A school system that has lost touch

Sometimes you have to jump in and speak out. Sometimes you hold back, see where the wind takes you, decide later to write something, say something.

If you are lucky, as I am, and do not have to worry that your income is dependent upon the institution you wish to speak critically about, you simply decide what to say and say it.  Here goes.

The budget proposed by the Administration of the Minneapolis Public Schools for next year is frightening. That language that is not too strong. It is not melodramatic. The direction the district is going should be disturbing to anyone who has children in the schools in this city, to anyone who works in a school building as a teacher, aide, social worker, principal or anyone who is a resident of the city. Because the cuts that are proposed affect children, their safety, and their chance to learn and succeed. I have been fortunate to hear from parents in the Southwest quadrant of the city who are outraged by the plan for their schools.  I have been also in touch with those who teach and work in the northeast and north quadrant of our city. They put in clear language what will be lost not only for their children but for all children:

Transportation coordinators, lunch and recess monitors and office/ancillary staff are on the chopping block. School safety would be seriously compromised if this happens. These are the positions of men and women who monitor schools’ security and safety. We cannot solve these problems by arming teachers. Social services, behavioral and nursing staff will be curtailed or in some cases will be non- existent. Those of us who have taught in schools, who have been in schools most of our lives know how necessary these people are to the safety of our buildings. At a time when we need this security even more than previously, these cuts will endanger our kids.

At the same time as essential personnel are being cut, the District is hiring high paid “observers” to walk around with clipboards monitoring teachers. Each of these monitors costs nearly $100,000. There are sixty schools. Do the math.  And this does not even account for the money spent on training, software and the externally produced protocols they must use. All of this expenditure is devoted to scripted curriculum. From my own experience I know that such rote lesson planning does not work. It does not connect. It becomes an absurdity when a teacher is told to proceed with the next lesson designated for a certain day, a certain hour, when her students did not grasp the concepts for the previous day. Such scripted, “focused” learning methods deny creative thinking, both for teachers and students themselves. If this is teaching, we could scrap all salaries and hire robots.           

Art classes are already curtailed in many buildings and the expectation is that parents must hold fundraisers to find a way to provide salaries for these teachers. In some schools parents are already handling lunchroom duty so that teachers can get their lunch half hour. In many areas of the city parents do not have the time to fundraise nor the money available to contribute. Should it be up to parents to provide art and band and music for our students?

The new budget will also mean loss of teachers in core subjects in high schools. The result of this will be larger and larger class sizes. Even now some teachers have forty students per hour. Please don’t tell those of us who have done this work that class size does not matter.  We know it does. Every elite school I know has smaller class sizes. Parents look for this when choosing schools. Consider this one fact: if you want to improve students writing you need to respond to their writing, commenting on each paper they hand in.  If they write a three-page paper and you have 200 students a day (5 classes of 40 each) and want to spend five minutes on each paper, it would take you between sixteen and seventeen hours to respond. Remember you are already teaching all day and planning your curriculum and lesson plans, serving on committees and finding materials in your off hours. If you have 20 students per hour, it would take you between 8 and 9 hours to respond. One ratio of teacher- to- student is manageable, one is not.

Another result of the budget could be the reduction of full day kindergarten to half day at most sites. What more do I need to add to this after all we continue to learn about early education?

Millions of dollars are now being spent on standardized tests. One parent was told in the beginning of March that her teacher could not create assignments that involved students working on the computers in her building’s lab for any time during the rest of the year because the lab was to be taken up every day for testing.

How does this situation help students? They may learn to take a test. They will not learn to explore, experiment, and develop new skills—skills that are ten times more valuable than test-taking.

What can be cut instead? Here are some suggestions from parents and teachers and retired teachers like me who have been worried by the direction of Minneapolis Schools:

  • Suspend evaluations of teachers not done in their school by their principals or mentors;
  • Eliminate the 4th Associate Superintendent, and reassign schools under this person to the other three;
  • Eliminate the new Deputy Superintendant position;
  • Get rid of “Instructional Leaders” who push rote curriculum and rote instruction;
  • Look at the District HR budget: this is more money than any school below high school receives in total.
  • Think about the cost of the health care clinic in the Davis building (something teachers and others in all schools do not have) and the expensive treadmill desks. This is just a beginning to carving out the expenses of a top heavy and bloated administrative apparatus.
  • Take a look at Office of New Schools, Security costs at headquarters, Payments to Americorps, Alternative Schools Dept, Contract Schools, West Metro Education Program, FAIR, most of which cost over 400,00 dollars each.

I have mentioned  before the profits that go to Pearson, the company that develops the standardized tests in this country.  This is a national disgrace, bleeding public schools of much needed funds to take tests that often measure very little. Yet we continue to pour money into their coffers, unquestioning. Google Garfield High in Seattle to see how one group of gutsy teachers took on testing.

I have written before on a lack of community respect for our schools on the part of those who do not spend time in the classroom but who work downtown, a the center. “Something happens when you get downtown”, teachers have told me who have taken jobs at district headquarters and then left. You lose touch with the day to day operation of a school and classroom. You lose touch with what it means not to have enough money for paper and your small allotment has run out. You lose touch with the fact that parents in poor parts of the city simply cannot raise the money for an art teacher or a trip to a museum. And you begin to accept the bizarre idea that it should be up to busy parents in any part of the city to monitor lunch rooms, handle recess, pay music and band teachers. I have worked in a job that based me at the Special Ed Center, and I know how this can happen. My solution was to spend 80% of my time working with kids and teachers even in this position. It was the only way I could stay in touch.

If this out of touch thinking is what causes a budget like the one proposed this year; if this lack of understanding about good educational practice is what goes on at the Davis Center, then the result will be what has happened in Minneapolis Schools. You get budgets that endanger children’s safety, make good teaching unreachable given class sizes, the closure of community schools and the opening of more and more charters in their place filled with inexperienced teachers. You get racial incidents that are responded to with vacuous language and careful abstract pronouncements instead of directly addressing the lack of courage and support for having tough discussions—about history, about equity, about racism. You get to where we are now, with teachers who are leaving or young, well- trained teachers who do not want to come to our district because it lacks respect and compassion for those who do the gritty work, on the ground, day in, day out. This proposed budget and the continued obsession with standardized testing are examples of a system where I worked for over twenty years, that has now gone awry.

Someone, some body of people, needs to look carefully at all aspects of the Minneapolis schools. Someone, some person in power needs to use that power to call a halt to the rush to pass such a dismal financial plan for our schools. Our kids’ very security depends on it.   

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Julie Landsman's picture
Julie Landsman

Julie Landsman, author of A White Teacher Talks About Race, taught in the Minneapolis public schools for 25 years.