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To help close Minneapolis’ school achievement gap, address these six things

My purpose is not to lay more blame, but simply to try to peel back the onion to understand how we as adults fail make the changes our children so desperately need.

Pam Costain has retired as president and CEO of AchieveMpls; the following is excerpted from Costain’s remarks at her retirement party on Wednesday.

Pam Costain
Pam Costain

Over the past 10 years I have been in hundreds of meetings and thousands of individual conversations that go something like this: “I don’t get it. Why does Minneapolis have such persistent achievement and opportunity gaps?” “What are we doing wrong? How can it be that this affluent and caring community is not able to make a greater difference for low income kids and children of color?” The conversation then tends to go over and over the same issues.

I have participated in these conversations, led these conversations and sat in the back of the room stewing about what is or is not being said in these conversations. I have been and am still frustrated, so I want to talk frankly about two areas that are rarely, if ever discussed, but which I know affect student outcomes. The first is how adult decisions and behavior maintain the status quo and consistently thwart real change. The second is how unexamined racism and white privilege often end up hurting the youngest among us.

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I approach these issues with humility. I have lived these struggles, made my own mistakes and frequently grieve our lack of progress. My purpose is not to lay more blame, but simply to try to peel back the onion to understand how we as adults fail make the changes our children so desperately need.

There are six areas where I see adult resistance to change and/or unexamined racism affecting our children: inaction by our elected state leaders, bureaucracy in the Minneapolis Public Schools, poor governance of our school district, wrong-headedness on the part of reformers, silence on the part of progressives and white people’s attitudes about children of color.

Elected state leadership

Democratic leadership in the governor’s office and the Minnesota Legislature has demonstrated a distressing lack of urgency about the achievement gap – not only in urban areas, but throughout our entire state. The statistics about how vast numbers of poor, black, brown and Native students are not proficient in reading or math or are not “on track” to graduate are alarming. Yet, in response to what can only be called a crisis that impacts not only the young people themselves, but also the future of our state, Democrats generally offer status quo solutions and a call for more money for education. 

There is no question that our schools need more reliable and consistent sources of funding, but we also need new and innovative policy solutions. The two parties could decide both to invest more money in our schools and to change policies and practices that do not serve kids well. This impasse we have at the state level is a tragedy, but I know can be overcome; all it would take is political courage and the will to do things differently.

Let me give you one example of how this impasse is manifest. For decades Democrats fought the establishment of charter schools and many continue to demonize them to this day. Yet when charter advocates sought legislation to strengthen their sector by making it easier to shut down poor performing schools, Dems would not support the legislation. Why? We presume it was because if poor-performing charters could be shut down, then poor-performing traditional public schools might also face the same fate. But my question is, “Why should any child be left in a school that is failing?”

Central administration

Being wedded to the status quo is unfortunately the definition of a large, centralized bureaucracy such as Minneapolis Public Schools. I don’t have to tell you how much I love Minneapolis Public Schools and how much I admire many of the people who work at the Davis Center. Yet, despite exceptional talent and wicked smart people who work unbelievably hard, central administration of MPS takes forever to make decisions, often fails to follow through on decisions and plans they do make and perhaps most distressing, does not truly listen to the voices of teachers, principals and support staff in the buildings when those people try to say what is and is not working.

We have squandered years of good ideas, strong initiatives and the talent of our staff because the bureaucracy moves either too slowly or inconsistently, and is not able to build authentic two-way communication.

Governance of our schools

If any of you have attended a DFL endorsing convention for school board then you know what I am talking about when I say that system is the definition of adult dysfunction. Many of us go to conventions because we care and want to participate in grassroots decision-making. When we get there we soon learn this is an insider’s game with arcane rules, endless delays, a party line that cannot be breached and a process designed to drive all but the most masochistic away.

Yet it is precisely this process that by and large determines who will be elected to the Minneapolis School Board. If you want to serve on the board, you had better master the intricacies of the DFL city convention. I did it, others do it, but frankly, it is no way to pick leaders for our schools.

If we want to improve our schools, we must improve the governance of our school system. That begins with changing the endorsing process, developing a mechanism for an authentic citywide conversation about our public schools, finding strong candidates to run for office and then holding our elected officials accountable for results.

And something has to be done about school board meetings. They are now routinely four- or five-hour marathons, filled with disruptions and diversions from the published agenda. Board meetings consistently do not focus on student achievement or on evaluating programs that are producing results. They are disheartening to attend and a disservice to those who come to learn and contribute to the discussion.

My people – the reformers

Those of us who consider ourselves education reformers – that includes me – also have our adult issues. Many of us come to school reform with deep roots in progressive politics, a concern about equity and a lived commitment to the public schools where our children and grandchildren attend. Still we have made mistakes. We have been arrogant and have communicated, unwittingly I believe, contempt for teachers and the teaching profession. The respect many teachers deserve has not been core to the narrative of the reformers. Admittedly our narrative has been distorted by those who disagree with us, but we also have to take responsibility for how our words and actions have driven committed educators away when what we actually need their participation to build is a common effort to strengthen public schools.

And if we are honest, some people in the reform camp do not have any real loyalty to our public schools. They attended private schools and their own children and grandchildren go to private schools. They unquestionably care about the achievement of children of color, but their experiences are separated from schools and neighborhoods in the city. As a result of this privilege, some reformers see only failing schools, but not the unequal social structures that contribute to the challenge of educating all children well.

In a very rare occurrence some years ago, a union organizer sat down to talk with me about school issues. We agreed and disagreed about many things, but finally she asked me, “Where were school reformers when the Legislature was discussing the minimum wage?” Her reasonable question had a big impact on me. Where ARE education reformers when it comes to issues like income disparities, housing segregation, paid sick leave or a myriad of other issues that impact the ability of families to provide for their children?

Let me be clear: I reject the notion that only when we have addressed poverty can we address our failing schools. Improving our schools, especially those with our poorest children, needs to happen right now. Yet I also reject the notion that we can improve our schools fundamentally without addressing structures of inequality that destabilize families and leave them without the means to support their children.

The silence of progressives

I am appalled — and I mean really appalled — that so many progressive friends, union activists and community organizers are silent on the failure of poor, black, brown and indigenous students in our schools. It is difficult for me to understand how people can have so much outrage about the banks, the corporations, the police, city council, the mayor, the fossil fuel industry, or our criminal justice system and yet demonstrate so little concern for the violation of the civil and human rights of children of color within education. This blind spot saddens and perplexes me.

One education issue that does claim the attention of social-justice activists is the differential discipline and oversuspension of children of color. This is a really serious issue in our district and elsewhere, but it is not the only issue that affects black and brown students.

Let’s collectively name our failure to educate all children well and to demand this becomes a priority issue. As part of that we need to be willing to discuss the crucial role teachers play in the success or failure of children. Protecting teachers who are not able to get the job done does not serve anyone. It only means that the poorest children will continue to suffer the most as they are the most likely to get those teachers.

The subtlety of racism

Finally, I want to address myself to white people about two areas of concern. The first is low expectations for children of color and the second is the de facto segregation in our schools and neighborhoods. These are very tough issues to discuss in our liberal city, but we need to have the conversation.

Low expectations for children of color permeate our culture and consciousness and represent one of the most subtle forms of racism. When we expect less, demand less, and accept less from children of color, then we do them a disservice. These attitudes and practices widen the gap rather than close it, and leave many kids ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the world they will inherit. We have to truly believe in the capacity of all children to succeed as our first imperative and then work like crazy to provide the conditions and support to make that promise a reality.

Finally, let’s talk about how housing segregation, neighborhood boundaries and, yes, the choices parents make about which schools their children attend all contribute to the gap between poor students and their more affluent peers. We do not want to believe that our personal choices have racist undertones, but when white people pack themselves into overcrowded schools, leaving nearby high-poverty schools with lots of space, when MPS employees do not send their own children to our schools or send them only to certain schools, and when efforts to address equity in our schools are met with active and sustained resistance by white and middle-class parents who are concerned their children will lose out, then we have a problem. We have a problem aligning our beliefs with our actions, our concerns with our actual commitments.

I know we can create a truly outstanding public school system that works for the benefit of all children. I know we have it in our power to leave adult squabbling behind and focus instead on what needs to be done for our youth. I know great things are happening every day in our schools and that those things must be lifted up and celebrated. So here are some of the bright lights in our schools and community that sustain and inspire me.

  • The revival of Roosevelt High School as a school of choice, built on a firm foundation of social justice, teaching excellence, the healing power of the arts and celebration of difference.
  • The commitment of white parents in Kingfield to challenge their own racism and continue to help build an inclusive and integrated Lyndale School community.
  • The sustained gains in graduation rates at Patrick Henry High School that prove that high-poverty schools can also be high performing schools.
  • The exceptional work of the STEP-UP, one of the nation’s leading youth employment programs, that this week placed nearly 2,000 young people in summer jobs.
  • The amazing energy and commitment that is poured into the students of Lucy Laney, creating one of the strongest communities of love and support in the entire city.
  • The strong teacher leadership and the power of site-based solutions found in our Community Partnership Schools, but especially at Bancroft, the school I know best.
  • The outstanding gains in student achievement made not only in some of our great charter schools, but also at Green Central.
  • The power of Achieve’s Career and College Center staff to inspire youth to believe in their dreams and make a plan to realize them.
  • The sense of community at Edison High School and Sanford Middle School with a student body that truly reflects the United Nations.
  • The role of our amazing Graduation Coaches who help guide and support students who are most vulnerable to not getting over that finish line.
  • And finally, the excitement of graduation for all students, but especially for so many young people who might otherwise be left behind – those who are homeless, who have experienced trauma, who are refugees, who are teen parents, who made mistakes and then overcome their mistakes, who thought they couldn’t do it but were convinced by a teacher, counselor, coordinator, support staff or an employment supervisor that they are worthy, capable and meant to succeed. This is what makes it all worth it.

We cannot move forward without reckoning how adult resistance to change has, for at least a decade, held us back in this Minneapolis Public Schools and in public education generally. But with strong relationships with one another, a firm belief in the promise of the beloved community and an unwavering commitment to the future, we can make Minneapolis Public Schools the premier urban school district in the nation and a source of pride for our entire community. 

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