A teacher, a former Minneapolis school board member, three cause-based advocates, and a lobbyist gathered for a panel on teacher effectiveness and performance May 17, a work product of the ASAP group. ASAP stands for either Advocates Serving all People or Addressing Systems Affecting Policy—and it’s a group of 15 adults seeking community advocacy and leadership training, who attended what will be 24 weeks of the Public Policy Project funded by Northway Community Trust; they’ll graduate May 31.
Perhaps to demonstrate that none of the panelists should be pigeon-holed the way I did at the start of this article, Kim Colbert, who teaches in Saint Paul but lives in North Minneapolis and is a union member, brought three hats to wear as she introduced her roles; teacher, of color, union person and taxpayer. “It’s crucial to have teachers at the table for this discussion,” she said. And while the take-turns panel format lent itself to one-way rhetoric, the audience of about 30 people were actively engaged by the end of the forum.
Panelists: Kim Colbert, Sondra Samuels of the Northside Achievement Zone and parent of private-school children; Chris Stewart, former Minneapolis Public Schools board member and parent; Marcus Harcus, student in the Public Policy Project in previous years, now working as an advocate for the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now (MINNCAN) ; Lynnell Mickelsen of Put Kids First Minneapolis, an advocacy group for teacher contract reform, and James Grathwol, a lobbyist for the Minneapolis Public Schools.
Samuels, who has experienced “10-15 murders” in her extended family and friends’ circles, said violence is linked to poor educational outcomes. Stewart said education became important to him at age 20 when his first child was born and he thought, “Oh, man I’m going to mess this up.” When the kid was in “4th or 5th grade I finally exhaled, and started coming to meetings and seeing that people from marginalized communities” weren’t in the educational system.
Harcus said his group advocates teacher evaluations in order to find the good ones, not to punish. Mickelsen’s group advocates promotion and retention based on effectiveness, not seniority; evaluation based on students’ academic growth and student feedback; and wants to see more teachers of color. She told of watching “teachers flooding into my Southwest Minneapolis neighborhood” as the Northside elementary schools closed, “and having to pick teachers from this pool.” They would complain that they weren’t able to get results because of all the other challenges facing North Minneapolis students, “but the truth is when they came to Lake Harriet and started teaching, they weren’t really good teachers.”
Grathwol said “public education is at the center” of the American democratic experiment, “and it’s not a one day affair” (referencing African American Leader Day at the State Capitol) “Keep showing up, and bring kids to the Capitol. Remember, though, teacher evaluation and contract issues are different things.”
Other comments I found interesting:
Samuels: “Minnesota is one of only 14 states in America that base retention solely on seniority; we have to do away with LIFO, last-in, first-out.”
Colbert: “The teacher/student relationship is the best indicator of teacher performance. You can’t form relationships with kids or parents when you have 130 in a class.” On merit pay: “My incentive is Antonio [a student with whom she first fought and then had success]…It’s not about the money. Get me small class sizes, that’s where you’ll see results.” She also said professional development through evaluations is moot when principals, too, are overwhelmed.
With more effective teachers, how long will it take to close the gap? Stewart: “It should be in fairly short order.” He tussled verbally with teacher Colbert over the sincerity and actions of teacher’s union Education Minnesota on various evaluation issues.
How do public schools play a part in the renewal of North Minneapolis? Samuels: “It sounds like chicken and egg, but I think with strong schools and when kids succeed, you’re going to see change in the community.”
Grathwol and audience member Bill English talked about the growing homeless population, estimating that 12 to 15 percent of students are highly mobile or homeless. English: “Schools shouldn’t have to solve the problem of homelessness, that’s for the philanthropic businesses. They used to buy up houses to offer them at lower rates to city employees, well how about to the homeless?”
On the website for The Public Policy Project, the program, which started in January, is described as about equal parts classroom work with speakers, and field work chasing down and working on an issue of the class’ choosing. The first session asks the students to look at how poverty has affected them.
Next steps? Who knows? Moderator Charles Dillon, a class member, and trainer James Trice say the group has decided to stay together to affect change. “There are multiple strategies and this is one. This is the future of our society, our world,” Trice said. “Our future leaders need to know how to read, write, add and subtract.”
After hearing the discussion, an audience member who identified himself as a North High School graduate attending Mankato State to be a teacher (to wild applause), asked “What can I do to help students close the achievement gap?” heard the answer, “Do what you’re doing, and come back to the neighborhood!”