Confessions from a Top-Ranked School

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Psssst. Wanna know the fastest way for your public school to have top test scores, look great in the newspaper and have parents beating down your door to get in?.

Let me tell you how it works. My three sons go to public school in Minneapolis, the supposedly Big Bad District with high poverty and low test scores that serves as much-used punching bag for Republicans ranting about “failed” public schools. This fall, when the state released the latest test scores, our neighborhood school, Lake Harriet, where my youngest son is in 7th grade, had the second highest test scores in the state. We were nosed from first place only by those little Edina cheese-eating surrender monkeys over at the Normandale French immersion school,

Yet eight years ago, when my older two sons were at the same school with many of the same teachers, Lake Harriet’s test scores were somewhere in the 60-70s percentiles. Back then, prospective touring parents would sometimes furrow their brows at our mediocre scores and leave, saying they wanted their children to be around students who were “motivated to learn” which was White People’s code for too many brown kids on the playground.

So how did Lake Harriet find itself, a few years later, at the top of the test score stack with a mob of young parents trying to get in? Did we dump our old teachers and hire smarter new ones? Do more math and phonic drills? Run the place like a kind of combo-investment bank-and nunnery, i.e. the ultimate Katherine Kersten school fantasy?

Oh heck no. It was so much simpler than that. Which is why I’m now passing on a sure-fire formula for how any school, urban, rural or suburban, can avoid mediocre scores or being labeled as “failing” because of an “achievement” gap.

Step one: Get rid of the really poor kids, especially ones coming from a few generations of chronic, poverty, alcoholism, abuse or depression. Due to minor little factoids like 300 years of systematic racism, this often means the poor black kids. Also, dump the Hmong, Mexican, or Somalis who haven’t yet mastered English. Because these kids drag down test scores too.

Step two: Fill up your school with middle-class to upper-middle-class kids whose parents who went to college and/or graduate school. Why? Because nearly every study shows that the parents’ income and education levels, more than any other factors, have the biggest impact on student achievement on a large scale, individual exceptions aside.

For the irony-impaired, I must now pause and emphasize that no, no, God forbid no, Lake Harriet did not choose to dump its poor kids to improve its test scores. It started losing these students about eight years ago, as the district switched to a neighborhood schools and budget cuts slashed our last remaining busing for integration.

And then it was like presto-chango! Our students went from being 45 percent poor minorities, including a 30 percent Hmong population with limited English skills to now being 82 percent white Only two percent of our present students have limited English skills and only 11 percent need free and reduced lunch.

Sure, Lake Harriet has a terrific principal, experienced teachers and active parents who are highly invested in their kids’ education. And yes, plenty of schools in the affluent suburbs have similar demographics and somewhat lower test scores.

But let’s get real. Lake Harriet has top scores in large part because of its enviable demographics. The big annual chart in the Star-Tribune which shows every school’s test scores is not tracking academic achievement so much as social class. If the state decided to track parental income and educational levels by zip codes and put that chart in the paper, the results would look remarkably similar to school test scores.

Almost everyone knows this, at least anyone willing to be intellectually honest. So why do we keep putting up with this farce of school rankings and star ratings? Why do we let political leaders use these tests and the draconian requirements of No Child Left Behind to talk about public schools “failing,” mostly because of the so-called achievement gaps between white and minority students.

Because schools aren’t the only ones with this problem. If corporations were required to track and report their employees’ salaries and promotions by ethnicity, the achievement gap would take your breath away. Ditto for banks when it comes to their mortgage rates or clients’ account balances. We could also rank medical or dental practices based on their patient health statistics.

But we don’t see those kind of charts in the newspapers. We don’t hold CEOs, bankers or doctors “accountable” for their achievement gaps because…..well, you can only imagine the uproar it would cause. The fury and wailing. I mean, how could we expect these highly-paid executive types to overcome the huge, age-old burden of class and race? Talk about impossible! Talk about absurd.

So instead we put this huge burden solely on public schools….and I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that schools are mostly run by modestly-paid, less-than-powerful women. We track their records. We put their scores in the newspaper. And the rest of us are off the hook.

Talk about absurd. Talk about convenient.

Lynnell Mickelsen is a Minneapolis writer.