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Education forum elicits specifics — in plain language — from mayoral candidates


The Minneapolis mayoral forum on education courtesy of the UpTake.

No matter the winner of the mayor’s race at the ballot box, Minneapolis has already experienced a victory. Monday night, six candidates participated in a sold-out forum at which they were asked direct, pointed questions about their education platforms.

For the most part, they answered. And in lay-friendly, impassioned English — not the risk-averse code that typically plagues local candidate forums in a nearly one-party town.

The star of the evening: Moderator Nekima Levy-Pounds, the University of St. Thomas law professor who insisted on answers from candidates who tried to duck pointed questions, shut down speechifying and interjected enough wit to keep the air breathable.

“This,” she noted several times in a voice that was far more appreciative than censorious, “is not Minnesota Nice.”

Fueled in part by the publication in this space Monday of a lengthy Q&A in which Mayor R.T. Rybak made blunt remarks about his would-be successors’ strengths and weaknesses, the forum was respectful and constructive — but definitely not Minnesota Nice.

Sponsored by the MinnCAN, the African American Leadership Forum, the Chicano Latino Affairs Council, the Community Justice Project, the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, Teach for America, the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, Students For Education Reform, Students First and Put Kids First Minneapolis the capacity event was streamed live online. It’s available for viewing at The Uptake.

The candidates present were Mark Andrew, Jackie Cherryhomes, Betsy Hodges, Don Samuels, Stephanie Woodruff and Cam Winton.

Commitments made

By the end of the evening, each of the candidates had committed to backing Minneapolis Public Schools’ “Shift” proposal — albeit squishily in a couple of instances — to demanding an end to “last in, first out” teacher layoff practices, with caveats on Andrew's part, and to the continued presence of alternatively trained Teach for America (TFA) corps members in MPS schools.

Samuels was the most effusive of the group, all but jumping out of his seat to underscore his remarks. “It sounds like we ought to pass a collection plate,” Levy-Pounds joked at one point.

Winton and Hodges made sure the audience was reminded of the criticisms Rybak leveled at Andrew in the MinnPost interview, with Winton proposing a “pop quiz” to identify the candidate whose past remarks qualified as “deeply stupid” and “garbage.” Hodges also took issue with Andrew’s remarks, as enumerated by Rybak, tying education reform to the Koch brothers.  

Winton and Samuels were the most specific in their remarks and biting in their criticism of the status quo. Hodges’ written platform is comprehensive and practical — and perhaps too nuanced to communicate tidily at a fast-moving forum.

Of all of those on the dais, Andrew stood to lose the most at the forum, convened by a host of organizations that aren’t his natural constituency. He originally RSVP’d that a conflict prevented him from attending, but then arranged to attend.

Some surprising answers from Andrew

His answers to many of the questions were surprising. At an appearance a month ago, Andrew remarked that he had “never been a fan of charter schools.” Monday night, he seemed to reverse himself.

“I am a very strong supporter of school choice and always have been,” he said. “We need to make sure all of those options are available, all of those models are available.”

At the same August event Andrew also received an endorsement from MPS teacher Jim Thomas, who had been running for mayor in part “to fight against lowering teacher qualifications” by hiring TFA recruits to work in MPS schools.

Nekima Levy-Pounds
Nekima Levy-Pounds

“Clearly, TFA is part of the solution,” Andrew told the 300-plus people in attendance at the Mill City Museum. “They are truly among the best and the brightest.”

This drew a reaction from Hodges. “We need a mayor who hasn’t picked a side,” she said near the forum’s end. “We need a mayor who says the same thing wherever she goes.”

Throughout, Levy-Pounds kept participants on their toes. Answers to a question about the rate at which African-American boys are suspended and expelled drew pointed remarks about parenting and about perverse incentives.

The exception: Hodges, who acquired two African-American grandsons by marriage a couple of years ago. If either was suspended, “I would not immediately assume there was something wrong with them,” she said. “I would want to know what was going on in that school.”

Before framing the next query, Levy-Pounds underscored the remark, pointing out that it’s shortsighted to attribute the dramatic disparity in discipline rates to minority children and not the culture of the schools.

Moderator insists on details

When the first question of the evening drew a stump speech instead of a direct answer, Levy-Pounds insisted on specifics: What policies would candidates promote to increase the percentage of MPS’ impoverished minorities who are positioned to graduate from college.

The second candidate to answer, Stephanie Woodruff talked for her allotted 90 seconds about a lack of leadership in education. When Levy-Pounds refused to move on, there was nervous laughter from the others on the dais.

To her credit, Woodruff supplied a reply: She favors Shift, which she believes would give schools the power to progress.

Levy-Pounds pressed on, with a very specific question about the role of standardized testing. Andrew opined that there is too much of it. Cherryhomes would prefer to add continuous assessment and a focus on social-emotional learning. Winton repeated his desire for formative quizzes throughout the year.

“I think we have a problem with our testing program or philosophy,” said Samuels. “Right now we’re testing to see what you know, now how much we need to teach you.”

Woodruff segued from her point to one about technology, vowing to “leave no child untablet-ed.”

Support for Shift initiative

Levy-Pounds next asked about candidates’ support for Shift, which would put the most challenged of Minneapolis Public Schools under an alternative teacher contract that would allow for extended school days, allow principals to hire outside the current teacher pool and pay more to teachers in those schools.

One after another, as the candidates signaled their support for the initiative, several expounded in ways that telegraphed more about their styles.

“I gotta tell you, it ain’t gonna happen unless someone here on this podium who gets elected gets involved,” said Samuels. “Bernadeia is going to need a human shield, and I am a volunteer. ... Powerful forces are working against her.”

Winton said he did not believe MPS and its union, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, were making much progress toward creating the Shift contract. “Bernadeia is like Moses on the mountain,” he said. “I am mixing my metaphors, but she’s got the tablets on the mountain.”

Saying he had “a titanium spine” Andrew insisted that he “has never been in anyone’s pocket."

“We can’t have a mayor who is divisive and a bomb thrower,” he said. “Tonight, I will rise above the cynicism.” 

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Comments (9)

Mayors shouldn't be micro-managing

methods of instruction and testing philosophy. Unless I'm missing something, none of them have the proper credentials to impose their preferred educational models in our classrooms.

What a mayor could do, and the questions in the debate could have focused on, is their position on giving the parents the rights to send their children to the school of their choice. And that means vouchers.

Should parents be given a voucher equivalent to the value of what the city, county and state taxpayers are currently spending per child in the public schools that can be redeemed at ANY k-12 school licensed to operate in the city? Yes or no.

If anything, that would tell us who is on the side of minority parents in this city and who is in the pocket of the teachers union. Then let the voters decide which they prefer.

Thanks for encouraging and then reporting

Thanks to Beth both for encouraging greater discussion of education issues by the mayoral candidates. Then thanks for covering what they said.

Interesting dichotomy

I absolutely agree with Dennis Tester’s first paragraph.

The rest of his paragraphs, however, are unpersuasive.

Vouchers died an unmourned and well-deserved death years ago, and they should be allowed to rest in peace. Unless, that is, what’s desired is a permanent oligarchy, firmly ensconced in both public and private circles, and especially in government, since “choice” in schools does nothing for families of modest income, but allows the well-to-do to finance the private education of their own children, while contributing nothing to the education of the children of the rest of the society.

It’s a perfect recipe for approximating late 18th-century France, and might well have similar consequences.

Beyond that, and while I’m delighted to read (and hear) Ms. Levy-Pounds pin down squirming candidates who’d prefer to speak in platitudes, the entire focus of the discussion and debate seems off-target to me.

The gap that’s receiving so much attention in recent months and years is not a *teacher* achievement gap, as far as I know. If MSD teachers are illiterate bumpkins, products of urban alleys and rural barns who can’t read beyond the 4th grade level, and who wouldn’t recognize a college degree if they were presented with one, then by all means, let’s do away with tenure, and let’s absolutely not allow these uneducated oafs to have even the slightest influence on educational policy and practice locally, regionally, or anywhere.

On the other hand, if MSD teachers have college degrees, with majors in their subject areas, have gone through the process to be licensed by the state, and have acquired several years of experience in actual classrooms, much of the current discussion is based on what, to be polite, I’ll simply label as horsefeathers. While I’m not a supporter of years-of-service being the exclusive measure of someone’s worth to the children, parents and powers-that-be of MSD, I can’t think of another profession wherein critics would have the public *ignore* not just years of experience, but demonstrated intellectual and academic expertise in the form of college and university degrees and certification.

If there is evidence that MSD teachers in, say, mathematics, are simply not presenting their students with mathematical concepts and applications, but instead are frittering their time (and their students’ time) away doing something else, then criticism is not only deserved, it ought to be encouraged. But I’ve seen no credible evidence presented in dozens of MinnPost articles, ‘Strib articles, magazine articles or books on education reform in recent years that make any such suggestion. Teacher-bashing in the cause of closing the achievement gap is simply missing the point.

It’s not a *teacher* achievement gap that has political and economic leaders (rightly) concerned. It’s a *student* achievement gap. The focus ought to be on the students. Acquiring an education is — to use the language so popular among those who like to call themselves “conservative” — the responsibility of the person who is the student. That would be easier to deal with if the culture did, in fact, provide “equal opportunity” to all *before* they reached school age.

It demonstrably does not.

To steal shamelessly from New Jersey senatorial candidate Cory Booker, quoted in this month’s “Harper’s” magazine in an article by Jeff Madrick: “We must acknowledge… that there are large numbers of American children who because of circumstance, are unlikely to be able to take advantage of the best schools or the best teachers… These children are born staring at a mountain they lack the tools to climb…”

I worked a few minor miracles in a classroom myself over the years, but miracles simply don’t happen every day in real life, nor is it realistic for us to expect them. Children have to arrive at school with the proper emotional and intellectual tools, along with pencil and paper, and the cliché remains true, even if it did not originate with me: the single most accurate predictor of academic success is the socioeconomic status of the parent(s). Without investigating in detail, it’s only a guess, but my guess remains that children from Minnetonka and Wayzata do pretty well academically, even if their ethnic background isn’t Caucasian.

The “Why?” of that phenomenon is a lot more difficult to address politically than the current tendency to assume that failure must be the teacher’s fault, while success is exclusively the result of the student’s effort.

yes

An educational forum without teachers. Seriously ? Who are you kidding. Sure we have an educational crisis. This city more importantly has a huge income disparity. Childhood poverty spoken to in the article Ray mentions is the rust in the bridge of our city and it is tumbling down. There ain't no bootstraps on that bridge. Until one of these candidates starts speaking in those terms the truth ain't getting out. You can mncann all you want but it you don't have a foundation meaning time to concentrate on school work without the distractions of povery , your mncann is rusting. And once again where were the teachers for this fake forum ?

Your report of their demise is greatly exaggerated

48 private schools have registered to be part of the Wisconsin Parental School Choice program for the 2013-14 school year.

http://www.wgem.com/story/22978909/2013/07/31/48-private-schools-registe...

And there's this: Students in Milwaukee’s two-decade-old voucher program are more likely to finish high school than their public school peers, new research shows.

The study by University of Minnesota sociologist John Robert Warren found the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) had a graduation rate of 77 percent compared to 65 percent for Milwaukee Public Schools between 2003 and 2008. Looking at all the city’s high schools, Warren estimates 3,352 additional public school students would have graduated high school over the same period if they had received vouchers.

In recent years MPCP has been hit with a number of new state regulations and had its funding cut. The city’s voucher schools operate on costs of $6,442 per pupil, compared to $14,011 for the surrounding school district.

http://heartland.org/sites/all/modules/custom/heartland_migration/files/...

Specifics

Either the writer or the headline writer has a different definition of "specifics" than I do. I heard the forum and heard bupkis. No candidate made a favorable impression. Empty platitudes, irrelevancies, and volume substituting for substance.

Debate

Here is a good review of the debate from Minnesota 2020, for anyone not already in the tank for corporate education deform.

http://mn2020hindsight.org/view/an-education-debate-in-theory

The pandering by all of the candidates was just pathetic.

MPS parent's perspective

As a parent of two kids (7th and 4th grades) in MPS, I went to the event. I was shocked by how contrived it was. A full bar, fancy passed hors dourves and a majority of people under the age of 25. The MN2020 article is spot on.
How about a real debate where parents and students attend/partake? I'm so tired of these people telling me what is happening in our schools by the results of poorly written tests. How about a debate of how bloated MPS administration is? How about the idea of breaking the huge district into several? How about a debate about what real services schools could offer families that they aren't already? I'd like to hear something besides how we need young teachers and charter schools, because frankly that's not what this parent is dreaming of.

One quote from the MN2020 article says it all !

"When asked if they wanted to take accountability for these issues by replacing an elected school board with their own appointees as mayor, all but one candidate preferred to keep this conversation in the abstract, and leave school issues to the school board." http://mn2020hindsight.org/view/an-education-debate-in-theory

The mayor of Minneapolis has no known legal powers or authorities to do ANYTHING about the Minneapolis schools. So why on earth are these folks calling a "forum" to explore the opinions of those with no authority to solve the problem ?

These organizations seem to think that if the mayor huffs and puffs and makes a lot of noise, won't that help improve the schools ? Isn't there a PR solution to the schools' poor performance ? We've had such a mayor, huffing and puffing about education. What benefit has this mayor brought to the Minneapolis schools ? For proof of the obvious answer, simply look at the Minneapolis schools' performance.

Why aren't they focusing attention where those powers actually reside - the local school board, and the legislature, to my knowledge ? And for that matter, as other commenters here have stressed, will anything at all make any difference except a redress of economic disparities ?