Monthly Archives: April 2017

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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