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Minneapolis Public Schools: The system needs a reboot

Recently, I attended a Minneapolis Public Schools Board meeting that focused on two key initiatives that the district is introducing in an effort to improve outcomes for students. The first initiative is the 20/20 Plan, which focuses on achieving a certain threshold of overall improvement by 2020. A key criticism of the 20/20 initiative is that it sounds a lot like the previous strategic plan that was introduced in 2007, which despite best laid plans, went on a “bridge to nowhere.”

Nekima Levy-Pounds
Nekima Levy-Pounds

Another recent effort by the district is the establishment of an Office of Black Male Student Achievement, which is focused on closing the academic and high school graduation rate gap between African-American boys and white students in the district. It is an open secret that black boys in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) are falling through the cracks at alarming rates.

According to graphs that were presented at the Aug. 12 school board meeting, black boys in MPS lag far behind their peers in every other metro school district in reading and math proficiency. In addition to being miseducated and undereducated, these students are being pushed out of classrooms through disproportionate placement in special education and alternative placements, are sometimes labeled as having emotional behavioral disorder, and face disciplinary action and criminal justice impacts at alarming rates — often for minor, non-violent infractions such as insubordination or defiance.

Discipline rate is problematic

The high rate of discipline among African-American boys is problematic in that these students are missing valuable classroom time and may be implicitly sent the message that they do not belong in a school setting. The cumulative effects of structural racism and misguided polices negatively impact the overall well-being and development of black boys and impedes their ability to effectively transition into adulthood.

As an audience member attending the MPS school board meeting, I found myself growing more and more disheartened and frustrated with the district as I listened to statistic after statistic that referenced the so-called “failure of black boys” within the district. I wondered how adults who work within the system and those of us outside of the system could sit back and tolerate such injustice. One would think that there would be outrage and protests and calls for resignations under such circumstances. Instead, the response is to politely say again and again, “We are going to fix the problem.”

As much as I would like to believe that the new initiatives will be effective, I am not confident in the district’s ability to effectively solve problems that it has helped to create and sustain over the years. Additionally, when community members and parents raise concerns about decision-making within the district, they are often seen as “distractions,” rather than as key stakeholders who deserve a seat at the table.

Sadly, it seems that Minneapolis Public Schools has grown comfortable in its failure to meet the basic needs of the majority of students who attend school in the district.  In fact, last week when the disturbing results of the MCAs (Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests) were revealed, MPS actually sent out a press release seemingly “celebrating” its lack of success. In her MinnPost column, Learning Curve, Beth Hawkins shines a light on the high rates of failure within MPS.

Just over half graduate on time

This raises the question: How is it possible that a district with a budget of nearly $800 million could be allowed to fail to properly educate its students and prepare them to enter our future work force? It is appalling that just over half (54 percent) of the students in the district graduate high school on time. If we disaggregate the data by race, the statistics are even more damning, with just 37 percent of American Indian students, 41 percent of Latino students, 43 percent of African-American students, and 68 percent of Asian students graduating in four years.

And less we think that white students are so far ahead of the curve, fewer than three-quarters (72 percent) of white students in the district are graduating on time. When our students do not graduate high school on time and/or are unprepared for the work force, we end up spending more money on the back-end through the costs of additional years in school, remedial education, criminal-justice involvement, social services, and missed financial contributions to Minnesota’s economy, including tax revenues — as well as the loss of precious human capital to increase our levels of economic competitiveness regionally, nationally, and even globally. Thus, we must and we can do better. This is not a matter of children or their parents being deficient, but the system itself may be fundamentally flawed and most definitely is in need of a reboot. 

We must ask critical questions

If we are to change how the system functions, we must use our voices to become advocates for change. The process of advocacy starts by asking critical questions, digging deep for answers, deciding that we are not satisfied with answers that merely reinforce the status quo, and demanding accountability of district leadership at all levels of the equation.

As an educated community that prides itself on progressive values, we must become more engaged and inquisitive about what is happening within our public school system as a whole, and in particular why students in MPS are falling through the cracks. This is not a new problem, which perhaps explains the collective silence about this issue. But this is a problem that must be met with a new sense of urgency and a refusal to tolerate failure within our school system.

Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas and the founder and director of the Community Justice Project, an award-winning civil rights legal clinic.  


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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/02/2014 - 09:28 am.

    Am I Missing Something?

    Is there any substance in this post? All I see are the same figures about a lack of student achievement, coupled with the same complaints about the Minneapolis School Board not listening, and not doing anything to change those figures.

    Is there anything specific that you had in mind, Professor Levy-Pounds? Or are you just complaining?

    “One would think that there would be outrage and protests and calls for resignations under such circumstances. Instead, the response is to loudly say again and again, ‘You have to fix the problem.'”

    • Submitted by Michael Peterson on 09/02/2014 - 12:59 pm.

      You’re not wrong that Professor Levy-Pounds doesn’t explicitly provide any action steps toward resolving the problem (though she does allude to involving more community stakeholders as being necessary). However, it’s completely disingenuous and unfair to describe the article as “complaining.”

      You clearly don’t have to agree that focusing on systemic racism in our schools should be a priority, but requiring a specifically articulated vision from anyone who identifies the problem is ridiculous. Making changes in systems is slow, nonlinear, and almost never comes from the top. Specific suggestions fall so far short of the enormity of the problem that they’re easily and frequently rebuffed (e.g., “we need more teachers of color” is followed by “you think that’s the magical cure-all?!”). If anyone were capable of articulating a step-by-step process for eliminating the problem, we wouldn’t still have it.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/02/2014 - 02:40 pm.

        Specific suggestions

        No suggestions, because someone will rebuff them as not being comprehensive? That’s kind of sad.

        The problem is enormous, as you point out. Is it truly helpful to point out the problem and then demand that the School Board come up with comprehensive solutions of its own? Or, since change almost never comes from the top, why bother making demands of the School Board?

        • Submitted by Michael Peterson on 09/02/2014 - 03:56 pm.

          It’s not sad, it’s necessary. If avoiding uncomfortable feelings associated with unearned privilege is gymnastics, jumping to “action steps,” attacking the messenger, and picking apart the message are as basic as somersaults, cartwheels, and walking on the balance beam. And yes, it is helpful to point out the problem, repeatedly (I suppose Dr. King should have only given one speech on the problems of inequity and all of his, or anyone else’s, subsequent efforts were “complaining”). If people aren’t constantly attempting to raise awareness of these issues, comfortable people go back to living comfortable lives and their attention shifts to the next news cycle, some celebrity’s dress, or the new fall programming on AMC.

          Just for reference, a group of organized citizens making demands of those in power isn’t top-down change, it’s the very definition of bottom-up.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/02/2014 - 04:16 pm.

            Demands being made

            The only demands I see being made are demands that the Minneapolis School Board do something. What they are supposed to do is put in the most vague ways possible (“Change things!” “Reboot!”). That is not “bottom-up.”

            Dr. King had specific goals. He did not just stand there and demand that people do something without telling them what to do.

  2. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/02/2014 - 10:03 am.


    I would like to see some actual numbers about discipline as opposed to saying things like “often for minor, non-violent infractions.” The infractions of the kids that have been suspended and expelled from my child’s school are neither minor or non-violent. Is there data about what exactly kids get disciplined for in Minneapolis?

    My child also talks about disruptive kids being removed from the classroom, and I remember the same thing happening at my predominantly white schools growing up. If the disruptive kids stay in the classroom, then no one learns anything. Maybe the definition of disruptive is different in this case. Do we know what kind of behavior is getting kids removed from class?

  3. Submitted by Peter Mikkalson on 09/02/2014 - 11:56 am.

    This is a lot like the Stribs famous calls to inaction…

    Of course the situation simply cries out for more consultants, staff and tons of money to be thrown at it. After all it’s worked so well in the past-for the players that is-the taxpayers-not so much.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/02/2014 - 01:35 pm.

    With all due respect, while the school system deserves a lot of the blame for failing black students, you are remiss not to note that what some people consider parenting needs a reboot as well.

    You cannot spend their formative early years ignoring kids at home and drop them off at school expecting them to know how to behave. We cannot forget that for all it’s faults, the public school system’s hands are tied when it comes to creatively managing unruly students. In most cases, teachers have no choice but to remove them completely.

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/02/2014 - 04:50 pm.

    hitting the wrong target

    I suspect the blame assigned the school system is somewhat misplaced & that instead the problems attributed to MPS are indicative of larger problems in society.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/02/2014 - 05:18 pm.

      The target

      Exactly! While there is much that schools can and should do, the public needs to remember that the schools are largely a reflection of society’s priorities. Blaming the achievement gap on the schools alone is to pretend that public schools exist in a vacuum.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/03/2014 - 06:15 am.

    Law school professors

    The problem with law school professors is that they are much better in compiling lists of questions than providing answers to them. In this case, the focus of questions, in particular the complaints about slow graduation, are a bit off the point. Graduation, after all, is something that can be provided with a stroke of a pen, or a computer keyboard, perhaps; it isn’t in itself, sufficient evidence that we are teaching effectively.

    And that’s the issue isn’t it? Are we teaching effectively, and how do we teach better? Top down statistical analyses, often from non educational types often seem to come up short in answering those questions.

  7. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 09/04/2014 - 07:00 am.

    Thanks and learning from successful schools

    Thanks to professor Levy-Pounds for raising these concerns. As she says, being dissatisfied with the status quo is a key first step.

    As to solutions…Cincinnati district eliminated the high school graduation gap between white and African American students starting in 2000 and achieving this by 2008 – by working simultaneously outside and inside schools. Here’s the story:

    No effective school or system makes much progress by blaming the students or families. Improvements are needed inside schools, and in careful collaboration between schools and the broader community. Cincinnati did both.

  8. Submitted by Mark Naison on 09/08/2014 - 03:58 pm.

    Genuine Community Voices Need to Be Included

    As someone who has followed events in Minneapolis Schools for some time, I am not surprised by this author’s comments. Well financed School Reformers who see Charter Schools and Teach for America as the path to educational equity have dominated school planning in Minneapolis. But having revolving door teaching staffs largely drawn from outside the state have, almost everywhere they have been tried, weakened the communities high needs schools are located in., How about a different approach- one that emphasized public schools that are round the clock community centers, that hire neighborhood residents to work in them, and try as much as possible to recruit teachers either from these communities or willing to settle in the communities where their schools are located and work in them a long time. Imposing an educational model created outside neighborhoods and staffed by people with no long term connections to neighborhoods is not working. Time to go back to the drawing board in Minneapolis and around the nation.

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