Monthly Archives: March 2016

Test Score and School Governance “Miracles” Debunked in New Reports

March 29, 2016

Two key education reform strategies being implemented in the Minneapolis Public Schools withered a bit yesterday, after being exposed to some data-driven sunlight.

First came a policy brief published by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), based at the University of Colorado-Boulder. The NEPC, which casts a welcome, skeptical eye on today’s “transformational” education reform ideas, zeroed in on the “portfolio” district model, which Minneapolis has been operating under since at least 2010. 

CRPE, purveyor of “portfolio” school reform strategies

The portfolio model is rooted in the principles of the stock market, where “underperforming” stocks–or schools–will be quickly shed in favor of different stocks, or schools, that promise to yield better results. The goal is profit, in the stock market, and “high performance” in the school district realm. Paradoxically, the education policy that accompanies this approach promises more freedom (“autonomy”), while insisting that schools adhere to standardized, pre-determined measures of success (test scores).

In Minneapolis, we are seeing this through the district’s promotion of “Community Partnership Schools,” heavily touted as a way to empower schools and encourage success–as long as the schools jump through someone else’s “accountability” hoops. But the NEPC brief does not simply swallow the portfolio rhetoric, even as it acknowledges that “given the struggles of urban school districts, no proposal should be easily dismissed.”

Instead, the NEPC encourages policy makers to look beyond the “spin and cherry-picked data” that has accompanied the portfolio district model (brought to Minneapolis by the national ed reform advocacy group, Center on Reinventing Public Education).

A significant problem, according to the NEPC, is that portfolio models have been sold as a way to “overcome problems of poverty and structural inequality and under-resourced schools” only through “changes to the school management structure.” A portfolio approach to school reform does not naturally confront the deep “societal inequities” that have created great concentrations of poverty in urban districts, and instead,  expects schools to close gaps without additional state funding or economic policy support.

And, it can cut out democratic decision-making, often by replacing or overriding elected school boards and state government, and putting schools in the hands of private operators or funders– mostly at the expense of poor communities of color (whose voting rights are also currently under attack in many states, as the NEPC policy brief points out).

We can see this happening before our eyes in Minneapolis, through the growing influence of MN Comeback–the privately funded, privately managed group that says it would like to completely “remake” Minneapolis’s public school system, primarily by funding the Community Partnership Schools/portfolio plan–minus public oversight.

MN Comeback is part of the billionaire-funded, Memphis-based group, Education Cities. On March 22, Education Cities published an “Education Equality Index,” designed to “measure and compare schools, cities, and states” according to student test scores. It seems the idea was to celebrate a handful of “gap-closing” miracle schools, where low-income kids are performing well on standardized tests–frequently in charter schools. This fits the narrative most likely to be supported by Education Cities’ funders, including the Walton Family Foundation, whose love for charter schools is legendary.

Sounds great, right? The problem is, Education Cities’s methodology–described as “junk” by Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker–was flawed, and has since been retracted through a contrite press release that went out on March 29. Behold the cumbersome backtracking:

Education Cities and GreatSchools have identified limitations in the interpretation of state-level Education Equality Index (EEI) scores. Our goal is to highlight states, cities and schools that are more successfully closing the achievement gap than others. We are confident that school-level and city-level EEI scores are highlighting success stories across the nation, but we have concluded that the state-level EEI scores are not the best way to compare states. Because states’ absolute EEI scores are highly correlated to the percentage of students in the state who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, we have removed the rankings of states based on the EEI score and pace of change pending further review.

It turns out that ranking students according to test scores is not as easy as it sounds, especially when the goal is to compare kids in different states. All poor kids are not the same. All tests are not the same. Different states have different tests, with different cut scores, throwing into question who is really a “high performing” poor kid and who is not (the question is never whether or not we should have so many poor kids in the first place…). All of this makes turning kids into data points on a graph really tricky, which was quickly uncovered by consumers–and even presumed supporters–of Education Cities’ index. 

The embarrassing flaw in Education Cities’ report was that their use of data made it look like states with higher numbers of poor kids were “doing better” than states with fewer kids in poverty. That’s because poverty impacts test scores. A state with more kids in poverty is going to have a lower “achievement” gap, because it will have fewer high performing test takers, overall. 

This is why the NEPC policy report recommends states resist grasping for miraculous ed reform strategies, such as charter schools or portfolio district models. Instead, William Mathis and Kevin Wellner, who authored the report, argue that an “equity-focused” approach to boosting urban schools makes more sense, and should involve, first and foremost, adequately funding schools. 

Minnesota lawmakers are currently weighing how to spend a $900 million “surplus.” So far, it seems Governor Mark Dayton is the only one who wants to spend the bulk of this on education, with Republicans pushing for tax cuts and Democrats prioritizing transportation needs, meaning the “adequate funding” of Minneapolis’s schools might not be happening anytime soon.

Most importantly, however, all the evidence suggests that no governance approach will come close to mitigating the harms caused by policies generating concentrated poverty in our urban communities. In light of this core truth, does it make sense to privatize the management of urban schools?

NEPC Portfolio Schools Policy Brief

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MinnPost Piece on Minneapolis School Reform: PR or Not?

March 23, 2016

They say you better listen to the voice of reason/ But they don’t give you any choice ’cause they think that it’s treason /So you had better do as you are told

–Elvis Costello,Radio Radio

The local Bush Foundation funds education coverage at MinnPost, which bills itself as a site for “non-partisan…high quality journalism” about Minnesota. The Bush Foundation also funds MN Comeback, a privately run education reform outpost of the national group, Education Cities. (Additionally, Kayla Yang-Best, the Bush Foundation’s Education Director, sits on the Board of Directors of MN Comeback.)

MN Comeback, in turn, funds the Minneapolis Public Schools’s “innovative” new approach to school reform, called Community Partnership Schools (CPS).  Therefore, anyone who has read MinnPost education writer Erin Hinrich’s positive March 22 review of the CPS model should bear in mind that the Bush Foundation is paying for both the CPS strategy and media coverage of it.

Let’s be clear: This is PR work, not “high quality journalism.” 

I mean no disrespect to Hinrichs, who may be unaware of the reformy minefield she has stepped into at MinnPost, nor can she be expected to singularly answer for questions such as these, posed by Bill Moyers at a 2015 journalism award ceremony: 

What happens to a society fed a diet of rushed, re-purposed, thinly reported “content?” Or “branded content” that is really merchandising — propaganda — posing as journalism?

Hinrichs’s March 22 story about the Community Partnership Schools concept sits only on the surface of this ideal-sounding education reform strategy, and seems to swallow whole the idea that CPS sites are truly about empowering individual teachers and schools to do what they think best for their students. 

One tenet of CPS sites and their host “portfolio” districts

If only. CPS sites are supposed to take on more “accountability” (test scores) in exchange for “greater autonomy.” This concept is shrouded in the fog of education reform jargon, such as buckets (which buckets can schools fill by themselves? which will be filled by the district?), stakeholders, units of change and so on.  What is missing is even a basic analysis of the agenda behind the concept.

There must be a reason, after all, that “autonomous” schools, like CPS sites, are so beloved and happily funded by the capital-soaked arbiters of education and economic policy, in Minnesota and beyond. We can’t find money for more school counselors or mental health support in our schools and our communities, yet MN Comeback is sitting on a $35 million nest egg, just waiting to fund–through private grants–their own pet reform projects, like CPS.

This should raise red flags for anyone tracking the movement of the CPS model through the Minneapolis schools. What, truly, are we–as taxpayers, residents, and parents, students, and staff–being asked to forfeit, in exchange for a crumb of greater “autonomy”? 

…no peer-reviewed studies of portfolio districts exist, meaning that no reliable empirical evidence about portfolio effects is available that supports either the implementation or rejection of the portfolio district reform model. Nor is such evidence likely to be forthcoming. Even advocates acknowledge the enormous difficulty of designing credible empirical studies to determine how the portfolio approach affects student achievement and other outcomes.

–Education Policy Professor Kenneth J. Saltman, 2010

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Privatizer’s Paradise: MN Comeback Touts Milwaukee “Success”

March 21, 2016

As the Minneapolis school board continues to search for a new superintendent, MN Comeback is working behind the scenes to privately wield influence over the district. This is a continuation of my posts about how the market-based reform movement is impacting the Minneapolis schools.

In a March 8 letter sent to the Minneapolis school board, MN Comeback representatives heavily lobbied board members, asking them to further partner with MN Comeback’s privately funded “coalition.” As a selling point, the letter makes this claim:

Sustained improvements and transformation require rapport and collaboration with community partners. Cities like Memphis, Oakland, Denver and Milwaukee are implementing robust citywide plans and seeing strong results.

Redo 2

MN Comeback PPT slide

Milwaukee? Yes, Milwaukee. MN Comeback wants the Minneapolis school board to look to Milwaukee, Wisconsin as an example of how to run a partnership-infused, “robust” city school district. 

As I have pointed out in previous blog posts, MN Comeback is operating under the umbrella of a national, billionaire-funded organization called Education Cities; Milwaukee is, too.

MN Comeback bills itself as a local group, run by “80 schools, organizations, and funders,” that has settled on an “ambitious goal” of creating “30,000 rigorous and relevant seats” for low-income Minneapolis students by 2025. MN Comeback likes to say it is “sector agnostic,” meaning they do not care where these “rigorous and relevant” seats are located. Yet expanding the “charter sector” is priority number one, according to this MN Comeback job posting.

MN Comeback’s equivalent in Milwaukee is called “Schools that Can Milwaukee” (STCM). This group has also come up with a catchy, numbers-based tagline, saying it wants “20,000 students in high-performing schools by 2020,” also in sector neutral “partner” schools (Education Cities’s marketing plan must be a “shared resource.”) According to its website, STCM is “intensely pursuing” strategies that sound an awful lot like MN Comeback’s:

  • Expand and Replicate Local High-Performing Schools
  • Develop High-Potential Schools into High-Performing Schools
  • Recruit High-Performing School Networks & Leaders to Milwaukee

What follows is the usual lofty jargon about the urgent need for “transformational” change that only partners such as Teach for America and “low-budget” charter school company, Rocketship Education, can provide. (Rocketship–which has been funded by California billionaire and 2014 Minneapolis school board race investor, Arthur Rock–was lampooned in this 2014 video by cartoonist Mark Fiore, who renamed it ProfitShip Learning.)

Gordon Lafer of the Economic Policy Institute has argued that Rocketship’s “cheaper by the dozen” model is nothing but a profiteering, privatizing romp at the expense of marginalized kids:

Rocketship relies on inexperienced teachers, almost one-third of whom quit last year. It saves money by having students as young as kindergarten spend one-quarter of their day in front of a computer screen with no licensed teacher present. It offers no library or librarians, no music classes, no guidance counselors and no foreign languages.

In short, it’s a model that no suburban parents would accept for their own children — and indeed Rocketship is only being promoted as an option for children who live in poor cities.

Another one of STCM’s Milwaukee partners is PAVE, which has taken on the “big job” of “changing the status quo for Milwaukee’s children” by expanding charter and “partner” schools in the city. Like MN Comeback, PAVE also works with Teach for America and the IFF–a real estate lending and consulting company with a “commitment to increasing the number of high-performing schools” in places like Milwaukee and Minneapolis

IFF shares the morality-glossed “save the kids” mission of both MN Comeback and STCM, and acts as a support system for what sound like urban takeover plans: “Foundations, school districts, and charter school authorizers have used our research to support data-driven education reform strategies, including in Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Washington, DC.”  The profit motive here? Real estate investment tax credits

Milwaukee is also home to a failed, decades-old school voucher scheme that continues to be propped up. Additionally, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has starved the state’s public education system into submission by ravaging it with budget cuts and derision. (Yet Walker has had no problem publicly funding private sports stadiums.)

Since 2015, Wisconsin no longer provides tenure for its state university faculty, causing departing UW-Madison higher education policy professor, Sara Goldrick-Rab, to starkly declare that, “Terrified sheep make lousy teachers….”

Milwaukee, and Wisconsin, are in fact petri dishes for the insistent, excuses-laden policies of free-market economist Milton Friedman and his Wal-Mart-funded devotees. And this is where MN Comeback thinks we should look for examples of how to reform the Minneapolis schools?

Our elementary and secondary educational system needs to be radically restructured. Such a reconstruction can be achieved only by privatizing a major segment of the educational system—i.e., by enabling a private, for-profit industry to develop that will provide a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools.

–Milton Friedman, Public Schools: Make Them Private

In Milwaukee, community members–including the NAACP, a Latino rights group and the Milwaukee teachers union–have organized to fight the attempted takeover of their schools. They cite the documented negative impact takeovers and school choice schemes have on students of color and their families, and they want something different–public community schools built around these priorities:

  1. Engaging, culturally relevant, and challenging curriculum
  2. Emphasis on quality teaching, not high stakes testing
  3. Wrap-around supports and opportunities
  4. Positive discipline practices (e.g. Restorative Justice/Practices)
  5. Authentic community and parent engagement
  6. Inclusive school leadership

If MN Comeback thinks Minneapolis should emulate Milwaukee, they might want to take a step back, and think again.

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MN Comeback: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing for the Minneapolis Schools?

March 15, 2016

Tonight, the Minneapolis school board will host another special meeting, from 6-8 p.m. at the district’s Davis Center headquarters. The board is expected to decide on the makeup of a new, inclusive hiring committee for its revamped superintendent search. Sources say the board’s new $85,000 search firm, DHR International, is urging quick action on this.

Harbormasters

Education Cities promo pic

Amid all of this revamping, the Minneapolis Public Schools continues to fall further into the hands of MN Comeback.

MN Comeback is part of a national group, Education Cities, which provides funding and competition-based ed reform policy for various local “harbormasters” (their word). Education Cities is funded by the big four in billionaire-boosted ed reform philanthropy: the Gates, Walton, Broad and Dell foundations. 

Ethan Gray

Nationally, Education Cities has stumbled in its attempt to put “harbormasters” into member cities. In Kansas City, Missouri, in 2014, for example, Education Cities (then known as CEE-Trust) was shown the door after its proposed overhaul of the city’s school district was rejected by locals, despite Education Cities director Ethan Gray’s efforts to sway disbelieving teachers to his cause.

Later, it was found that Education Cities had been given a state contract–paid for by private foundations–to come up with a makeover for the Kansas City schools, thanks to a rigged bidding process.

The Kansas City plan failed before it even got off the ground, and Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker thinks he knows why: it was built on flawed rhetoric and faulty research about “failed urban districts” in desperate need of rescue by outsiders.

Baker wrote a 2014 blog post that taps into a host of issues with harbormaster-like invasions of school districts. First, there is the assumption–music to elite ears–that “urban” districts are failure factories. Then, there is the skewed use of research and data that supports this assumption. What follows, in Education Cities’ beautifully graphed and illustrated reports, is the hidden idea that the public should give up control over its school districts, in favor of public-private partnerships. (Baker correctly taps into the “totally ignored issue of student, employee and taxpayer rights,” which tend to vanish in situations like this.)

In Minneapolis, MN Comeback has been meeting privately for at least a few years, and busily concocting a vague but “doable” plan to “remake our entire city’s education system.” This plan centers on the creation of 30,000 “rigorous and relevant seats” across the city, in “sector agnostic” settings, meaning they don’t care where these seats are–charter, private or  traditional public school–as long as they are “high performing.”

Reducing education to a conversation about “seats” rather than students should be considered a dog whistle ed reform strategy. “Seats” in “sector agnostic” schools is a venture capitalist’s plan, where teachers (expensive!) can be partially replaced by hand-held personal learning devices that, objectively, of course, and with high expectations, track student data and constantly tailor lesson plans to each student’s measurable failures and successes. This is where the money is in ed reform.

For evidence, take a look at the current job opening for a MN Comeback “Managing General Partner”:

The centerpiece of MN Comeback is Great MN Schools (GMS), an independent 501(c)(3) that will direct and manage the investment of a pool of capital allocated to develop high-performing schools in Minneapolis. Taking a venture capital approach, this $35M fund will have direct accountability to expand the charter sector, and support MN Comeback’s work in the district and independent sectors.

In Kansas City, Education Cities got burned by trying to go through Missouri state government on its way to venture capitalizing on the city’s public school district. Here, MN Comeback has not bothered with such a public pretense. Instead, the group has been quietly embedding itself in the Minneapolis Public Schools for several years, mostly through the district’s Office of New Schools–a department recommended by the 2007 McKinsey & Company-crafted strategic plan for Minneapolis.

Through the Office of New Schools, MN Comeback has been promoting and funding its pet project: Community Partnership Schools (CPS). This year, four Minneapolis schools operate as CPS sites, including Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary, Bancroft Elementary, Folwell K-8 school and Ramsey Middle School. 

The CPS strategy is a part of a national move to turn city school districts into “portfolios,” made robust by schools that compete against one another for programming, students and resources. Locally, it is being carried by MN Comeback (called a coalition here), according to a 2015 newsletter by one of its funders, the private RKMC Foundation:

The coalition is also working to increase autonomy and flexibility in Minneapolis Public Schools through Community Partnership Schools, where school leaders have been approved to take on more authority with their school’s budget, curriculum, staffing, and instructional time.

Clearly, the privately managed, privately funded MN Comeback–which bears no responsibility to the “seats” it hopes to serve–has had its hands in the Minneapolis schools for some time. And their range is focused: the CPS model is one of only three things being “supported” by MN Comeback, according to the Education Cities website. The other two are MinnCAN, whose flush, reformy thumbprints are all over every MN Comeback policy “team,” and the IFF, a Chicago-based nonprofit that specializes in real estate consulting for “low-income communities.”  

Another great CPS site?

Just before last week’s Minneapolis school board meeting, when the board was to vote on a new batch of CPS sites, MN Comeback shot off a letter to board members, declaring support for this top down reform model:

We support the district’s belief that Community Partnership Schools will yield strong results if implemented with full support. In accordance with ‘Acceleration 2020,’ we share common values – equity, diversity, accountability – and goals: 1) the school as the unit of change; 2) grant principals increased flexibility; and 3) provide students with great educational options. The district’s strategic plan and these common values drive our support for Community Partnership Schools, which we have supported financially. We want to be seen as a partner in this effort.

Any superintendent search committee member should understand what MN Comeback is, and the potential threat it poses to the Minneapolis Public Schools.

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Minneapolis Mom Wrestles with Son’s “Autismo” Diagnosis

March 11, 2016

Background: Almost one year ago, Minneapolis’s once highly touted Citywide Autism Program began to publicly unravel. On the heels of a special ed audit done by consultants from the District Management Council (DMC), Minneapolis’s special ed department was upended, with longtime administrators pushed out and new, perhaps more compliant ones brought in. In the name ofinclusion,” citywide programming is being cut. I am writing a series of posts about this; access the first one here.

What follows is one mother’s story of how the Citywide Autism Program has served her child. Esther Oledad, featured here, speaks mostly Spanish, and so our conversation was facilitated by Oledad’s fellow Citywide Autism Program parent, and fluent Spanish speaker, Jenny Austin. Austin and Oledad are members of a parent-created autism support group in Minneapolis called MAPS.

Esther

Esther Oledad

Minneapolis Public Schools parent Esther Oledad remembers the day her five-year old son, Danny, was diagnosed with autism, or “autismo,” in her native Spanish. It was his two-year old check up, which included the usual focus on the boy’s height and weight. But, then, Danny’s doctor asked Esther if he talked at all.

“I told her that he had started to say a few words, but had recently stopped using them,” Esther recalled. She had noticed this at home, but thought maybe Danny was regressing because his little sister had just been born.

The doctor kept observing Danny, and finally asked Esther a direct question: Had she ever heard of autism? Esther said yes. The doctor then pointed out that Danny was flapping his arms, and asked Esther what she thought of that.

“I thought that he was just excited, and that was how he was expressing himself, since he wasn’t talking,” Esther said, but the doctor said that this behavior–of Danny flapping his arms–was a characteristic of autism. So was the fact that he wouldn’t look at the doctor when she tried to talk to him.

“Don’t worry,” the doctor told Esther. “You are an excellent mother. This is not because of something you’ve done.” Still, the thought that her son–her first-born child–might have autism was scary. She didn’t want to accept it, but she did agree to let the doctor call the Minneapolis Public Schools on her behalf, so that the district’s early childhood special ed staff could come out and further observe Danny.

“I wanted to forget what the doctor told me,” Esther says, but when the school district sent a team out to evaluate Danny and, after two visits, the team concluded that Danny did in fact have autism, she realized she couldn’t avoid it any longer. 

Oledad says it was even harder for her husband to accept this diagnosis. ” My husband kept saying, ‘Danny is so little! How could they be expecting such milestones from him!” But Oledad dug in, and agreed to in-house therapy for Danny from Minneapolis’s early intervention staff.

That lasted for a few months, until Danny turned 2 and a half. Then, Oledad says she was asked how she would feel about sending him to preschool, so that he could mix with other kids. She remembers thinking, “No! He’s too little,”  but came around when Danny’s special ed teacher assured her he would be fine. 

And so Danny’s journey through the Minneapolis Public Schools special ed preschool program began.

First, he was sent to an early childhood special ed preschool class at Wilder School, in south Minneapolis. After a few months, Oledad was told Danny needed to attend a new school, because he was almost three years old, and thus “aging out” of Wilder’s program.

Oledad was given two autism-focused preschool options for Danny: Longfellow School, on the far south side of Minneapolis, or Bryn Mawr, on the near north side of the city. (Oledad lives near Lake Street and Nicollet Av, closest to the Wilder site). She chose Longfellow because the school had a dual-immersion program, and, since Danny was only speaking Spanish at home, Oledad wanted him to have the comfort of being around teachers who spoke Spanish.

After one year at Longfellow, the program closed. Oledad then had two new choices to consider for Danny: Bryn Mawr, which was part of the district’s early childhood special ed autism program, and Jefferson School, in Uptown, which was not part of the same program, but did offer Spanish. She chose Jefferson, thinking the language factor was important. It also seemed like a more convenient location for Oledad, who does not drive: “If I needed to get there by bus, it would be easier to get to Jefferson.”

Danny went off to Jefferson, and then the problems started. “I got lots of complaints from his teacher, about his behavior,” Oledad recalls, which surprised her because he was doing well at home, and had done well at Longfellow. But the Jefferson program was not an autism-only site; instead, the preschool class was a “mixed diagnosis” room, where kids with a variety of special ed diagnoses were grouped together.

“My son changed,” Oledad says. “He stopped being excited and happy about going to school, and started displaying signs of being stressed and nervous when I would tell him it was time to go to school.” At school, Oledad learned Danny was throwing himself on the ground, and rolling around; his frustrated teacher admitted she had “no way to get him back up.” The teacher told Oledad she should consider moving Danny to a “specialized autism class.”

As a result, Oledad switched Danny, mid-year, to his fourth school in less than two years, sending him to the Bryn Mawr site. Bryn Mawr is farther from her home and lacks a Spanish language component, but has a bonus Oledad has since learned to appreciate: it is part of the Minneapolis Public Schools’s early childhood special ed autism program, and therefore has a dedicated autism classroom with autism-trained teachers and support staff.

Danny has thrived there, Oledad says. Originally, she chose Jefferson over Bryn Mawr, thinking she could get there faster if Danny needed her. But, she says with an easy smile, she’s never been called to Bryn Mawr because Danny is doing so well there. When there is a scheduled conference, her husband takes time off from work and drops Oledad at the school, and then takes care of their younger daughter while Oledad speaks with Danny’s teachers.

Oledad says she was working at a restaurant when Danny was little, but stopped when she found out he had autism. “My husband told me, ‘I know you want to work, but Danny needs more care, and it’s better if you manage it.” And it’s true. An autism diagnosis comes with a list of recommended, time-consuming interventions, for speech and muscle coordination, for example–and these services occur away from home and school. 

“My husband works very hard and supports the family,” Oledad says. She is grateful, she says, because she can now see the benefit of pursuing interventions for Danny. He is five, and starting to talk. And, she says he has an “excellent teacher” at the specialized autism site at Bryn Mawr.

Now, as Danny stands ready to move out of preschool and into kindergarten, his teacher has helped Oledad navigate the headache-inducing world of school choice in Minneapolis. “I got information about this from Minneapolis’s Early Childhood Family Education program,” Oledad says, “but it was overwhelming. I told Danny’s teacher, ‘You know my son and his needs. I would appreciate your help with this.” Originally, Oledad was told she would get a list of schools to choose from, but she says she didn’t want the list; she wanted to rely on Danny’s trusted teacher instead. (Up until this school year, parents say they were given the option–based on input from autism-trained teachers–about where to send their kids, either to the district’s K-12 Citywide Autism Program, or to a community or magnet school.)

Esther, Jenny, and fellow ASD parent Elina Patino Virano

Over the phone, and with the help of an interpreter, Oledad and Danny’s preschool teacher filled out Minneapolis’s online school choice card. Fortunately for Oledad, her community school, Lyndale, still has a highly regarded autism program, and so that is where Danny will go this fall. 

Oledad says Danny’s teacher never called the program at Lyndale a “Citywide Autism Program” site. Jenny Austin, who helped with our interview, says that autism and special ed teachers in Minneapolis today have been instructed by district administrators not to give families the kind of advice Oledad got, about which site would be best for their children. Parents contend this is part of Minneapolis’s sudden move to “starve out” the citywide program, and shuttle kids to their community schools.

For Oledad, the services she accessed for Danny have been vital, even with the ups and downs of having to switch schools so often. She says she knows a few other children with autism in her community, but she believes their parents have not pursued the kinds of early interventions for them that most autism experts say is essential. Observing these children has left Oledad with a haunting thought:

“What would my son’s future have been, if I hadn’t allowed treatment for him?”

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Minneapolis’s Dismantling of Citywide Autism Program Continues

March 8, 2016

Background: Almost one year ago, Minneapolis’s once highly touted citywide autism program began to publicly unravel. On the heels of a special ed audit done by consultants from the District Management Council (DMC), Minneapolis’s special ed department was upended, with longtime administrators pushed out and new, perhaps more compliant ones brought in. In the name of “inclusion,” citywide programming is being cut.

This can be seen in a March 17, 2015 email to MPS teachers from newly hired special ed administrator Amy Johnson:

Autism Teachers,

Moving forward (upcoming IEP meetings) under Adaptations on the IEP, please describe the adaptations that your student will receive based on individual student needs instead of describing the Minneapolis CityWide Autism Program specifically:

An example of a statement that should no longer be used is as follows: “(student) receives services and support from the Minneapolis CityWide Autism Program.

This is the first in a series of parent profiles. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Maren Christenson

Minneapolis parent Maren Christenson noticed a curious thing a few months ago, when paging through the Minneapolis Public Schools weighty school choice brochure: There were no sites listed for the district’s citywide autism program. 

Christenson has a four-year old son who was diagnosed with autism at the end of 2015. Now, he participates in a  preschool “Buddy Program” at Bryn Mawr Elementary School, where kids with autism are together with “neurotypical” kids.

But he will be five soon, and so Christenson–who says she is still grappling with what it means to have a child with autism–was exploring her options for him, for the coming school year. “I have been trying to figure out which schools are still part of the Citywide Autism Program, and it has been extremely difficult to find any information. There was nothing on individual school websites, and nothing on the Minneapolis schools website,” Christenson says. “And nothing in the school choice brochure.” (Christenson wants to clarify this: there is “nothing on the individual school website or the district page about the Citywide Autism Program specifically.  There is a short blurb in the school choice brochure about autism spectrum disorder programs in general, but it does not mention the Citywide Program specifically.”)

CAP circling

Christenson’s brochure, with district staff notes

And so she did what any empowered parent would do: she went right to the district for answers. 

“I sat down with one of the district’s special education program facilitators, and she went through the brochure with me, circling the schools in our area that still have an autism program.”

Christenson says she was grateful for the information, but that getting it “shouldn’t be this difficult.”

Eventually, with 36 hours to go until Minneapolis’s school choice window slammed shut, Christenson says the district added information about the citywide autism program to its website. “Needless to say,” Christenson notes, “this does not give parents a lot of time to research what may be one of the most important choices of their child’s education.”

Most research out there says that early intervention–with kids placed in the hands of highly trained autism teachers and staff–is crucial, and a great way to prep kids for later success. For more than a decade, Minneapolis has had one of the state’s best public school programs for kids with autism, including the citywide program, a preschool component and home-based birth to 3 services.

The citywide approach has clustered kids with autism at sites throughout the district, meaning kids with autism were grouped with peers but also had access to mainstream classrooms. Federally required Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, determined how much time each kid spent in regular ed classrooms. (Parents are quick to point out that attending one’s neighborhood school, rather than a citywide site, has always been an option for kids on the autism spectrum. But many parents say they don’t want their child to be the only kid with autism in a class.)

District insiders and experienced parents acknowledge that not every citywide site in Minneapolis has been worth its weight in gold, but most have been. And district staff will also point out that the autism program was soaring just as other Minneapolis special ed departments–such as the EBD program, for kids with behavior disorders, and the DCD program, for developmentally delayed kids–were suffering from neglect, mismanagement or outright dismantling.

There is a racial component to all of this, as autism is especially prevalent among white and Somali students, while national and local research says that African-American kids are over-identified as having behavior problems, which leads to some students getting stuck in inappropriate special ed settings, or suspended and pushed out of school.

Now, the fear among experienced special ed parents and staff is that district administrators are tearing down the citywide autism program–secretively–rather than building up other special ed departments.

Christenson has another example of how this could be true. Recently, she made an appointment to tour a school with a citywide autism program–Wenonah Elementary–that many experienced parents said was superb. But the day after she made an appointment to visit, a Wenonah employee called to cancel the tour.

Christenson knows why. School staff “checked with the administration to make sure we were eligible to attend, and were told no.  Even though this is a school that shows up on our school choice list when we type in our address on the MPS website.” The Wenonah staff member was “extremely kind and professional and apologetic,” Christenson notes, “but said she had made the call because she had had other parents in the past who wanted to attend her school, and they had been extremely disappointed when they were not eligible, so she just wanted to make sure I wasn’t wasting my time.”

Christenson sums the experience up this way: “My conclusion from this is not only is the Minneapolis Public School District not providing the information that parents need to make informed school choices, but now they appear to be actively going out of their way to prohibit parents from obtaining it on their own.”

For now, Christenson’s son will not be attending kindergarten next year. She says she will give him an extra year to get used to the occupational therapy and other services that go along with being a kid on the autism spectrum. And, despite her complaints about how Minneapolis is handling the autism program, she wants to make one point very clear:

I hope that part of your story will be about how the people on the front lines:  the teachers, the special ed assistants, the bus drivers, the social workers, the aides, are really doing an amazing job given what they have to work with.  It is the system that is broken. In my albeit brief experience, whenever short comings are pointed out to the administration, they have one of two responses:  a) to invalidate the feeling of the person making the point, or b) to blame the failures on the people on the front lines who are clearly doing the very best they can. 

Up next: The story of Esther Oledad and her son, Danny.

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MN Comeback: Reheated Ed Reform Treats

March 3, 2016

As part of my ongoing series on McKinsey & Company’s influence on the Minneapolis Public Schools, I promised a closer look at the latest group that wants to have its way with the district, MN Comeback. Access Part 1 of my McKinsey series here, and go from there.

On Tuesday, March 1, MN Comeback held its quarterly meeting within the warm and naturally lit Heritage Park YMCA space, on the near-north rim of Minneapolis.

While a handful of Heritage Park residents whirred along on exercise machines across the hall, MN Comeback meeting attendees snacked on free doughnuts and cupfuls of coffee. Those attendees included some well-known names: R.T. Rybak, Minneapolis interim superintendent Michael Goar, former Minneapolis superintendent Bernadeia Johnson–who introduced herself as an educational consultant, and early charter school legislator Ember Reichgott-Junge. 

Later, as I tried to capture my thoughts on the event, scenes from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s early comic series, Life is Hell, popped into my head. One of Groening’s most unforgettable comics featured repeat characters Akbar and Jeff as owners of an exclusive Airport Snack Bar. Their tagline? “Where the Elite Meet to Eat Reheated Meaty Treats.”

MN Comeback meetings could be seen as the place where the Elite Meet to Promote Reheated Education Reform Treats.

Let me explain.

MN Comeback is the latest attempt by the Minneapolis Foundation and other high-end funders to push a specific education reform agenda on the Minneapolis Public Schools. In 2006-2007, this involved working through the Itasca Project to put a McKinsey & Company-written, market-based reform plan in place for the Minneapolis schools.

That plan hasn’t amounted to much, although it did help usher in a Leaning Tower of Pisa-like stack of silver bullet initiatives and priorities, including an influx of non-education trained, transformational staffers. (Just read through the district’s “Human Capital” department’s recent hires for a few choice examples of this.)

Suzy Redo 2

MN Comeback PPT slide

Then, 2013 brought the awkward RESET Education campaign, which looked like another meeting of the moneyed and powerful minds, brought together to transform the lowly Minneapolis Public Schools. 

RESET promoted a grab bag of educational quick fix solutions, all wrapped up in a neat marketing plan. Here are the five gap-destroying strategies RESET settled on:

  • Real-time Use of Data
  • Expectations not Excuses
  • Strong Leadership
  • Effective Teaching
  • Time on Task

Like a reheated airport snack bar hot dog, these strategies may look good from afar, but under close inspection, they are not very satisfying. The first and most obvious reason is, these are top down, catchy solutions cooked up in boardrooms and “expert” planning sessions–far from the sometimes distressing world of actual public school classrooms. (Another obvious reason? Childhood poverty–which is tied so tightly to race here–has deepened and nearly doubled in Minnesota in the past 20 years, just as funding for public education dropped, and money for families in need stagnated.)

And that is probably why RESET quietly retreated to the background, only to be reborn as MN Comeback. The solutions being promoted are the same; they just come under a different banner now. 

Alongside RESET, the Minneapolis Foundation hosted something called the Education Transformation Initiative (ETI). The ETI was awarded a $200,000 “education ecosystem” grant from the local Bush Foundation as recently as 2014, but a MN Comeback funder I talked with at the March 1 meeting said that the ETI had been transformed into MN Comeback. 

The language and promise of the ETI–of transformational, data driven, union-free policies for public schools–was supported by the same tight-knit group of non-educationy heavy hitters, including the Walton Foundation (Wal-Mart), the reform-happy Joyce Foundation, and the local Robins Kaplan Miller Ciresi Foundation.

Suzy Redo 1

MN Comeback Team Roster

The ETI was staffed by former McKinsey & Company consultant Amy Hertel, through her position at the Minneapolis Foundation. In 2015, Hertel became Vice President of Network Impact for something called Education Cities, which is yet another reiteration of Gates/Walton/Broad Foundation money being used to prop up non-classroom careers for people who swear they only want all kids to be able to “access great public schools.” 

The ETI became MN Comeback, which is now part of Hertel’s group, Education Cities. MN Comeback is managed here by Al Fan, formerly of the short-lived group, Charter School Partners. At a fall, 2015 MN Comeback meeting, Fan admitted that he’s “only been at this” education reform stuff for 5 or 6 years, after a career in marketing, I believe, at General Mills.

This may explain the vagueness that is MN Comeback. The group–which apparently has raised $30+ million to support its campaign–says it wants to bring “30,000 rigorous and relevant” seats to Minneapolis by 2025. But Fan could not explain what “relevant” means, and, so far, “rigorous” only means the boosting of test scores. 

The MN Comeback funder I chatted with on March 1 was a nice person, whose professed good intentions I can’t argue with. But he did say that he knows little about education, and that one main thing he thought was holding the Minneapolis schools back was that parents just didn’t have enough info about all of their school choice options. “If the school across the street from you isn’t good, you should be able to go a mile away to a better option,” he explained.

Looks like we can add a naive belief in the transformational power of school choice to MN Comeback’s menu.

Up next: A closer look at MN Comeback’s partnership with the Minneapolis Public Schools.

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