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Doug Mann LPN, LNC

Star-Tribune: Blame black community, not public schools

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The Strib is sweeping the issue of institutional racism under the rug
    Once again the Star-Tribune is promoting the idea that the racial learning gap in Minneapolis public schools has very little to do with differences in the quality of education provided to white and non-white students. The argument goes that the problem isn't that 'minority' students are getting an inferior education, the problem is that the school system is burdened with students whose abilities are limited due to poverty and a "culture of poverty."
   Doug Mann presents evidence that the quality of educational programs accessible to most black students are grossly inferior to those accessible to a majority of white students, and that there is a strong link between the quality of educational inputs and education-related outcomes in school programs.  

Adam Platt: Don't blame the schools for problems of society
How can educators put out the fires of poverty, poor parenting and failing families?


"As a public school parent, I can attest that the only thing keeping the schools alive is a dedicated core of teachers, principals and administrators at the district office. They work hard and care deeply about kids. What needs reforming is our society and many of our public school parents.

"Here's the rub: Student achievement largely tracks socioeconomic measures. If you are poor, from a broken home, or without good role models, you will likely not do well in school. The schools that thrive in Minneapolis are those with the fewest impoverished students. To the best of my knowledge, there are no exceptions to this essential truth." [end quote]

Doug Mann responds: The schools with the fewest impoverished students also have the lowest teacher turnover rates and the highest concentration of teachers on the top half of the seniority list. Just a coincidence?

I have noted that, in 1999, there were big differences in student achievement between two elementary schools where student background characteristics were very similar: Broadway and North Star.  Broadway's scores on standardized tests (Basic Standards and NALT) were among the district's lowest. North Star's test scores were above the district average. At both schools over 90% of the students were 'of color,' mostly African-American, and over 90% qualified for free and reduced priced lunch.  Therefore, big differences in education-related outcomes like test scores cannot be attributed to differences in student background characteristics like poverty, race, and culture.

Unlike Broadway school, North Star was an exception to the rule that schools with high concentrations of students of color also have high teacher turnover rates and high concentrations of the district's less experienced teachers. In a report to the Board of Education some years ago, a North Star teacher reported that while few of North Star's teachers were on the top half of the districtwide seniority list, there had been very little turnover in the teaching staff in recent years. An effort had been made by the district administration to make North Star a model school. Most of North Star's teachers were committed to staying put and making the program work.

On the other hand, a MPS teacher told me (off the record) that turnover was insanely high at Broadway Elementary school, where about 80 to 90% of teachers had been employed with the district for less than 3 full years.

Based on data available at the Minnesota Department of Education web site, Minneapolis Issues list member Michael Atherton recently estimated that there is a very strong negative correlation between the proportion of African American students and the proportion of teachers hired by the district more than 10 years ago. The correlation was "about -0.5" for elementary and high school grades, and "over -0.8" for middle schools. A perfect negative correlation, i.e., no teachers employed for more than 10 years in a school where all students are black, would be expressed as a "-1"

A strong link between between education-related outcomes for students and teacher expertise, as measure by years of experience, advanced degrees, and scores on teacher licensing exams was found by Ronald Ferguson and others in a study of Texas schools. Ferguson et al concluded that about 40% of the variability in standardized test scores in math and English in grades 1 through 11 could be attributed to differences in teacher expertise. - See "school policies matter"

The idea that student achievement gap between racial groups is mostly a reflection of differences in student background characteristics (poverty and a "culture of poverty" afflicting African Americans, Puerto Ricans, etc.), rather than differences in school characteristics, is not supported by a review of data by the Education Trust which shows there are many exceptions to the rule. In the year 2000 The Education Trust identified 4,577 high-performing, high- poverty and/or minority [public] schools, which educated about 2,070,000 students, including about 1,280,000 low-income students, 564,000 African-American students; and 600,000 Latino students. - "School policies matter"  Source: Dispelling the Myth Revisited, The Education Trust,

And in the 1970s and early 1980s, we saw differences between black and white 13 year olds decline by about 50% on reading exams administered as part of a federal testing program called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That test score gap subsequently widened and is now closer to what it was in the 1960s than it was in the mid-1980s. - "School policies matter"

Why did the racial achievement gap narrow in the 1970s and early 1980s? The US Supreme Court handed down a decision in Green v. Kent County Schools in 1968 which stated that racially segregated schools must be desegregated "root and branch."  In Minneapolis and St. Paul, predominantly black schools were shut down in the early 1970s, and the STUDENTS AND TEACHERS were integrated into white schools. Differences between black and white students were greatly reduced with respect to exposure to unstable teacher staffing situations and inexperienced teachers. However, the gap in educational inputs and outcomes for blacks and white students began to increase steadily by the late 1980s.

I advocate modifying the teacher assignment system so that some teacher positions in all schools are set aside for the district's newly hired, inexperienced teachers. And it is my position that the teachers contract must be renegotiated on this point. To the extent that the teachers contract presents an obstacle to the board's compliance with Minnesota's Desegregation Rule, the teachers' contract is illegal.

And I oppose the practice of sending layoff notices to teachers who are obviously going to be recalled or replaced. It is a practice that substantially drives up district-wide teacher turnover rates. The revolving door for low seniority teachers saves the district 10s of millions of dollars each year, but the negative impact on programs serving a majority of the district's students is huge. Much of what is saved on teacher payroll expenses must be spent on damage control. And it is unfair, and argueably an illegal, discriminatory practice, due to the disparate impact on students of color.

Doug Mann for School Board in 2008