Tag Archives: segregation

It’s Testing Season. Ethics Lesson, Anyone?

March 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the letter that was sent home:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Hello All,

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

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

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

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

    Page 40 of (MDE) procedures manual. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


School Choice? Less Reagan, More Humphrey, Please

January 28, 2016

What passes for acceptable school choice rhetoric, behind closed doors, is frightening.

school choice panel 1

All white panel, under a photo of an integrated classroom

On Tuesday, January 26, I attended a National School Choice Week forum at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. I went expecting a pro-school choice event, obviously, but, since the Humphrey School is one of the nation’s premier public policy graduate schools, I also expected a reasonable look at the choice movement in education.

What I found instead was appalling. The Humphrey School’s event was billed as “bipartisan,” but I quickly realized how thoroughly that word has become cover for groupthink. If both Democrats and Republicans support the dismantling of our public institutions, then shouldn’t you, too?

Let me explain. The Humphrey School event was moderated by former MinnPost education writer, Beth Hawkins. Hawkins was joined onstage–for an “informative discussion”–by former Democratic state senator and charter school pioneer Ember Reichgott Junge, current Republican state legislator and education finance committee chair, Jennifer Loon, and Richard Komer, of the Virginia-based right-wing group, the Institute for Justice.

One Democrat+one right-leaning Republican+one far-right lawyer (Komer) does not add up to a “bipartisan” panel, in my opinion.  Humphrey School event

The panel ended up being all white, too, when invited African-American guest, George Parker, who works for the education reform group, Students First, was not able to make it. But that’s not all. The whole room was white, as far as I could see. 

The audience gathered was formally dressed and appeared representative of the kind of people who have the freedom to attend mid-morning forums. It also seemed to include many state legislators. David Hann, a Republican from suburban Eden Prairie, was acknowledged, as were others.

The morning’s panel began with a quick dismissal of the desegregation lawsuit filed in Minnesota last fall, which, if successful, could require the state’s charter schools to develop and implement integration plans. All of the panelists, and moderator Hawkins, seemed to agree that the resegregation happening across the country now is simply due to “parental choice.” Reichgott Junge–the Democrat–declared herself “not neutral” on this topic, and told the audience not to worry because “this is not the civil rights era.” What she meant, I guess, was that we solved all of that bad racism stuff back in the ’60’s. Case closed. 

Can I mention how very odd all of this was? We were sitting in the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Humphrey! He was one of Minnesota’s leading advocates–and most eloquent agitators–for civil rights, back when such views posed a direct threat to the Democratic party, which had grown quite comfortable with the racist “states’ rights” rhetoric of its Southern Segregationist members.

Is our current “bipartisan” political world growing quite comfortable with racist “school choice” rhetoric? Is any attempt to regulate charter schools a “frontal attack on choice,” as Hawkins said? Really? Is there no room on the school choice bandwagon for critical thinking?

Wilkins 2

Humphrey School features Roy Wilkins, too

Is there any safe place to express concern that the rapid resegregation of our public school system is not a happy accident, brought on by the heavenly solution of school choice? 

Apparently not at the Humphrey School’s National School Choice Week forum. 

As I left the forum, I could not stop thinking about Humphrey and his legacy. Back in front of my computer, I found a 2011 New York Times opinion piece about him, written by Rick Perlstein. Both Humphrey and Ronald Reagan would have turned 100 in 2011, and this connection, and contrast, framed Perlstein’s piece.

Here are the first two paragraphs:

JANUARY was the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, and the planet nearly stopped turning on its axis to recognize the occasion. Today is the 100th anniversary of Hubert H. Humphrey’s birth, and no one besides me seems to have noticed.

That such a central figure in American history is largely ignored today is sad. But his diminution is also, more importantly, an impediment to understanding our current malaise as a nation, and how much better things might have been had today’s America turned out less Reaganite and more Humphreyish.

That’s it. This is the framework I have been looking for. What would our education policy discussions be like today, if America had turned out “less Reagnite” and “more Humphreyish”? The hammering narrative of failure, applied with force to our nation’s public school system, found fertile ground in the Reagan era, of course, through the overhyped “Nation at Risk” report. That report helped propel America away from further investment in public schools, and towards school choice schemes (hint: privatization).

Deregulation, Perlstein calls it. And that was the flavor of the day at the Humphrey School’s event. Deregulation in the education “marketplace” will solve our problems. In fact, according to the “bipartisan” panel, there is nothing a deregulated, choice-based education system cannot solve. Universal preschool? Great idea, said Reichgott Junge, but too expensive. Let’s charterize the preschool market, instead, and throw some scholarships, otherwise known as vouchers, on top of it.  

And while we are at it, perhaps we should follow panelist Richard Komer’s line of thinking, regarding the Constitution. Komer waxed enthusiastic about all of the wonderful things a deregulated, voucher-filled education landscape could offer–including more discipline, more uniforms, more religion, and more racist, elitist assumptions about what “poor minorities” want. Public schools could do this, too, he said, if only the Constitution was not standing in the way.

And no one in the room, no one gathered in the Humphrey School (except for one clear outsider who was swiftly dismissed), stood up or spoke up to challenge the frightening threads so visible in Komer’s–and, frankly, the panel’s–ideas. 

The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton suits, ha you think it’s funny
Turning rebellion into money

—The Clash, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais

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!