supposed to be for. Funding? No one was sure. 

Testing industry to Congress: Do Not Disturb Us

Then, they started to talk about their lives and what it means to be a “good” student today:

  • Testing is stressful; they make it seem like it will determine your life.
  • Being a good test taker is emphasized.
  • 11th graders want good grades, and to know the content of what they’re studying.
  • Retaining knowledge is more important to us. Homework and tests are so much stress; we’d rather be sitting in class, learning.
  • Getting a good grade is so important. That’s what we are always told.

What is the purpose of all of this?

  • There is so much pressure to get in to college, and to think about how we will pay for it.
  • We have to be well-rounded, doing everything. We work, play sports, have to have the grades, and do community service.

What is the impact of this, on your lives?

  • It is difficult to stay healthy. Mental health issues are a really big problem.
  • Our families never see us. If our families are going out to dinner or doing something fun, it’s like, “Oh well, I can’t go.” There is always so much to do.
  • We have to choose between sleep and cramming in homework.
  • I have struggled with my mental health.
  • We go to school, then go to work, then have soccer, and get home at 10 p.m. Then,  we can either sleep or do homework. And getting behind is not really an option, because It takes a lot to make up work.
  • Skipping the MCA test is a matter of prioritizing; the test just doesn’t matter.

The MCAs don’t matter, because everything else matters so much in these students’ lives. They are taking tests all the time, and described often having to miss lunch to take a test or do homework. 

  • Lunch feels really short. We have maybe 30 minutes. If we leave to get food, we have to come right back.
  • We have a lot of projects booked at the same time, like a 7 page essay, a quiz, a biology lab, Spanish–all due at the same time. 
  • We are IB students, and we take AP classes.

These students sometimes get the message that being average or getting a C is okay, but they are not convinced:

  • Teachers have a different idea about grades than we do. They will say a C is average, but for a student, it’s deadly. A ‘C’ means we’re not going to college.
  • If we get a GPA below 2.0, we can’t play sports, and a lot of good colleges won’t take a 2.0 GPA student.
  • We are expected to have high grades, jobs, and fit in volunteer hours. A 4.0 GPA is what everyone is supposed to have.

And then there are the tests that really matter to these students, because they are truly high stakes. For example, the ACT:

  • Some of us take a Saturday morning ACT prep class, which is basically a class about how to cheat on tests like the ACT because we’re told how to do the test.
  • The ACT is not about life skills and has no value, but it’s high stakes.
  • If you don’t learn test-taking strategies, you won’t do well on the ACT.
  • But, the ACT doesn’t really determine how smart you are.
  • If you are not from a family with lots of resources, to help you prepare for the test, it’s almost unfair. People who have more money can pay for tutors.
  • Kids without resources don’t get the same chances. And not everyone can do well on a timed test like the ACT.

Therefore, in light of all of this, the MCA test–which, again, doesn’t determine if students will graduate or where they will go to college, seems redundant and ridiculous.

  • The MCA test is not even statistically correct, because so many students don’t take it seriously.
  • I don’t want to be compared to other kids.
  • It’s upsetting to have a number determine who you are.
  • The tests are not about being smarter or getting smarter.
  • There is so much pressure and competition at our school, and in general. 
  • One time, my stepsister (who goes to a different high school) and I were both up doing homework until 2 or 3. Then, I went to bed, but when I got up in the morning, she was still up, doing homework. She never went to bed.

The purpose of all of this seems lost on the students, who seem to feel as though they are on a roller coaster and cannot get off:

  • I know someone who has a 3.95 GPA at our school. I think she’s ranked 49th in our class.
  • At the end of the quarter, I’m so stressed and anxious. I just shut down.
  • I have mental breakdowns at least once a month.
  • My parents ask me, “Why are you so stressed out?” But then, I also have to keep up with my room and my laundry, and that makes me more upset and stressed out.
  • Yes, you just have to know your limits, and when to take a break. 

    Are we there yet?

The general feeling the students expressed is one of feeling unsupported by the adult culture they are dependent on, aside from their families, which they each seemed to feel close to:

  • We are stressed out, overwhelmed. If we miss school, the school is so strict about it. We have to have a doctor’s note, or we are told we’re truant. 
  • No one understands. People tell us to balance our lives better, but how?

Ironically, the MCA test seems like the one test they are allowed to make up. 

  • If we miss a Chemistry test or something, we can’t make it up. But if someone misses the MCA test, they will come looking for you, and say, “Come on, come take the test.” So, we can’t make up the things that really matter.

Wait. Aren’t the MCA tests supposed to tell everyone who the good or bad teachers are? Turns out the students have some pretty clear ideas on what they consider good teaching and learning:

  • There are some teachers who understand, but we have big classes, of 30 or 40 kids, and that’s hard for teachers. They don’t get to know us. All they know are our grades or test scores, or whether or not we turned in our homework.
  • We respect teachers when there is trust and communication, and when a class seems interactive. 
  • We like the teachers who remember what it was like to be in school. 
  • We like it when we’re more than a test score, and more than a list of things that need to get done.
  • Some teachers will notice what’s going on with students, and offer individual help. This is better than when teachers have black and white rules, or show favoritism.
  • Having enough resources, or relationships, is hard. Sometimes, we don’t have enough desks.
  • We have seven classes, all with homework piled on. A lot of students don’t know their learning styles; some don’t do well with lectures.

Somehow, despite the Testocracy’s best efforts, these students have learned to think critically about their lives and the world around them:

  • There is a clear boundary between the haves and have-nots, but opportunities should be there for everyone.
  • We know bright kids without high GPAs; a high GPA doesn’t exactly equal intelligence. But we are told a high GPA equals a good future.
  • High school is getting increasingly hard. More difficult. We get the message that we’re not going anywhere unless we have all A’s. 
  • We are told to shoot for the stars, but it feels like we shouldn’t expect to get there.
  • Life is a three-step thing: High school–College–Job.
  • College costs vast amounts of money, but we don’t have time to reflect on what we want to do with our lives.
  • But, I think about it a lot. And I think, we’re only 17.
  • We have good memories, too. We’ve grown up together. We’re lucky to have the opportunities we do have. Southwest is still a good school.
  • It’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t all work out.

Yet, it is clear these kids don’t feel free to be kids. They are guilt-ridden, because enough never seems like enough.

  • I feel guilty for having fun.
  • It’s always in the back of my head…what do I have to do?
  • When I’m out with friends, I think about all I should be doing.
  • School completely shapes your life. 100%. 
  • School seems pointless. Friendship, being a good person should be more important. I mean, in 20 years, will this stuff matter?

Sure, kids, complain away. But what do you really want, then?

  • Having a job and playing sports has taught me a lot of things, like life skills and people skills. I work with senior citizens, and I’ve learned how to talk with them. That’s really important, too.
  • I’ve learned more outside of school.
  • What about a class on how to do taxes or about what a mortgage is? I want to know how to pay my bills. 
  • I would like real-life scenarios in my classes, like how to do a job interview. Sometimes groups come in, after school, to talk about this stuff, but the students are so tired.

These students have gotten another message loud and clear: they are being sorted and ranked all the time.

  • We took the Explore and Plan tests (part of a three test package, along with the ACT). It was ok, but it doesn’t go into depth, and people always try to manipulate it. 
  • They always show us charts about which jobs make the most money. People tried to get those jobs, like “Business Analyst,” as their future career.
  • But, we can’t think of job possibilities. Being asked to be creative is a foreign concept. If someone’s interested in world history, it’s like, “What job goes with that?” 
  • We have been geared to not be creative. There is no room, no time, to explore what you’re interested in.
  • I have taken 3 years of hard IB classes, and just last week, I asked my teacher: What is IB? I don’t know. I’m just doing it because it looks good.
  • I feel like we’ve been conditioned to be like this. 
  • I’ve learned, “How can I bullshit my way through this?”

Finally, I asked if they ever studied things like how to get a handle on climate change. They said, bluntly, “We don’t have time to solve problems.”

The MCA test is really a blip of nothingness to these students, and being allowed to skip it, they said, felt like a little taste of freedom in an otherwise very controlled life.

John Kline in the Minneapolis Public Schools: Strange bedfellows?

Worlds are colliding–or aligning–in the Minneapolis Public Schools right now, as Republican Minnesota Congressman John Kline, chairman of the federal government’s Education and the Workforce Committee, is set to visit Nellie Stone Johnson Community School in north Minneapolis today. 

John Kline, education guru

Why would Kline–a Republican who represents a suburban and rural swath of southeastern Minnesota–be coming to Nellie Stone Johnson elementary school, today? 

It is not entirely clear who invited Kline to Minneapolis, but it seems he is coming at the request of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), an Obama administration “Promise Neighborhood in north Minneapolis. Promise Neighborhoods were launched in 2010, with funding provided by the federal government, to establish, among other things, “cradle-to-career solutions of both educational programs and family and community supports, with great schools at the center.”

NAZ became a Promise Neighborhood in late 2011, with a five-year, $28 million dollar federal grant. Sources say that, today, NAZ is running short on funds and in need of a reauthorization of their status as a Promise Neighborhood, in order to get more federal grant money. (The federal government, in turn, has been reluctant to assess whether or not Promise Neighborhoods are functioning effectively.)

Hence Kline’s visit.

An email exchange between Nellie Stone Johnson principal Amy Luehmann and NAZ employee Pa Thao shows Luehmann asking Thao for information about Kline and his visit. Thao works under NAZ Executive Director Sondra Samuels, who is married to newly elected Minneapolis school board member Don Samuels, and had this to say about Kline’s visit:

I can give you my understanding of the purpose for the visit: Rep. John Kline serves the Burnsville area and serves in the U.S. House of Representatives. He chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce so he is the biggest player in Education Policy on the national level. Rep. Kline is fiscally conservative and sees Promise Neighborhoods as too expensive. On top of that, Promise Neighborhoods is an Obama project. With partisan politics, even Republicans who do support the work that Promise Neighborhoods will not confirm that they do. Kline is one of our biggest opponents. We’ve heard from several groups and partner orgs that they have been trying for a while to get him to visit their sites. So, we are very fortunate that he has agreed to visit us as we are outside of his district. This visit is hugely important. It could have potential to lead to additional federal funding. 

Emphasis added.

What is also “hugely important” here is that NAZ is hoping to become Nellie Stone Johnson’s “partner,” under the Minneapolis Public Schools’ new “Community Partnership Schools” plan.

Becoming Nellie Stone Johnson’s partner would clearly provide NAZ with a reason to exist, and a justification for receiving more federal funding. This could be good for NAZ, but will it also be good for the students and staff at Nellie Stone Johnson?

Let’s consider some aspects of the proposed NAZ/Nellie Stone Johnson partnership that should raise questions–especially for the Minneapolis school board members who will decide at their April 14 meeting whether or not to allow the partnership to go forward. 

To ponder:

  • First, consider this: Nellie Stone Johnson was a pioneering African American labor organizer in the early to mid 20th century in Minneapolis. She was also the first black person elected to office in Minneapolis. She was so distinguished that she has a school named after her. 

    Labor activist Nellie Stone Johnson

  • But, by agreeing to “partner” with NAZ, Nellie Stone Johnson school will be agreeing to replace (I hear pink slips have already been sent) many of its current unionized, support staff employees with NAZ’s own “scholar coaches.” Privatization alert: NAZ will be providing these “coaches” to Nellie Stone Johnson at no cost to the district. The NAZ coaches will also not be unionized employees. (Support staff employees in MPS are often the district’s greatest source of staff-level diversity). 
  • Serve Minnesota, which utilizes temporary AmeriCorps reading and math tutors, will also provide staff to Nellie Stone Johnson, in place of unionized, more permanent support staff members (AmeriCorps volunteers usually serve for one or two years). It is also not clear what expertise or background in child development and education that either Serve Minnesota or NAZ would bring to Nellie Stone Johnson students and staff members.
  • NAZ also has become the training ground for the TFA corps members who are part of the University of Minnesota’s new partnership with TFA. Will TFA recruits then be placed in Nellie Stone Johnson? This seems possible, as both Samuels and her husband, Don, have been vocal advocates for TFA in the past.
  • If NAZ does get more funding and is allowed to become Nellie Stone Johnson’s partner, why would they not use some of their funds to support MPS getting more licensed, permanent teachers of color–perhaps from the ranks of the support staff who are slated to lose their jobs should this partnership go through? Getting a teaching license can be prohibitively expensive in Minnesota.
  • Will Don Samuels recuse himself from the vote for this partnership, from which his wife and her organization stand to profit?

There is much more to the proposed Nellie Stone Johnson/NAZ partnership that should be fully considered–such as the plan’s reliance and insistence on more “data days” for staff members (versus access to excellent, developmentally appropriate resources for the school’s students and staff). Hopefully, school board members are putting serious thought into this and will not simply rubber stamp the “partnership” between NAZ and Nellie Stone Johnson. Anything less would be a serious dishonor to the legacy of the woman for whom the school is named.

And, hopefully, John Kline’s ideas for what constitutes a great school system are not the only thing that will matter. 

Danger! More autonomy straight ahead

Today I got a notice from Pinterest in my email. It’s tagline goes like this: “Boring living room? How to liven things up.” 

Immediately, it struck me as an apt parallel to the attempt to introduce “Community Partnership Schools” into the Minneapolis Public Schools. (I am imagining a behind-closed-doors PowerPoint pitch that went something like this: “Boring public school system? How to liven things up with autonomous schools!”)

The PR promise of the school district’s community partnership plans drips from the MPS website–“Community Partnership Schools are collaborative, innovative, site-based, educational models that meet the unique needs of their students, accelerate learning, and prepare them for college and careers”–but will it be able to deliver on this promise?

The concept for this new model of public school was cemented during 2014 negotiations between MPS and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. The idea was that school communities could choose to become “partnership” schools, and become more autonomous, in exchange for “greater accountability.” 

These schools are supposed to be designed with lots of community input (meaning actual parents, teachers, maybe even some students) and fresh ideas (just like the Pinterest email) for how a newly liberated, autonomous school will be able to quickly boost student achievement.

That mostly means test scores, in the parlance of MPS’ new strategic plan, Acceleration 2020 (buckle up, kids), which is calling for all schools–autonomous or not–to produce large gains in student test scores:

  • 5% annual increase in number of students meeting or exceeding state standards on standardized reading & math tests
  • 8% annual increase in the number of “low performers” who meet or exceed state standards in reading and math

So, the district sets the overall standardized test-based targets for each school (this may be the “bonded” part of autonomous schools that former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson used to talk about), and the Community Partnership Schools get to…innovate on their way to achieving those goals, while other schools do not? I am not entirely clear on the promise and premise of this new way to jazz things up in MPS, or why a school would have to become “autonomous” just to do what it thinks is best for its students and staff.

How does one “unlock innovation”?

Also, MPS already has an “autonomous” school model in place, which the teachers’ union brought to the table, back in 2009-2010, after getting legislation passed allowing for “Site-Governed Schools.” The language surrounding the purpose of Site-Governed Schools is almost exactly the same as that being used now for Community Partnership Schools, and focuses on greater “flexibility” for these schools in several areas, such as how budgets are spent, what curriculum models are used, and who works at the schools. 

Since the Site-Governed Schools law went into effect more than five years ago, MPS has–or had, rather–just one such school: Pierre Bottineau French Academy (the school will no longer exist next year, as I understand it, and will instead be absorbed into Cityview Elementary School). The story of Pierre Bottineau, which started with the glow of community-led innovation, is a troubling one, and calls into question MPS’ ability to carry out such autonomous schools that have been “freed” from district-created shackles. (I did a whole series about Pierre Bottineau for the Twin Cities Daily Planet last year; the articles can be found here.)

MPS’ “Office of New Schools” was originally tasked with running the Site-Governed Schools and bringing greater autonomy, as well as market-driven choice and competition, into the district, under the guidance of the Center for Reinventing Public Education (MPS–like Memphis and New Orleans–is one of the Center for Reinventing Public Ed’s “portfolio districts).

In fact, the Office of New Schools was created within MPS when the last strategic plan–written by McKinsey and Company consultants back in 2007–promised to bring accelerated success and greater flexibility and freedom to the district. Since then, the Office of New Schools has had at least five directors–most of which have had a charter school background but little else in the way of public education experience. Today, it is being run by 2009 Rice University graduate Betsy Ohrn, who is a TFA alum and now serves on the board of directors at Venture Academy (a “blended learning” charter school in Minneapolis) with Jon Bacal, who was the first director of the Office of New Schools.

These days, the Office of New Schools has been tasked with implementing MPS” latest push to bring “innovation” into the district, as it has been overseeing the Community Partnership Schools application process. So far, the first round of contenders for this more autonomous (I must remember to get that word accurately defined) school model are:

  • Ramsey Middle School (which, by the school’s own admission, already enjoys a fair amount of autonomy)
  • Bancroft Elementary School (which would like to go further in its mission to become an IB school)
  • Folwell Arts Magnet (also would like to go further with its magnet school mission)
  • Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School, which is currently a K-8 school in north Minneapolis, but will become a K-5 next year.

All four of these schools–should the Minneapolis school board allow them to become partnership schools at the board’s April 14 meeting–will also be expected to pilot MPS’ new, more autonomous and decentralized funding model, called “Student-Based Allocations.” (This topic requires its own separate blog post). Why should they have to become Community Partnership Schools and try out a new funding model at the same time? Good question.

Ironically, or perhaps, forebodingly, the Office of New Schools was rated MPS’ least effective department by district principals very recently. Just 22% of MPS principals–who are slated to become the “entrepreneurial” leaders of their schools, as the district tries to become more decentralized–identified the Office of New Schools as satisfactory; in contrast, the English Language Learner department was considered the most useful, according to 79% of principals.

If the Office of New Schools could not effectively manage the one site-governed, autonomous school it has authorized, and today’s principals do not consider it an effective department, how will it handle implementing the Community Partnership School model?

And how will any of this serve the district’s most vulnerable students and schools, who are perhaps in need of more support and less autonomy?

Could it be…?

Portrait of a Young Test Taker

Testing, from the inside out: The following sketch of a young test taker grew out of a conversation I had recently with a school employee. 

She is six years old and in first grade. English is not her first language, Spanish is. But, she is lucky enough to go to a school in Minneapolis–a neighborhood public school–where she will be  taught in Spanish for most of the day, until she is almost ready for middle school. 

Image by artist Ricardo Levins Morales

When it is testing time at her school, though, she is tested only in English. And it is almost always testing time at her school, where many of the kids are poor, non-white, and non-native English speakers. The school has many homeless students, too.

In the fall, near the start of the school year, she took the MAP test, which is an optional, district-chosen reading and math test that is supposed to show “growth,” or how much a student’s MAP score changes during the course of a school year.

The MAP is only done online, and on her first day in the computer lab, she looked at the screen, where the reading test was cued up. In English.

There were paragraphs of text in front of her. She started to cry. 

“I can’t read!”

No one could help her. The testing proctor is not allowed to read the text for her. Her classroom teacher is also not allowed to share any information with her about the test or how to take it.

She is six years old. She can’t read in English yet, or in Spanish.

The test proctor said, “Just do your best.”

The little girl gave up, and started clicking on answers, just to get through the test.

Her teacher will be evaluated on the girl’s test scores, even though the test is in English and the teacher and child work together in Spanish, as a way to ease bilingual children like her into later academic success.

In the spring, the child will take the MAP test in English again.

She also took another test just for English language learners during the winter, called the WIDA test. The WIDA test is a federally mandated test given to all ELL students–from kindergarten through 12th grade–in English. It has to be given to everyone, including students in an Autism or special education program, unless there are extreme circumstances. 

Poster by Ricardo Levins Morales

“It is kind of painful to have to give it to every kid,” says the test proctor. The test takes hours.

Starting in third grade, the girl will take the MAP test in the fall, another optional, district-selected test in the winter called the OLPA (a Pearson-owned prep test for the MCAs), then the ELL/WIDA test, and finally the MCAs. The OLPA can be taken more than once, and it often is.

The assessment guide that comes with the OLPA describes the test this way:

The Optional Local Purpose Assessment (OLPA)…provides a risk-free environment for students to familiarize themselves with online testing and provides teachers with information to target instruction before the reading and mathematics tests used for accountability in the spring.

If she is a “bubble” kid–whose test scores show that she is close to scoring in the proficient range–she will get extra test prep and coaching, in terms of how to improve her score. If she can move from meeting to exceeding expectations on the statewide MCA test, then her school’s numbers will look better. Her teacher’s evaluation score will improve, and the teacher’s principal will look more “effective.”

“It’s all about the cut score,” says the proctor.

What is your testing story? Tell me at sarah.lahm@gmail.com.

Senator to Minneapolis Public Schools: Hannd ’em over

Good news, job seekers! Hiawatha Leadership Academies, the Minneapolis-based charter school chain run by Eli Kramer is poised for growth and ready to hire a “Temporary Recruitment Ambassador.”*

As a TRA–not to be confused with TFA, which is a different sort of temporary employment thing, and, from one insider’s view, “closely aligned” with Hiawatha Academies–your main job will be to stop referring to children as children, and instead call them “scholars” every time you speak. As a bonus, along the way you will learn that teachers are no longer simply “teachers” (boring!), but instead have been elevated to “scholar coaches.”

Once you get this down, you will be on your way to helping fill Hiawatha’s hallways with Scholars Formerly Known as Children. Pause for a moment, if you will, and get inspired by Hiawatha’s “manifest destiny” dreams:

“Our vision is to expand our impact by growing to five schools by 2020. At scale, we will be putting five percent of all school-age scholars in Minneapolis on the path to and through college.”

But don’t worry–you won’t be alone in this mission. In fact, the path to having “scholar launching pads” throughout Minneapolis is currently being paved by the power of suggestion, thanks to some friends in high places.

David “I’ll Hanndle This” Hann; Photo by James Nord

Case in point: Republican state Senator David Hann, of the suburban happy land known as Eden Prairie, just proposed a bill to break up the Minneapolis Public Schools and, once and for all, dismantle its dysfunctional bureaucratic ways by breaking it into six smaller bureaucracies, each with its own list of administrators (I smell opportunity for all of you former “scholar coaches” out there!).

With a clear eye towards transformational change, here’s what Hann’s plan would bring to Minneapolis: “The six districts would choose a superintendent, hold school board elections, and decide whether it wants unionized or non-unionized teachers, among many issues. The districts would be free of state mandates.” And, because choice is only good for some people, in some situations, “…the bill would not give the Minneapolis school district a choice in the matter.”

I’m glad someone’s head is in the game. And, I am not surprised it is Hann, who, coincidentally, was once on the Hiawatha Academies board of directors, and is the president of something called “Parents for Accountable Schools” (which is nothing like the group Parents for Accounting Schools, I’m told.)

Of course, this bill–borne of the boredom that comes from representing a suburban district with no school-related problems–will not go anywhere. This time.

But, dear future potential scholar recruiter, it does go along with a recent Minneapolis StarTribune editorial, which warns that, when it comes to Minneapolis and St. Paul, failure to get test scores (Results©) up will give “ammunition to those who would dismantle urban public schools.”

And, it does plant a nice seed that may help Hiawatha reach its goal of capturing 5% of the market share in Minneapolis.

Maybe this firm can help?

*Job may have already been filled, as the scholar recruitment window is a narrow one. 

Love Pedagogy: The Future of Education Reform

Rendo assembly line

Robert Rendo’s “Assembly Line”

I have seen the future of education reform, and its name is the Minneapolis Teachers Institute.

At least, I hope it is the future of education reform.

The Minneapolis Teachers Institute (MTI) is a four-year old professional development program for Minneapolis teachers. It is funded by a grant from the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Office of Equity and Diversity, and coordinated by the University of Minnesota’s Department of African and African-American Studies. 

But it is so much more than that.

The MTI is a hidden gem in the pocket of an urban school district that often seems stuck in a gap-filled narrative of failure and dysfunction. It brings public school teachers together for a year-long, project-based study of what it means to be a teacher today. I have seen it in action, and it is a beautiful thing.

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MTI designer Lisa Arrastia

The MTI grew out of the passion and experience of Lisa Arrastia, a writing teacher and PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota with an intriguing background and a lovely vision for her work in education:

 “In all of her work with schools, Lisa focuses on the development of empathic  communities where young people demonstrate the freedom to think, question, and innovate as they wrestle with the tangled complexities of self, other, and difference.”

Arrastia has a lot of experience working with schools, as a former principal and school director, but says her view of education changed when her own daughter started school in St. Paul (Arrastia and her family now live in New York, where she and her husband, poet Mark Nowak, both teach).

As a public school parent, Arrastia was asked to sit on a school committee, and began to get a clearer view of the restraints teachers face on a daily basis, as they work to meet the needs of their students. Efforts to reduce homework or bring innovation into the classroom often seemed to get lost in a sea of mandates and No Child Left Behind, test-driven limitations.

That is when Arrastia started to develop a “passion for what teachers were doing,” and the MTI began to take shape. 

In 2011, she heard through the education grapevine that the Minneapolis Public Schools was looking for a different kind of professional development opportunity for district teachers, and she put the MTI in motion, through her other project, the Ed Factory.

So far, Arrastia has managed to get support from MPS each year for the institute, which serves Minneapolis teachers in grades 5-12. Interested teachers apply to be MTI fellows, and then embark on a year-long, project-based study of their work. This includes monthly seminars and workshop sessions, with visiting scholars and experts from the arts and sciences, and a $1,000 fellowship upon completion of the program. Last year, featured guests included writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and social cognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman. Why? Because, Arrastia says, “teachers have to be artists and scientists simultaneously.”

Beyond this, the MTI’s broader vision and purpose is to treat teachers as the “intellectual workers” they are, according to Arrastia, and to “creatively push back against the limitations of high stakes testing.”

This, I believe, is the asset-based, love-focused, relationship-driven future of education reform. As opposition to restrictive, top-down education reform builds (locally, nationally, and globally). the MTI is busy crafting an alternative vision of reform that “emphasizes the humanity of both teacher and child.” This has seemingly struck a nerve, as Arrastia says another state has expressed interest in the MTI’s work.

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Poet Patricia Smith will perform at the MTI’s March 6 event

But don’t take my word for it: come to the Capri Theater in Minneapolis on Friday, March 6 for a closer look at what the MTI does. There, a manifestation of the institute’s current theme–“Love Pedagogy: Disrupting the Violence Against Young Bodies”–will be on display, as MTI fellows showcase the work they’ve undertaken this year.

Here is a detailed description of the Capri event, from the MTI:

Our seventeen teaching fellows have each chosen one student to get to know as an individual and as a learner. We’ve asked fellows to call this student “my child,” and we have asked them to encourage the student to study them as well. Fellows and their students are studying each other in order to get a sense of their common humanity, something which the institute’s research demonstrates has, unfortunately, deteriorated under the pressure of current education reforms. Applying theories based on the science of social connection, using photographer Dawoud Bey’s Class Pictures and the prose poems “Stop the Presses,” by Patricia Smith, and “Capitalization,” by Mark Nowak, as models, throughout the fellowship term fellows and students have been photographing each other, writing about each other, talking about what they fear and love, what makes them angry, and what they hope for and desire.

I have been a lucky fly on the wall at two MTI events this year, when educator and activist Bill Ayers came, and then, just recently, when poet Claudia Rankine and novelist Marlon James read from their recent books and offered insights on everything from James Baldwin to the importance of recognizing the “danger of a single story.” (Arrastia introduced both Rankine and James, and led with this radical notion: “Our students need relationships and love, not discipline and tests.”)

Most MTI sessions are in fact free and open to the public, and well worth attending, in order to see, up close, the good work being done with support from the Minneapolis Public Schools–whose challenges, and critics, often seem endless.

I would say that right now there is only one way we can remake public schools; that is, we have to make them welcoming and beautiful places. We have to spend as much money on schooling as we do on the Stealth Bomber. What we have to do is to buy all the resources necessary and give everyone the maximum number of chances to learn in ways in which they choose to learn.

–educator Herbert Kohl, one of Arrastia’s inspirations for the MTI