As we pursue social justice in education, and consider excuse-free options for improving Minneapolis Public Schools, we may encounter a vexatious truth: MPS may not have the teachers required to get the job done.
It isn’t training or education or insight that MPS teachers lack. Clearly, the district has what is likely the world’s most educated and experienced teaching pool. If teachers with advanced degrees translated into proficient students MPS would be milling Rhodes Scholars like Chipotle makes burritos.
So, what’s the problem?
Ask teachers and they will tell you with crystal clarity what the problems are: class sizes, huge workloads, disjointed curriculum systems, a blizzard of unrelated and labor stealing initiatives, bad administrators, and sparse supplies.
Those are among their valid concerns. We should kick down doors to support them on these issues. There is no getting around the fact that quality of life for teachers should always be a priority for administration.
However, teachers also have a noxious narrative that on the surface sounds like care, but in reality threatens the lives of children. Ask them why MPS suffers from a nation-leading achievement gap and they deflect attention from curriculum and instruction to a tidy portfolio of immovable deficiencies they presume block students and families from success: poverty, mental illness, lack of motivation, cultural opposition to education, behavior issues, etc.
This is the losers’ narrative that failing staff offer with a hand on their heart to explain their inability to produce a desired effect. “It’s not the schools fault,” they say. “We can’t expect schools to cure all of society’s ills” they protest.
Here’s an idea: let’s start by not calling children and families “ills.” They are people. They have brains. By all credible research brains are elastic and can do amazing things when properly stimulated. And, guess what? Despite a local narrative to the contrary many poor students of color are learning in schools where teachers believe it can be done.
If you scan the national education landscape and ask “what works” you’ll find that successful schools focus on what they can control. They reflect on what they can change, and then change it. They use data to quickly adjust their practices. Their staff redesign schools to fit the needs of the children they serve rather than conveniences that serve themselves.
More than anything, they believe that all children can thrive academically. In their worldview demography is not destiny, and equity is more than boiler plate.
Schools like George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Alabama are a great example. Over 90% of their population is poor and black, yet over 90% of their students test in the “advanced” range. Success wasn’t easy. In 2004 only 46% of Hall’s students were in the exceeding standards range, but through determined effort that number went to 94% by 2011.
Hall isn’t an anomaly either.
Morning Side Elementary in Brownsville, Texas does the same thing with high poverty, high ELL populations.
Griegos Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico does it with a majority of Latino and poor students.
And, we don’t have to leave Minneapolis anymore to see this type of success. Harvest Prep in North Minneapolis achieved gains in achievement over the past two years that outperformed all school districts – with a mostly black and poor student body.
So, again, what’s the problem in the MPS?
With a great war chest these others schools do not have; and a brain trust that could probably solve the most complicated puzzles at will; and a teaching force with more education than Mensa – why is the racial predictability of student achievement so firm in the MPS?
One word: belief.
Listen to what some MPS teachers say and you will hear a belief deficit. Instead of adopting the “excuse free” language used by successful schools today, they get lost in the professional defensiveness of 20 years ago.
Their recommendations are simple, sarcastic, and sad: Change parents. Bribe students. Cure poverty. Take the focus off of teaching and instruction.
Stop blaming good teachers for the outcomes with bad students.
As an organizer for the Contract for Student Achievement campaign I’ve listened to teachers and their union; and frankly, I’m distressed by the backwardness and condescension.
We all should be.
They point to the “dismal state of [student] behavior and motivation” as if it explains nothing about the schools and everything about the students. They suggest the answer is “better parents” and the creation of a “parent report card” as if that external factor prevents them from doing all they can internally.
They are a sad reflection of just how out of touch our teachers are, and how ill-fitting many of them are for an urban school district. Given the substantial moral crisis that we have in education these views are – honestly – outrageous.
This is the same level of thinking – and the cultural chauvinism – that created the problem in the first place. It’s also where our most distressing gap hides; the gap in belief between our community and teachers entrusted with our children.
We love our kids. We believe in them. There is no doubt in our mind that they deserve teachers that also believe in them; teachers that set high standards and expect to reach them; teachers that see promising strategies and change practices with children at the center of all they do.
The alarming truth is that MPS has a lot of work to do if they want to serve children the way Hall, Griegos, Morningside, and Harvest Prep do.
The first order of business should be establishing a teaching pool with a 21st century understanding of urban students.
Close the belief gap.