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Perfuming the Minneapolis Public Schools

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Perfuming the Minneapolis Public Schools
Altering Perceptions Instead of Overhauling a Failing System

 Doug Mann   25 February 2000
    At the Minneapolis school board meeting on February 8, it was reported that nearly half of the district's nonwhite and Hispanic high school seniors have yet to pass the Minnesota Basic Standards Test, a requirement for graduation this year.  Of the district's African-American high school seniors  whose native language is English, 45% have yet to pass the Minnesota Basic Standards Tests in reading and math, and it is expected that 37% will not  pass these tests before the end of the school year, and therefore won't get a diploma this Spring.

     By comparison, 11% of non-Hispanic White seniors in the Minneapolis Public Schools have yet to pass both parts of the Minnesota Basic Standards Test.

     It is also remarkable that in the Minneapolis Public Schools, only 44% of all students who entered 9th grade in 1994 graduated on time in the Spring of 1998, and the drop-out/push-out rate was close to 50% for the class of 1998. [Source:  Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning]

    Statewide, only 33% of African-American students who entered the 9th grade in 1991 graduated on time in 1995.  For White students, the on-time graduation rate was 82% and the drop-out/push-out rate was 9%
[Source: MN Dept. of Families Children & Learning].

Who is to Blame?

   In response  to the news that nearly half of the district's nonwhite and Hispanic seniors  are not expected to pass the MBST this year, including more  than 300 African-American seniors, Sandra Miller, a director of the Minneapolis Board of Education commented:

  "It kind of makes my blood boil.  There's a lot of help out there for these students. There's mentoring on every corner.  The district has done everything they can do.  Now it's up to the kids and families [Star-Tribune, Wed., Feb. 9, 2000]."

    John Shulman, an attorney for the Minneapolis Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People replied:

    "It is disturbing that elected officials who are placed in positions of authority by the white political majority are overtly blaming the victims for the failure of the district to educate children of color in the city of Minneapolis [Star-Tribune Feb. 10, 2000]."

    Star-Tribune columnist Doug Grow characterized Shulman's comment  as "one of his standard (ho-hum) tirades" and applauded Miller, who is Black, for  preaching the gospel of individual responsibility.  Speaking of the Minneapolis Public Schools in his column on Feb. 14, 2000, Grow writes:
 "...It was never a perfect system...[It's a lot better now than it used to be.] But there are no free passes. Students - with encouragement from their parents - must reach out and grab the opportunities that are available.

  An "Our Perspective" editorial in the Star-Tribune on February 15 repeated the message that most Black high school seniors who don't get a diploma this Spring will only have themselves, their parents and
the Black community to blame.  The editorial states:

"...The two board members [Sandra Miller and Albert Gallmon], who are Black, are absolutely right to sound an alarm and light a fire under Black  communities.  They know that the school district has gone the extra mile and done just about all that it can to serve its diverse student body..."

   More recently, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson  claimed that students who attend school 95% of the time will do well in school, so long as they are not being disruptive in the classroom.  In other words, good attendance and good behavior cause good academic performance.  Johnson claims that there is solid evidence to back up this assertion.

   However, at the February 8 School Board meeting, the director of research for the district, David Heistad noted a strong correlation between attendance and academic achievement, but also cautioned that just because high achievers generally  have good attendance records doesn't mean that  a high attendance rate will cause a child to be a high-achiever.  It's possible that high-achievers have  the  best  attendance  records  simply  because they are more highly motivated to attend school.

More Unwelcome Criticism from the NAACP Yet to Come

     The Minneapolis Branch of the NAACP is going forward with a lawsuit filed in 1995 against the State of Minnesota, alleging that the State has not fulfilled its obligation to ensure that students of color are getting an adequate education in the Minneapolis Public Schools.  It is scheduled to go to trial in October of this year.

     One of the policies that has come under fire from the NAACP is the assignment of students to racially-segregated schools under the Community School Plan, which the Minneapolis Board of Education adopted on June 27, 1995.  

     The Minneapolis Board of Education claims that its policy of racial  separation is necessary to guarantee that most students can attend a school  that is closer to home than under the district's controlled choice desegregation plan, which was unpopular because it entailed a long bus ride every school day for many students.  

     Under the Community School Plan, guaranteed attendance areas were created for designated "Community Schools" which concentrate White students in some schools and Black students at others.  Some of the guaranteed attendance boundaries, such as boundaries for the  Lyndale Community Elementary School attendance area were obviously drawn in such a way as to maximize racial separation.
      Members of the Minneapolis School Board claim that parents in the district support  what they are doing to resegregate the schools.  Yet only a small minority of parents surveyed by the district were opposed to "racial-mixing" prior to its adoption of the Community School Plan.  By large majorities, both Black and White parents favored racially- integrated schools.

     The resolution which repealed the district's unpopular desegregation  plan was ingeniously titled "Closing the Gap: Ensuring that All Children  Can Learn."   The "Closing the Gap" resolution argued that desegregation created obstacles to parent involvement, especially bussing students to schools outside of their neighborhoods.  Black students bore the greatest  burden of bussing and got the smallest benefit from attending school.

     The educational justification for resegregating the schools is that it would narrow the academic achievement gap by increasing the involvement  of parents in their children's education, especially the involvement of Black parents.

     However, the NAACP pointed out that racially- segregated school systems have never produced more equal outcomes for Black students than desegregated systems. The less rigidly segregated school districts of the Northern US had done a better job of educating Blacks than districts in the Southern US prior to court-ordered desegregation in the 1960's and 70's; and the academic  achievement gap between Blacks and Whites narrowed as school districts integrated their student populations.

     There is an academic achievement gap between White and Black students as they  enter the public school system, with White students having a stronger educational foundation.  White parents are more likely to have a higher income and to be better educated, and  important educational opportunities, such as high quality preschool programs, are among the advantages that more White students have.

   The academic achievement gap between Black and White students is also a byproduct of unequal educational facilities.  For example, in the Minneapolis Public Schools, students in predominantly Black schools  are exposed to a considerably higher concentration of inexperienced and ineffective teachers, are assigned to larger classes, and have fewer textbooks and other instructional aids.

   Another factor which reinforces and increases the academic achievement gap between Black and White students is a process of curriculum differentiation through ability-grouping, also known as curriculum tracking, or simply as "tracking."  Students in the Minneapolis Public Schools have been identified as high-, medium-, and low-ability learners and assigned to separate instructional groups and classrooms as early as Kindergarten.

   Although the Minneapolis Public Schools doesn't keep track of information necessary to directly evaluate the effects of curriculum tracking, it is  one of the most heavily researched topics in the field of education.  One conclusion that has been drawn about curriculum tracking is that it reinforces and increases the academic achievement gap between the high and low achievers. The overrepresentation of Blacks in low-ability groups, and a corresponding under-representation of Blacks in high ability-groups would help to explain  the academic achievement test score data that the Minneapolis Public Schools  has collected and broken down by race and poverty.

    On the California Achievement Test and Northwest Achievement Level Test given in the Spring of 1997, only 7-11% of African-American students in grades 2 through 6 ranked in the highest quartile, and over 50% in grades 2 through 6 ranked in the lowest quartile.  Among White students in the same grade levels, 38-49% scored in the top quartile and 18-23% scored in the bottom quartile.

   On the 1997 Minnesota Basic Standards Test, only 9% of the African-American eighth-graders in the Minneapolis Public Schools passed both the reading and math sections, 6% passed the reading test but failed the math test, and 6%  passed the math test but failed the reading test.   Over 50% of the White 8th graders passed both parts of the test.

Racial Segregation as a Tool of White Supremacy

   It should not be forgotten that in Minneapolis and other cities in the Northern US, racially-segregated neighborhoods and neighborhood  schools  were created by the same White Supremacist movement that established a more elaborate and rigid system of Apartheid in the Deep South.  Blacks were systematically driven out of most neighborhoods in Northern US cities during the first two decades of the 20th century.  A variety of methods were use to accomplish this task, including arson and public lynchings.

     White neighborhood associations were then chartered and funded by the city governments for the purpose of adopting and enforcing restrictive covenants - legally enforceable contracts that prohibited the sale or leasing of dwelling units to Blacks.  Typically, a restrictive covenant was binding on all property owners in a defined geographical area, it initially required the assent of 75% of the property owners in that area, and it remained in force for 20 years.  

     Blacks were also driven out of most skilled trades and professions, with the exception of businesses that were established in the Black community and had a largely Black customer base.  Since then, a large part of the Black work force has functioned exclusively as a reserve labor pool: The last-hired in boom times, and the first-fired in an economic slump.

     Reforms of the educational system during the early decades of the 20th century, the so-called progressive era, also played a part in the creation of a stable, color-based caste system.

     In the 1890's only about 10% of children aged 14 to 17 years attended public or private high schools,  which offered some type of college preparatory curriculum program.  About 3 out of every 4 students who earned a high school diploma went on to college; about 2% of adult White males were college graduates.

   At that time, just about every neighborhood in Northern US cities had a public school for students in grades 1-8.  Upper-class neighborhoods had the best schools, with a strong academic curriculum that prepared most students for high school.

   One of the most pernicious reforms of the progressive era was the introduction of a process of curriculum differentiation through the use of ability-grouping.  Rather than upgrade and equalize the quality of education throughout the K-12 system, the system was reconfigured into elementary schools for grades K-6, junior highs for grades 7-9, and high schools for grades 10-12.  Students at the junior high level were sorted out and "tracked" into programs that differed in content and academic rigor.

    However, the use of a common curriculum and cooperative learning strategies was fairly well entrenched in most elementary schools, and the 'ability grouping' model did not become commonplace at that level outside of the  big city school districts until the 1950's and 60's.

    One of the justifications for ability-grouping was that Blacks, poor Whites and most immigrants were not intelligent enough to benefit from a rigorous  academic program.  It was also assumed that one's lifelong capacity to learn was determined at a very early age, and that differences in this regard can be identified with a high degree of accuracy by the time a student is enrolled in junior high, if not sooner.

     Nationally-normed intelligence and achievement tests were invented as a sorting tool, though race and class origins were more important than test scores in determining whether a student was bound for college and a high status job.  However, test scores usually validated the selection of students for high track educational programs because the norm-reference group was the traditional college-bound high school students who attended the best elementary schools --  middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

     The idea that one's lifelong learning capacity is determined at an early age, say 5 or 6 years old, is still commonly held, and was initially supported by the interpretation of data reviewed in early studies on the effects of aging on IQ scores, which showed that average scores fell as the age of the test takers increased.

      However, by the 1980's it was noted that average IQ test scores had been going up over time for persons born in any given year as they age into their 60's and 70's.  This observation  suggested that the association of advancing age with falling test scores was not a byproduct of the aging process but a reflection of the rapidly growing share of the population that completed high school and attended college during the 20th century.

     The quality and quantity of education one receives as a major factor in determining cognitive ability (IQ) was also supported by the IQ test scores  of men drafted into the army during the 1940's.   Blacks from the Northern US had much higher scores than Blacks who lived in the South.  There were similar disparities between Northern and Southern Whites attributable to the poorer quality of education received by poor Whites in the South.

   When the US Supreme Court put racially-segregated schools in the Southern US on notice that they would have to integrate the schools, the Federal Department of Education and departments of education in all 50 states began to aggressively promote the ability-grouping model.  Most states in the Deep South also mandated and generously funded programs for the "academically gifted and talented," which were generally reserved for White students.

      Black students who were bussed to White schools during the 1960's were usually integrated into classrooms for lower-ability students, and rarely into the gifted programs.  Even where program placement practices are fair, that is, based on "objective" testing of a child's academic abilities,  Black and poor White students have been grossly over-represented in the lower academic tracks, and grossly underrepresented in the high track courses.

Why Ability-Grouping Widens the Achievement Gap

   Supporters of the ability-grouping model have argued that the practice of ability-grouping merely accommodates individual differences in academic  ability between children.   This idea is generally expressed in two ways: 1) that the brighter children would be held back in a mix-ability classroom because the instructor must water-down the curriculum for the benefit of the slow-learners, and 2) that the deficits of slow learners are more easily remediated if they are grouped together for instruction.

   However, research on the effects of curriculum differentiation and ability-grouping suggest that these practices reinforce and increase the academic achievement gap between the high and low achievers over time.  In practice, students who are separated for remedial instruction in basic academic skills usually progress more slowly than their peers,   which puts them further behind, and they do not get as much benefit from lectures and learning activities in the regular, mainstream classroom. [See Keeping Track: How Schools Structure  Inequality by Jeannie Oakes]

   The benefits of ability-grouping to high track students found in some  studies can be explained as an effect of following recommendations of gifted and talented advocacy groups for high track and gifted classes: Assigning the most effective teachers to the high track classes; keeping class size down in high track classes; a greater emphasis by the teacher of the gifted  and talented on individualized educational assessment, planning and evaluation; and enriching the curriculum for the gifted and talented.  Such  approaches would benefit children of all ability-levels.

   The supposition that the pace and content of whole classroom instruction must be watered down for the benefit of slow learners in the mixed-ability classroom has been disproved by the "untracking" of schools and entire school districts.  In many of these untracked schools, scores on standardized achievement  tests for the high achievers were quite stable or increased during the untracking process, and the test scores of the slower-learners  rose dramatically. [See Crossing the Tracks: How Untracking Can Save America's Schools, by Anne Wheelock]

   However, the process of untracking isn't just a matter of integrating the student body and modifying the curriculum. Wheelock noted that teachers must learn to use instructional  methods and learning strategies that are highly effective and well suited to mixed-ability groups if the goals of untracking are to be met.  This is a big adjustment for most teachers not only because it involves a new  approach to teaching, but also because it is a somewhat more complicated way to teach.

   Another common justification for ability-grouping is that slower students will benefit from being placed in separate classrooms with other slow learners for at least part of the day because it gives them an opportunity to "experience  success."  It is assumed that always being around and competing with "brighter" students has an adverse effect on the slower student's self-esteem and motivation to learn.

   However, the effect of ability-grouping on the self-esteem and motivation  of the "slow" student is actually very negative.  Students who are publicly  identified and sorted into low ability groups get the message that they are stupid, no matter what is verbally communicated by the teacher.

   "Low-ability" children are also placed in a situation where they must internalize the low-ability label, which is often a highly stressful process.  Normal psychological defense mechanisms come into play, including maladaptive behaviors which convince the teacher that the label is appropriate, including  behavior management problems which contribute to the chaotic and hostile classroom climate typical of low-track classes.  And there is a tendency for the teacher to apply additional labels which pathologize and criminalize these problematic children.


   In order to successfully block attempts to dismantle the public school system, it isn't enough for  teachers' unions and the broader labor movement to simply say no to voucher programs and charter schools.  In Minneapolis and other major cities, the public school system is designed to fail most of its students.  That's why voucher programs and the charter school movement are attractive to many parents.

   It is also necessary to oppose the agenda that's being set for the public schools by the ruling class, which includes less racial integration and  the Federal government's 30 year old policy of "mending, not ending" curriculum tracking.   As it is currently structured in Minneapolis and other major cities, the public school system ensures that a large share of White, middle-class students have privileged access to college and high status jobs.  It is not designed to educate most Black and poor White students.

   History teaches us that privileged classes never give up their privileges voluntarily.  This is true  of people who benefit from a stratified educational system. If access to education for all on equal terms could be achieved  through purely voluntary means, it would have been achieved long ago.

   As Malcolm X explained in a speech at the Militant Forum in New York City on January 7, 1965:

   "Power doesn't take a step back in the face of a smile, or a prayer, or a loving nonviolent act.  Power only takes a step back in the face of greater power.  And power in defense of freedom is greater than power in defense of Tyranny, because the power of a just cause is based on conviction and produces resolute and uncompromising action."