Improving urban public education: 8 ideas from a veteran teacher

t’s hardly news that less than half of the kids in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools are proficient in reading and math. Education “experts” have weighed in on this topic, but we haven’t often heard the perspective of classroom teachers. What follows are eight ideas for improving urban education; they’re based on what I learned from 34 years of teaching in public and private schools:1. Provide one year of free preschool for all children from low-income families. Critics of urban public schools rarely acknowledge that many kids come to kindergarten already a year or more behind. Continue Reading

AT THE INTERSECTION | Why MCTC’s decision to reprimand Shannon Gibney for teaching structural racism is an investment in white male power

I’m sure by now, most of you have heard about Minneapolis Community and Technical College’s (MCTC) decision to reprimand faculty member Shannon Gibney, after two students filed a complaint accusing her of singling them out — based on their race and gender — in class.For some context: the class was about structural racism, the students who complained were white males, and Gibney is a woman of color (whom I read as a black woman).  When I first heard that Gibney was being reprimanded because two white males felt like they were victims, the first thing I thought was, “how ridiculous.” As someone who understands how US power relations and racial hierarchies work, I couldn’t miss the irony: that she, a woman of color, was being accused of attacking white males in her class, because she was teaching about structural racism.To me, this is a textbook case of how white male privilege works. This is just one possible example of how white men can get away with “victimization” in conversations about the reality of white systems of oppression. The momentary white guilt they may feel when people of color bring up their lived realities of racism and racial violence makes them a “victim,” when the real victims are those in communities of color who live with such traumas every single day.MCTC’s decision to reprimand Gibney signals the college’s investment in protecting white male hurt feelings, and white male power. What I mean by this is that, despite the realities of structural racism faculty and students of color constantly face, and despite the very real power dynamics faculty of color experience in the classroom, the hurt feelings of a few white men trumped that. Continue Reading

St. Paul’s teacher mentoring program combines coaching, evaluation to help teachers succeed

Every Sunday night finds Leslie Blue finalizing lesson plans two weeks in advance. Blue, who’s in her second year of teaching, then sends them off to veteran teacher Bobbi Jo Rademacher to review. “Bobbi Jo will spend Monday looking at them, and she’ll have actionable suggestions for me – things I might not have noticed. She might say something like, ‘You’re having them do book work two days in a row, can you break it up with a lab?’” said Blue, who teaches middle school science at Capitol Hill, the St. Paul Public School District’s gifted and talented magnet school (Full disclosure: My daughter is one of Leslie Blue’s students).As one of the St. Continue Reading

‘Creepy’ and ‘invasive’ school district survey revised for 2013-2014

“We all feel like a family.”“My teacher is distracted by other children.”“What adults do you live with?” (Followed by a list of options)These are examples of the questions and statements given to all Minneapolis Public Schools students, in grades K-12, last year, as part of the district’s use of the Tripod Project. The Tripod Project, which is based on Harvard Professor Ron Ferguson’s work, is a survey given to students in order to gather information about students, their teachers, and what goes on in classrooms across the district.Ferguson originally created the Tripod survey as a way to assess whether what he called the “7Cs Framework of Effective Teaching” was taking place in schools. These “7Cs” are based on what Ferguson sees as important teaching practices, such as showing “care” for students, practicing good “control” in the classroom, and delivering lessons that “captivate” students. The Tripod survey grew out of this framework, and asks students to agree with statements and answer questions, such as the ones listed above.For Minneapolis Public Schools teacher Flory Sommers, asking students how they feel about school is a good idea, but she has been critical of the approach favored by the district, through the Tripod Project. For Sommers, telling kids we “care about what they think,” and then giving them a survey that has no open-ended questions, and, in her opinion, many values-laden, leading questions and statements, is problematic.Sommers, who has been a teacher for 32 years, and has worked both at Emerson Spanish Immersion School and Barton Open School as a Spanish and language arts teacher, vividly recalled a kindergarten teacher describing what it was like to give the survey to her young students: One boy, when asked who he lived with, burst into tears, and told the teacher that his father had just moved out. Continue Reading

Southwest Minneapolis principal on evaluations: Every teacher, every year

“Every teacher deserves written feedback each year,” says Bill Smith, principal at Southwest High School in Minneapolis. He sees the evaluation process as a way for each staff member at Southwest to assess teaching and learning and ask, “How can we do it better?” rather than being “just about teachers keeping their jobs.”Here’s an example of how it works. Last year, a successful teacher asked Smith for help in improving student transitions from one activity to another. Smith visited the classroom to observe for 30 minutes, and then “dropped in” twice during different class periods. Then he offered suggestions about class traffic patterns and class flow, and connected the teacher to others in the building who had similar teaching styles. Continue Reading

Teacher evaluation: Finding “fabulous teachers” in Minnesota

For Dave Heistad, evaluating teacher performance is an important way to recognize what he calls the “fabulous teachers” working in Minnesota. In fact, Heistad believes that the strongest teacher evaluation systems are “instructional, not punitive,” and should be used to recognize and reward excellent teachers.Heistad is an expert on evaluating teachers and figuring out what works in the classroom. For twenty-five years, he worked for the Minneapolis Public Schools, both as an evaluator of special programs and as the executive director of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment. Currently, Heistad is the executive director of Research, Evaluation and Testing for the Bloomington schools.In his current work in Bloomington, Heistad says he just finished a study of second grade reading. The teachers who made progress in student achievement in this category, as measured by test results, have been identified, and will soon be presenting their strategies and stories of success to the Bloomington school board. Continue Reading

Minneapolis teacher on what works, what doesn’t in teacher evaluation

Minneapolis Public Schools teacher Caroline Hooper is not against teacher evaluations. She wants the feedback and opportunities for growth that an evaluation process can bring about. However, she wants the evaluations to be used as a “tool,” and not a “hoop” that must be jumped through.At Minneapolis’ Southwest High School, where Hooper teaches AP Government and in a college readiness program called AVID, she describes what she sees as the logistical nightmare of the new teacher evaluation system implemented in the 2012-13 school year. At Southwest, there are 125 teachers and four administrators. Each principal is responsible for evaluating thirty teachers. Continue Reading

Hamline and Teach for America as partners: A mixed review

Teach for America is currently in talks with Hamline University about the partnership the two share, as TFA conducts its summer training “Institutes” in locations around the United States. For now, the TFA/Hamline partnership will continue, but TFA is also hoping to partner with the University of Minnesota, possibly in order to locate a training institute in Minnesota.TFA and Hamline have been partners since 2009, when TFA first came to Minnesota.  Since that time, according to Hamline, 152 TFA recruits have enrolled in the program, and “more than 140” of them have completed the two year commitment. TFA’s public relations person, Jackie Primeau, offered slightly different numbers, saying that “We had 142 corps members total enter classrooms in the Twin Cities from 2009 through 2011 and 120 completed their two year commitment.” These numbers, from Hamline and TFA, do not include the 39 TFA corps members who worked in Minneapolis classrooms in 2012.Hamline University’s School of Education acts as a host for TFA recruits; they enroll in a post-baccalaureate program and work on obtaining licensure while working as TFA-trained classroom teachers. TFA recruits are required to become traditionally licensed teachers through Hamline by the time their two-year TFA commitment ends. Continue Reading