by Rob Levine
Nov 10, 2014, 8:51 AM

Let’s show our schools some love

With the midterm elections behind us, along with a local school board election that saw a geometric rise in spending, it might seem an inopportune time to discuss education policy. Then again, outside the odd hyperbole and coded language of campaigns may be just the right time and place to step back for a clearer perspective.

Taking the wide view we see a virtual war being fought over public education nationwide, and right here in Minneapolis. The fight over education makes one wonder why is it that we cannot just hug our public schools in a loving embrace instead of embroiling them in a culture of permanent contentiousness and change. We repeat over and over again failed experiments on our most vulnerable children, all the while ignoring methods proven to enhance educational attainment.

Make no mistake about it: What we are doing to K-12 education is performing experiments that are proven to be failures, creating chaos, educational malpractice, and disillusion among our front-line public servants, our teachers. I challenge one advocate of the so-called education “reform” movement to show one peer-reviewed academic study where unregulated “school choice,” an overuse of high-stakes standardized testing, and segregation, for example, brought good results.

The truth is quite the opposite.

Year after year, school board after school board, superintendent after superintendent, Minneapolis and other school districts across the state and country shift gears and strategies according to the latest fad favored by politically-connected plutocrats. Any systems engineer will tell you that continually changing strategies and methods is a recipe for disaster.

In fact, on a local level, listening to and watching Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is a dispiriting experience. When there was a test-score crisis at the Lucy Laney School in north Minneapolis I had a brief moment where I thought Johnson had it right. She did not blame the teachers; instead, she seemed to support a call for more teachers to be sent to the school, thereby advocating for the proven strategy of reducing class size.

This one action on her part shows me that Johnson can choose to do the right thing. Which raises the question: Why instead does the she let herself be led around by foundation-funded confidence men and women, giving superficial speeches and touting the exciting new plan of the day? One day the superintendent is all about the “Reset.” Then the “Shift.”

After that she wanted to create a “Portfolio” of different types of schools. That last one revealed her ignorance of good education pedagogy – the equivalent of throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what sticks. Her words and deeds seem to reflect whatever the big local foundations might be pushing this season.

So here’s my plan: We first need to replace the superintendent. She seems to understand what a good education requires as demonstrated by her actions at Lucy Laney. So she knows what would be best, but she’s not advocating for lower class sizes and shifting resources to staffing needs. Johnson needs to go. We need someone serious.

One place we could get money for more teachers is from the district’s headquarters, which is bloated and placing a drag on our system. We should do away with the Office of New Schools. This is no time to get involved with diversions like sponsoring or making special deals with charter schools. The district creating new schools when it has so many existing ones in need is like a breadwinner leaving a struggling family to start a shiny new one somewhere else. It’s abandonment.

And the office of technology is a mess. This might be due to the current administration’s fascination with data and numbers; in any event it is yet another example of mismanagement.

The new intense teacher evaluation system is a waste of time and money – and again, distracts from educational practice. In fact, the whole program of state mandated evaluations is a boondoggle. This unfunded demand from the legislature is an albatross around our necks, and the standards themselves are bureaucratic and incomprehensible.  When you have kindergartners’ evaluations of their teachers playing a part in their professional rankings you know reform has gone comically and tragically astray. The teacher evaluation law needs to be repealed. It is the principal’s job to evaluate the teachers in her school. If she needs help we’ll give her help.

We also need to drastically cut down on testing. It is expensive, distracts from the learning environment, and provides numbers that are neither accurate nor interesting. Testing has fallen prey to Campbell’s Law, coined by social psychologist Donald Campbell in 1976:

The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

We’re well past the point of Campbell’s warning in Minneapolis. Our most touted charter school is a deliberately segregated place where the head of the school openly admits he teaches to the test in a drill-and-kill style. This is no way for a school to operate in a fast changing world like ours where people need to have a lifelong love of learning.

My last idea is to professionalize the school board. It makes no sense to have school board elections where a half million dollars is spent and then pay the nine elected board members less than $15 thousand a year. The small salary encourages vanity campaigns and the intervention of strong outside interests. In a district that spends $630 million a year we can afford to pay board members at least the city’s median wage. We would all benefit from professional school board members who are paid commensurate with working regular hours and the dedication required to do the job well.

In short, we need to show our schools some love. We’ve tried all kinds of radical experiments and they haven’t worked. More experimentation on our most vulnerable children is immoral when we know what our schools really need. It’s time to face the reality that taking the stick to our schools is a counterproductive strategy.

If we instead put our arms around our schools, our teachers, our staff and our children we will show what the “reformers” always pretend to show: That we really do care about the kids.


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