School Reformers’ Choir: Minneapolis Mayoral Candidates All Sing From Same Hymnal

Minneapolis Schools: Slippery Roads Ahead

Minneapolis Schools: Slippery Roads Ahead

Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, The UpTake live-streamed a Minneapolis Mayoral debate on education. The candidates seemed remarkably similar in their stances, considering the intensity of the debate surrounding public schools. So we asked Rob Levine, a critic of the school reform movement, to give us his take on this important issue.

Guest commentary for The UpTake from Rob Levine

“That sounded like a sermon -– wow!

So enthused Nekima Levy-Pounds, moderator of Monday’s Minneapolis Mayoral Education Forum at the Mill City Museum at the conclusion of candidate Don Samuels’ rousing remarks. “Seems like we need to pass the collection plate!”

Like a tent revival, the education forum had an audience –- congregation? — of true believers, more like a sect, really. Only instead of being united in a belief in God, the reformers -– I call them “deformers” — are united in a belief in a specific set of education policies we’re all familiar with: Pressurizing teachers, “school choice,” standardized testing, “accountability”, charter schools, and vouchers.

The comparison of education reform advocacy with religious faith only goes so far. This event, after all — sponsored by MinnCan, Teach For America and a host of other education reform lobbying groups — was aimed at political, not spiritual transformation. The real underlying purpose of the meeting was to vet and pressurize potential leaders and to try and shape the mayoral campaign in Minneapolis. That sounds audacious, but this is a big, well-funded, and well-connected congregation.

Deformers have a fundamental problem: We already know what makes good schools -– small class sizes, experienced, trained and collaborating teachers, arts, music and physical education, good physical plant, wrap-around services for impoverished students, and parental outreach. And the truth is that right now voters won’t pay for those things. Remember how we just had to close dozens of schools for half a week because they don’t have air conditioning? That inconvenient truth was not mentioned as this meeting.

The “reformers” who gathered Monday night have only one response to this problem — mass hypnosis. They pretend we don’t know what makes great schools so they can continually suggest new cures that deflect inquiries into why we have opportunity gaps in the first place -– poverty is the proven culprit, as a couple of the candidates acknowledged weakly. The reformers’/deformers’ prime projection is the scapegoating of teachers for the sins of an entire society. If nothing else, this education forum proved how little contenders for high office actually understand about the subject, and how scared they are of the accumulated power of the deformers.

Mark Andrew, a candidate who dared earlier in the week to question charter schools, was forced to climb down a rung or two and to steal a line from Michele Bachmann about how he has a “titanium spine” when it came to standing up to teachers’ unions.

Technically this was a mayoral candidate forum, but with only six of 35 candidates on the dais the group was hardly representative of the whole spectrum of possible views on education policy. How were the six chosen? MinnCan didn’t say. But one thing was clear: Organizers weren’t about to allow a heretic such as candidate Doug Mann, who almost alone opposes the methods on display Monday night, into the room.

The discourse at the forum was full of straw men, cliches and cognitive dissonance. Candidate after candidate said schools have to be “child-centered.” Duh. Many said testing had gone too far, yet advocated for “real-time” testing in “all subject areas,” which would essentially turn schools into testing factories. The dogma was flying fast. Candidates railed against those who opposed them as “defending the status quo,” and equated running an education system with running a business.

One candidate, Independence Party endorsee Stephanie Woodruff, suggested that no student should go “un-tableted.” Just where the funds for such an extravagance would come from — or research suggesting this was pedagogically desirable — was not explained. No candidate said the district should perhaps install air conditioning in schools to deal with 100 degree classrooms in late August and early June.

Candidates argued for a highly-trained teaching corps, where they are schooled in things like “cultural competence” and skilled in recognizing students who suffer from parental neglect or incompetence in various areas and fill in those gaps. Yet every one of the candidates supported using Teach For America recruits in Minneapolis Public Schools. It remained an article of faith how those young TFA teachers would have those kinds of skills when their only educational training is a five week crash course before entering their first classroom.

Candidates also decried the suspension and discipline rates for black students at schools – said to be seven times the rate for white students. No one mentioned that those same high suspension rates are at least partly responsible for the success rates on high-stakes tests for many charter schools. In his defense, Don Samuels decried the suspension rates for African-American boys and said in many cases it was wrong to expel them. He said we should “put our arms around them,” instead. I was waiting in vain for one candidate to say we should put our arms around the schools themselves.
Nor did anyone seriously question the efficacy or validity of the tests. This despite growing cheating scandals across the nation, and an in-depth investigative report released this week by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showing that “Miscalculated scores, flawed questions and other errors on standardized tests have become near commonplace in public schools across the country…”

Similarly when the candidates were asked whether they were for closing “low performing” charter and regular public schools, they all answered in the affirmative. Are they aware that the research surrounding the closing of such schools, at least as it pertains to regular public schools, suggests it is a failed strategy? That almost all of the closed schools serve impoverished and minority students and that the new schools do no better, and often worse, than the schools that were closed?

Samuels infamously once remarked that he like to have seen Minneapolis North High School “burned down.” He figuratively got his wish when a school choice program allowed students there to attend schools outside the district, resulting in the loss of most of the school’s students over a short period of time and its eventual restructuring into a greatly diminished institution, after serving as a community bedrock for more than 100 years.

The story is much the same for charter schools, where extensive studies, both nationally and in Minnesota, have shown they don’t have superior test scores, and in many cases produce inferior test scores. Charters were also touted as a way to diversify schools, yet they have had the exact opposite effect. The oft-cited Harvest Prep charter -– mentioned favorably at least twice during the forum — is 99% black and 90% poor. Every candidate at the forum expressed support for an education policy that that holds up segregated schools as exemplars. Not one person on stage said the word “segregation.”

Many other thorny questions went unasked. What is the danger of teaching to the test, as for example Harvest Prep has admitted. What is the danger in judging schools on tests only in reading, math and science? What is omitted? How much democracy are we willing to give up? Charter School Partners has a plan to open 20 new charter schools in Minneapolis over the next five years. Where will those students come from? What is the price of pressurizing teachers? In an age of skyrocketing college costs and record numbers of college graduates working low wage jobs should we really be inculcating college into second graders?

Heresy, I know.

Eventually the conversation came around to the district’s proposed “Shift” initiative, basically turning the 20 to 30 percent “lowest-performing” schools into charter-like animals, with more freedom -– especially from teacher hiring and firing rules -– more pay, longer days and hours, and more “accountability.” The district will be asking teachers to gamble on their own future. Take on a difficult challenge, maybe get paid a little more, but also be more at risk of losing your job, often times due to factors beyond your own control.

All the candidates expressed unqualified support for the program. Describing the district’s fight with the teachers union over provisions in the Shift idea, Republican Cam Winton kept with the religious metaphor, describing Superintendent Johnson as “… like Moses on the mountain,” comparing the outlines of her Shift initiative to the prophet’s “tablets on the mountain.”

Always with the tablets.

As for the impact of the forum,MinnCan’s Daniel Sellers told me in an email afterward that he’s “Really proud of how it went. You can quote me on that.” It went well for his tribe, no doubt. But for the rest of us? Not so much. Democratically controlled public education is hitting an existential crisis in Minnesota, driven by the education deformers. The city is trying to essentially charter-ize a third of its own schools while a private group is promising to open 20 new actual charter schools in the city. Teaching is threatened as a profession. Sellers’ side, far from being rebels, have become the status quo.

They may be winning in Minneapolis, for now, but there might be trouble brewing for them in other parts of the country.

Rob Levine is the founder of Cursor.org, a late, lamented, groundbreaking web-only news aggregator and publisher that was produced in Minneapolis. He has been a follower of local and national education policy for 20 years.

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