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Doug Mann LPN, LNC

DFL has no plan to save the public schools














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The Minneapolis Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has no plan to save public education as we know it 
















by Doug Mann, 26 October 2006
 
The DFL and its endorsed candidates for the Minneapolis Board of Education have no plan to win back the share of K-12 students the district had 20 years ago, make progress toward closing the so-called racial learning gap, and reverse the trend toward charterization and privatization of the public school system in Minneapolis.

If we are serious about saving public education as we know it, we must change some practices that are deeply entrenched in the dominant culture and political-economy of the school community. The most essential of these changes: Stabilizing the teaching staff in all schools and phasing out 'ability-grouping' practices that put a majority of students into watered-down curriculum tracks.

Below I present some data and arguments to show why we must move toward a system that makes high quality educational programs accessible to all.

THE BIG ENROLLMENT DECLINE

A 20% decline in enrollment over the last 4 years the district tells us about doesn't sound as bad as a 30-plus per cent decline in enrollment in the district's regular Ed programs in traditional K-12 schools. Special Ed enrollment has been fairly stable, and we have seen a big increase in the district's alternative schools. The district counts enrollment in 19 contract alternative schools as part of the district's total student enrollment. The district also directly runs another 12 alternative schools. There are only 64 traditional K-12 schools operated by the district.

In looking at student enrollment since 1997, I noted a loss of about 500 students per year in grades K and 1 between 1997 and 2004. Board member Joe Erickson and the administration claimed that most of the loss of students in the early elementary grades was related to falling birth rates in the early-to-mid 1990s. However, total enrollment in Minnesota's public schools decreased by about 2% during the past 5 years, compared to more than 20% for the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Part of the steep enrollment decline in Minneapolis public schools is a result of sharply rising property values that have made housing less affordable to young families. And there has been an opening of parts of the suburban housing market to African Americans.

TEST SCORE AND STUDENT RETENTION RATES BY RACE

The last time that I analyzed student enrollment data broken down by race / ethnicity, I found that enrollment in grades in grades K-3 from 1997 to 2003 had decreased by about 7% for Whites, about 20% for Asians, about 30% for African Americans, and 40% for American Indians. And each year, as you more from one grade level to the next, fewer students in the same cohort are students of color. 
 
The data also suggests that students who fail to thrive academically are leaving the district schools in large numbers. And among students continuously enrolled in the district from testing periods one year to the next, there has been a huge difference in the proportion of students, by assigned race, who show at least one years' growth in reading and math skills per the state's basic standards, at every grade level until grade 8. Students in grades 9 through 12 who are not doing well in school drop out or are pushed out of school in huge numbers, which sharply raises the test score curve for students of color.

COOKING STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT DATA

In 1999 I noted that the district was excluding test score data from students not continuously enrolled from grade 2 on up. Therefore test scores of a large proportion of students tested from year to year were not factored in as part of the district's self-evaluation in the 1998 Better Schools report card. In subsequent years the district has not provided information about how it figures that MPS students are doing better than the national average in growth in reading and math proficiency.

ROOT CAUSES

There is a correlation between enrollment loss, student performance and school characteristics. Overall, schools with the least stable teaching staff have a large proportion of students who are not thriving academically and are the least successful in attracting and retaining students. The district has a few high-poverty, high-minority schools, that greatly improved test scores, attendance rates, student conduct, and parental involvement after stabilizing the teaching staff.

The Minnesota Basic Standards tests were fairly accurate in predicting the proportion of students who would graduate on-time (or at all). Teacher staff stability and participation rates in gifted and talented classes appear to correlate pretty strongly with pass rates on MBST scores given to 3rd, 5th and 8th graders, as well as other positive, education related outcomes. 

I suspect that one factor behind the sharp drop in enrollment in early elementary grades since 1997 was the move to regroup students into classrooms for reading instruction according to ability as early as Kindergarten and the beginning of grade 1. That change was made in 1997. The district also began to require that most schools serving early elementary grades offer 'gifted' classes in grades 2 and up. When gifted classes are offered in grade two, the teachers are under pressure to 'ability-group' their students in grade 1,
or earlier.

Test score data and student enrollment data, broken down by race and poverty suggest that most of the students placed in the highest-level curriculum tracks are making good progress academically, and most are staying in the districts schools. On the other hand, student population placed in lower tracks are failing to thrive academically and have been leaving district schools in large numbers.

The district has accelerated that decline in student enrollment with changes in attendance and disciplinary policy, and through cuts in bus service. And board members were well aware of the likely negative impacts of those changes when they approved them. Big cuts in bus service were done on the eve of school board elections in 2002, and after the start of the federal fiscal year (head count day), when per-pupil funding from the state and federal government is determined.

The district has been saving a lot of money on core program costs by sending layoff notices to low-seniority teachers who don't need to be laid off. The result has been insanely high turnover rates in schools where low-seniority teachers are heavily concentrated, which are, for the most part, schools were low-income and minority students are over-represented. It is not possible to build a strong educational program, and get good results with most students without a stable teaching staff. I think stability is far more important than the average level of teaching experience, though the two usually go together.
  
The overhead costs of running a dysfunctional, multi-tiered school system are huge. The district spends a lot of money training new teachers, spends a lot of money dealing with students behavior problems, safety, and other issues that are confronted in schools with weak educational programs. The operating budget for the Minneapolis Public Schools is well above the state average.

Could it be that the district's traditional methods of operation and cost containment strategies are running the district into the ground financially?
















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