Doug Mann: Response to Achievement Gap questions

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1.The Minneapolis Public Schools have struggled for some time to raise the achievement of low-income students and students of color.

a. What in your opinion are the most important factors in raising student achievement?

Accountability, best practices, curriculum, and stability of the teaching staff.

b. What measures should the school board take to improve student outcomes?

I call for an end to ability-grouping practices that result in watered-down curriculum tracks. The district should provide effective reading instruction to all students, beginning in early elementary grades, not just for those identified as being academically gifted in Kindergarten. To eliminate watered-down curriculum tracks, the district can utilize a program sponsored by the Education Trust, Arts for Academic Achievement, which is proven to boost test scores in Minneapolis Public Schools, but is not used to its full potential as a means to eliminate watered-down curriculum, the purpose for which it was designed.

To bring stability to the teaching staff in all schools, I propose ending the practice of firing and replacing most teachers before they complete their 3 year, post-hire probationary period. I also advocate repeal of a Jim Crow era teacher tenure act for cities of the first class (Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth) that allows the Minneapolis School District to arbitrarily fire probationary teachers every spring on the pretext of financial uncertainties, and then to replace many of them. These teachers must reapply for their jobs and may be replaced by the district in any event. The teacher tenure act for the rest of the state allows a district to fire and replace teachers, including those on probation, only for misconduct or poor performance.

c. If the school board follows your suggestions, how soon would you expect to see significant results?

Based on the district’s experience of stabilizing the teaching staff at North Star and Hall elementary schools in the 1990s, and the reported benefits of utilizing the Art for Academic Achievement program in Minneapolis Public Schools, I would expect significant improvement in test scores, student behavior, and parental involvement the first year that the above suggestions are implemented, especially in schools that have been plagued by high teacher turnover rates and are filled with students of color.

2. Some people are concerned that focusing on academic achievement for low-income students may lead to insufficient attention being paid to the needs of average and higher performing students. How do you respond to that concern?

The achievement gap was being closed in the 1970s to late 1980s. According to the report of a panel of K-12 education experts selected by the Reagan-Bush administration, A Nation at Risk (released in April 1983), the gap was being closed at the expense of high achievers. But an analysis of data done by the Sandia National Laboratories, commissioned by GHW Bush and released during the Clinton administration, showed modest improvement in standardized test scores for high achieving students while the gap was being closed. Since the late 1980s we have seen a widening achievement gap accompanied by increased racial segregation, greater exposure of students of color to new teachers and rapid teaching staff turnover, and the promotion of ability-grouping practices that result in watered-down curriculum tracks that have a disparately negative effect on students of color.

3. It has been suggested that certain provisions of the teachers’ contract make more difficult the staffing of schools adequate to meet the needs of all students. What is your view?

I don’t agree that certain provisions of the teacher contract and teacher tenure law are to blame for the lack of stability in teacher staffing in many of the district’s schools, especially those that few white students attend. High teacher turnover rates are primarily an affect of arbitrarily firing and replacing most new teachers before they complete their probationary period. Eliminating provisions of tenure laws and teacher contract provisions that restrict the district’s ability to involuntarily reassign teachers while ignoring the underlying cause of the high turnover is only going to make a bad situation worse.

4. One idea to improve student outcomes is to have a longer school day or a longer school year. Do you favor increasing learning time for students, and if so, how would you like to see that happen?

I do not favor a longer school day. This will tend to drive more students out of the district’s schools. It would require increasing the workday for full-time teachers, presumably without increased compensation. And it is unlikely that the positive effect of a longer school day would be very great, other things being equal. The achievement gap is mainly a reflection of the quality of instruction received by students, and it seems to me that the most effective and efficient way to boost achievement is to stabilize the teaching staff and eliminate watered-down curriculum.

5. Early childhood education is often offered as an important strategy for addressing the achievement gap.

a. What are your views on investing in early childhood education?

I think that making quality, early childhood education accessible to all is a wonderful idea. My concerns about promoting early childhood education as the solution to the achievement gap are that the district must rely on the state legislature to make this happen, it takes the focus away from fixing the schools, and it is connected to the idea that an early education achievement gap reflects differences in innate abilities between racial and income groups, which I believe to be false and racist.

b. How can there be better alignment between pre-k programs and the K-12 system?

I am not familiar with how pre-K and K-12 programs are currently aligned.

6. Some people suggest we need more flexible or innovative models of delivering education.

a. Do you favor or oppose charter schools?

I oppose the replacement of public schools with charter schools. The failure to take effective action to fix the schools, and the perpetuation of practices that are setting up many public school students and teachers for failure, will lead to the establishment of a charterized system, a fully privatized public school system. However, I see the problem of unequal access to quality school programs by race and poverty persisting and continuing to get worse if the district continues down the path of school reform it is following.

b. What should the relationship be between the charter schools and MPS?

Charter schools operate independently of the Minneapolis Public Schools. They wouldn’t be charters if effectively controlled by the Minneapolis School District.

c. Do you favor or oppose self-governed (teacher-led) schools?

I am opposed to moving toward a self-governed school model for governance of the Minneapolis School District. This takes the idea of site-based management a step further, and reduces the role and responsibility of the MPS leadership for operating the district’s schools. Moving to this model of governance will create new obstacles to solving problems embedded in the public school system.

7. A group of Northside residents have formed a Northside Achievement Zone, aiming to replicate some of the outcomes experienced by the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York.

a. How should the School Board respond?

I think the board should willing to work with the Northside residents who set up the Northside Achievement Zone. And in connection with that, there should be a public discussion about the Harlem Children’s Zone experience: What conclusions should be drawn?

b. Is it appropriate for the School Board to make special efforts or investments in a particular portion of the city?

Currently, in the fund for regular education teacher payroll costs, accounting gimmicks conceal a disproportionate payout to teachers in the SW quadrant of the district, where the mean average pay reflects a high concentration of the districts best paid teachers there. On the other hand, the district saves enormous amounts of money by preventing a large proportion of the teaching staff from becoming permanent, or ‘tenured’ employees. And it happens that the lowest paid teachers are concentrated in schools that few white students attend on the Near North Side. It has been said that teacher salaries only account for 35.9 per cent of the district’s income, but teachers salaries make up a much larger part of the district’s operating fund, and closer to 80% of the payroll costs that come out of the operating budget.

8. With 65% students of color, the Minneapolis Public Schools face significant challenges with regard to integration. Some people prioritize integration efforts, while others argue that that it is more important to improve the quality of schools in low income neighborhoods. What is your opinion on this? Do you favor efforts to increase integration in the city schools? If yes, what steps would you take to make that happen?

I think we could do a much better job of racially integrating the schools and improving the quality of schools in low income neighborhood. It is not a matter of choosing integration versus improving the quality of education. We can do both. I do not favor a return to the controlled choice desegregation plan that was in place in the 1980s and early 1990s. However, much can be done to better integrate the student population by the way school attendance boundaries are drawn, new school sites selected, etc. Since implementation of the community school plan in 1996, the district has gone out of its way to make the schools less racially integrated and less equal in quality. Also, the city government promised to take steps to better integrate the city’s neighborhoods, but effective action was never taken. The best, most effective way to racially integrate the city’s neighborhoods is to aggressively enforce fair housing and employment laws, utilizing survey teams to gather evidence of unlawful discrimination. The credible threat of action to enforce the law will produce changes in the behavior of discriminators.

9. Improving governance of our public schools is a big topic of discussion.

a. What in your opinion are the main governance challenges for public education?

In my opinion, changes in school governance promoted by the No Child Left Behind agenda in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since 2001, and through the Obama administration’s Race To The Top grants are a disaster for the public school system. It is bad public policy, at least from the point of view of the poorer 80% to 90% of the population who cannot easily afford to put their children in good private schools.

b. Are there different governance models that you believe are worth exploring?

I think the best governance model is the public school model that immediately predates No Child Left Behind. The school system is failing to provide a quality education to all on an equal basis, not because of a more-or-less traditional public school governance model, but because of specific policies that I have already addressed, as well as diminishing levels of funding for the public school system.

c. The Governor has recommended that the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts be managed by the cities’ mayors. What is your opinion of this recommendation?

I am opposed to this idea. Where this idea has been implemented, e.g., Chicago and New York, it has been easier for the school district administration to do corporate-style reforms and privatize the public school system. I think it is better for the voters to directly elect the school board.

10. Your role in the school board

a. How do you define the role of a school board member?

The school board members are responsible for setting policy, and are directly involved in developing budgets and overseeing the school district operations with assistance from administrative staff.

b. How much time each week do you expect to spend on school related matters?

I expect to spend about 10 to 20 hours per week. However, this would involve going above and beyond the call of duty, and is more than one can expect of board members who are employed elsewhere on a full time basis. I am currently working on-call as an Educational Associate / Instructional Assistant for the Edina Public Schools and working as a volunteer ESL tutor and classroom assistant for the Adult Basic education program, Minneapolis Public Schools. In 2008, board members reported that they typically spent 10 to 20 hours per month fulfilling their duties, and sometimes as many as 40 hours per month in exceptional circumstances.

11. Finally, what does success in the Minneapolis Public Schools look like to you.

My goal, which happens to be the strategic goal of the district, at least on paper, is to make a quality public education accessible to all on an equal basis. To the extent we are successful in achieving that goal, we should see a diminishing racial test score gap, and reduced disparities in other outcomes, including rates of placement of students in special Ed programs for emotional-behavioral disorders, fewer students forced to take psychotropic drugs to control their behavior, less need to resort to disciplinary action for student behavior, and increased enrollment of K-12 students in the Minneapolis Public Schools. One measure of the district’s failure in this regard over the past dozen years is enrollment of students on the Near North Side in regular district-run schools falling to about 25% of all K-12 students residing there.

-Doug Mann, Minneapolis School Board candidate, citywide