The good, the bad and the ugly: Why it all counts for schools

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by Lynnell Mickelsen, 5/30/08 • Whenever I get into these public discussions over the many real problems in the Minneapolis public school, i.e. graduation rates, the achievement gap, the endless funding crises.……I often feel compelled to add that our three sons, ages 15, 18 and 20, have been in the city’s public schools since kindergarten; two out of three have now graduated. Sure, the class sizes are too large and yes, we’re always doing things on a shoe-string budget. But our sons have received an excellent education in a far more diverse setting than any private school offers. And being part of the community schools for the last 15 years has allowed me to connect with my neighbors like nothing else.

Of course, when I pipe up with my Little Miss Merry Sunshine testimony, I’m sometimes denounced as a smug, heartless yuppie who blithely brags about her precious offspring and doesn’t care that thousands of poor kids are failing. Which is enough to shut up any supporter of the city’s public schools, which is, of course, the point. But I speak out, not because I think the outcome for middle-class kids is the only thing that matters, but for broader political reasons.

I once worked as a wilderness guide where the group maxim “You’re only as strong as your weakest member” really did apply when we were trying to figure out how much ground we could cover each day. So I appreciate the argument that the Minneapolis schools should be judged solely on how they serve the poor and most vulnerable among us. Also, seventy percent of MPS students are children of color; 66 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch. What happens to them matters. We have to do better.

However……..this fall we’re about to ask Minneapolis voters to pass a $60 million school referendum. And we’re doing it in the context of having lived through our own Thirty Years War, in which the public schools have been under a well-funded, relentless assault by conservatives whose primary message has been that public schools have utterly failed. Public schools are broken. Public schools don’t work for any one, so it’s time to privatize and bring in the Wondrous Working Power of the Free Market, etc, etc, I once asked a wise state legislator why Republicans seemed so hell-bent on trying to break public education, especially when close to 90 percent of the state’s kids attend public schools. The legislator said that close to half of the state’s budget went to education and added, “Why did Willie Sutton say he robbed banks?…..Because that’s where the money is.”

I believe the primary political purpose of the No Child Left Behind act was to sucker well-meaning liberals into supporting a new set of standards that were specifically designed to make sure all public schools would end up being officially labeled as failures by the government. At which point, conservatives planned to move to a privatized system with vouchers.

NCLB is the great Trojan Horse of our time—pushed by primarily by Republicans who proclaimed their great concern over the “achievement gap” and the outcomes of poor, minority children. Never mind that these same conservatives had never previously shown any concern at all for the well-being of poor minorities or the achievement gap, especially when it came to health, housing or income. But suddenly now, in this one particular area of public education, Republicans were going all Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on us. Of course, when it came time to actually put their money where their mouth was—i.e. to fully- fund the NCLB, surprise, surprise, conservatives………… didn’t do it. I tell you, I was shocked, shocked!

Anyhow, if we use the “you’re only as strong as your weakest member” as the sole standard by which we judge Minneapolis public schools, we play right into the hands of the same powerful, relentless people who want to break the schools and switch to a privatized system. Which is why we need to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly in public education. In addition to analyzing what’s wrong, we need to emphasize that the schools are also serving many students very well. It’s not either/or. It’s both.

But man, the continual anti-public school propaganda packs quite a punch. I still run into young parents in my neighborhood who tell me they’re “agonizing” about whether to send their bright five-year-olds into Lake Harriet K-8 (which, as a solidly middle-class to upper middle-class school has the same kind of high test scores as nearby Edina.) And just the other day, I had some parents tell me that while Lake Harriet had been great for their kids, they were now terribly worried over whether they should send their kids to……..the big, bad Southwest International Baccalaureate program. This kind of mass anxiety is the direct result, yea, the collateral damage of our Thirty Years War.

If any good came out of No Child Left Behind, it’s that it forced everyone to get serious about the achievement gap and produced a lot of new data that we could use to get better feedback.

Data is data. You can use it badly or you can use it well. For years, we’ve been told there’s no accurate way to really judge whether a teacher is effective or not. We’re told we can’t let principals make the call because they’re too biased or prone to look for “yes” people and cronies. (And I think there’s some truth to that, which why we should have multiple sources of feedback.) But what if we assigned each teacher an i.d. number and used it to track how much yearly progress individual students make in her class—–over a three to five year period? You can’t judge a teacher based only on the kids’ test scores at the end of the year. You need to know where the kids started from. And you need to know how the teacher has done over a period longer than just one year because some years may be especially chaotic with huge numbers of kids whose lives are a mess and who transfer in and out of the classroom.

Should this kind of data be the sole criteria for a teacher? Heck no. You need to get feedback from students, parents and administrators too. But this could be an excellent data tool and one that hasn’t been available until fairly recently.

Lynnell Mickelson is a Minneapolis writer, parent of a Southwest sophomore and an active supporter of public schools.