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Parents of color want a clearer way to assess schools in Minnesota

State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray: “I think we’re adopting very rigid attitudes as to how things need to be measured, how we need to preserve a system of education that is actually not working for a very large number of students.”

As parents clashed with school officials and the state Education Department over a school accountability proposal in the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, urged school leaders and lawmakers to address the elephant in the room during a session about school diversity, achievement gaps, and other disparities: Families of color don’t trust the state education system.

“I think we’re adopting very rigid attitudes as to how things need to be measured, how we need to preserve a system of education that is actually not working for a very large number of students,” Torres Ray told MinnPost. “We just need to get out of that box and start being more creative.”

Torres Ray raised concerns during a hearing on Senate File 299, a bill that would require the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to establish a five-star rating system for schools. She told MinnPost that several other education policy discussions at the Capitol this session, including on teacher licensure and teacher diversity, follow a similar pattern to the one she saw at the hearing March 13.


“The core question that parents of color, children of color, activists, myself and others are asking is are these goals of inclusivity – attention to these measures that incorporate cultural competency, race, ethnic background – are these measures important enough in education?” she said. “It is precisely because we have these challenges in regard to the student population that we have that we need to be more creative in finding tools that measure growth and are understandable.”

‘See the room and get the message’

SF 299 has history in the Senate committee. A previous version outlined how to calculate the single score based on state testing results. This year’s bill removes all specifics, leaving it up to MDE to determine which data points to use and how to weight them in coming up with a single state-sponsored rating of each school.

“We got rid of all the other controversial items,” Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, chief author of the bill, said. “The citizens will greatly appreciate it.”

But it remained contentious. On the day of its hearing, which coincided with a hearing on SF 1557 (a bill that would tweak the teacher licensure system), teachers, parents, and other school advocates packed the audience. Numerous outbursts, whether of applause or outrage, led to the removal of one member of the audience.

State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, author of the bill, and Daniel Sellers, executive director of Ed Allies, speaking to the Senate Education Committee.
MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf
State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, author of the bill, and Daniel Sellers, executive director of Ed Allies, speaking to the Senate Education Committee.
Advocates for the school ratings bill, many of them people of color, told senators the state’s system of collecting and sharing data on school performance is unclear and confusing. They believe a rating system would give them “a starting point” when deciding where to send their children and how to advocate for them, since data continues to show they perform worse than their white classmates. Proponents asked senators to weigh their perspectives carefully, saying they previously felt dismissed by the committee.

“There’s no one sitting in this room who could right now go on the Minnesota Department of Education website and easily find information. But we’re all aware that the information is out there. So how do we make it simple?” said Rashad Turner of Minnesota Comeback, an education advocacy group. “We know it’s not the end-all, be-all but it is a starting point. As we change the system to work for all families, not just some, it starts with information.”

Opponents’ concerns

Opponents of the bill said it would be impossible to boil down complex schools data into a single rating, and doing so would hurt schools struggling to improve student outcomes in schools serving diverse populations with unique needs, such as those with high rates of students learning English.

Kim Lewis of Minnesota School Boards Association told committee members a star rating system would over-rely on test scores – a move backwards after a new school accountability system, called North Star, was put in place. The program still measures achievement using test scores but also includes broader data points. “This new era of school accountability was an opportunity to leave the punitive … system behind,” she said.


Torres Ray told MinnPost she thinks the state needs to make school data more accessible and understandable to parents. She thinks SF 299 is incomplete, but it would be valuable to develop a system that digs into schools’ ability to teach populations of students with challenging circumstances.

“But we’ve been putting it in our heads that it’s so bad to expose the limitations and struggles of schools,” she said. “We prefer simply not to have a rating system.”

During the committee, she expressed disappointment with testimony from school leaders, as well as an assistant commissioner from the Minnesota Department of Education, who opposed this kind of rating system. They said it was rejected by a majority of stakeholders who attended public meetings about the new North Star system.

“Be creative and think about how you respond to these parents. I believe there was support … to figure out how to make our system accountable to predominantly children of color and indigenous children. The time has come and we must do that,” she said. “Saying no to this is just not helpful. Please see the room. See the room and get the message.”

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/20/2019 - 10:21 am.

    It all comes down to punishing teachers based on test scores and ignoring the correlation between those scores and poverty. Its the same right-wing billionaire anti-public education agenda over and over again. At least Daniel Sellars has stopped pretending he’s a Democrat.

    • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 03/20/2019 - 12:39 pm.

      There is no question that test scores correlate with poverty and the level of involvement of a child’s parents in their education. However, that does not preclude judging and rewarding teachers on their ability to impact a child’s educational achievement and test scores regardless of the child’s home situation.

      If you do basic reading and math tests at the end of each school year, you should be able to pretty accurately see the improvement (or lack thereof) in each individual child every year. Then use that data for all the kids in each individual teacher’s class. I suspect if you do this, after a couple of years it will become VERY obvious which teachers are doing a good job, and which teachers need to find another vocation.

      • Submitted by David Lundeen on 03/20/2019 - 08:08 pm.

        It doesn’t work that way Mike. I’ve taught in urban schools, among other places. If it were this simple, you’d be on the lecture circuit taking in millions for your take on education. Doing this would lead every teacher to be fired. The problem is much more complex, and can’t be reduced to simple, annual assessments.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/20/2019 - 08:27 pm.

        No. You are completely wrong.

        The problem is that the data won’t show that at all. There are so many other variables and such small sample sizes that the data would be statistically worthless. It won’t reveal anything anything at all. If you use test scores to evaluate teachers, you may as well be issuing them grades randomly.

      • Submitted by Kent Fralish on 03/21/2019 - 07:39 am.

        “the level of involvement of a child’s parents in their education”, is VERY important, how many parents don’t even show up to a parent teacher conference?

      • Submitted by John Baggett on 04/03/2019 - 02:43 am.

        I think poverty doesn’t affect the scores.

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/20/2019 - 12:27 pm.

    As someone who did customer research in patient care, I would suggest you do better if you understand the dynamics.

    While a site council president at a local elementary school, I worked with the principal to survey three perspectives on what was going well and what was not – staff, parents and students. Yes, we asked very young students to answer questions written for their reading level.

    As well as getting scores for a wide range of questions, we found out where the three groups agreed and had different perspectives, creating lots of insight and opportunity for improvement. Schools always have strong voices, but to what degree are they speaking for others or focusing on their personal cause.

    One issue was recess on cold days. One family felt very strongly that the minimum temperature to keep kids inside should be pretty high. As I remember, most parents wanted a lower number, most students liked playing out in the cold and teachers felt outdoor play resulted in students being more focused on school work after they were done. Without asking opinions, we risked a knee jerk reaction.

    We called this a school culture mirror survey, as we could line up the results. Obviously in diverse schools, how cultural differences and poverty are handled are critical to success. The pint is that some schools are going to have a naturally produced better results.

    The best approach is to find the most critical improvement opportunities, understand the context and make plans designed to addresss those issues – in every school. Otherwise the top scorers get complacent, the bottom dejected and the middle not work hard enough to address persistent issues with solutions.

    We all can do better and a commitment to making needed changes will improve the student and family experience whatever school they attend. Let’s do the things that allow staff to get beyond firefighting – inspire them, rather than burn them out!

  3. Submitted by David Lundeen on 03/20/2019 - 02:01 pm.

    The viewpoints addressed in this article are the definition of racism. Any learned person would readily know that homo sapiens are not divided by race. Attempts to categorize schools in such manners as addressed by the article are entirely wrong, and further complicate the role of teachers and schools. The achievement gap is the biggest fallacy in education, used as propaganda by both political parties to achieve their respective means. What we do have is an Opportunity Gap. As a former teacher, it’s aggravating to see no-nothing politicians like those in the article air their viewpoints while never spending anytime in the classroom. Schools face many problems, unfortunately none are listed in the article. This problems cannot be rectified unless power is given back to teachers to make decisions without the most patronizing oversight from administration. Let’s ban phones in class, actually have behavior standards, and provide programs which make ‘tracking’ a good word in education.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/20/2019 - 07:57 pm.

    I’m inclined, as a former practitioner myself, to agree with David Lundeen, at least in spirit, if not in every particular. “Star ratings” for schools tell a parent nothing of value.

    The gap that so many people are in hysterics about is referred to as an “achievement gap,” yet virtually none of the conversation surrounding it takes a look at a kid’s social and educational background and / or behavior or – not least – a kid’s effort to learn what’s being presented to her. Public figures keep approaching this issue as if students have nothing to do with the results of the ubiquitous standardized tests. It’s not a training gap – I’ve yet to see credible research citing vast differences in education and training between teachers of one district (or one school) and another which explain the difference in achievement between one school or district and another. No one has suggested that there are teachers of any subject who present their subject matter to a particular group of students in a class, but refuse to do so to another group of students in the same class.

    The single most reliable indicator of a child’s academic success (and it’s not 100% by any means), is that child’s socioeconomic status. Poor children are disproportionately members of minority groups that have been, and in many instances still are, discriminated against in everything from housing to hiring, and everything in between. Poor children also are disproportionately represented among low-performing children in a school setting. They are also often disproportionately represented among children with behavioral problems, and without decorum, nothing much of educational value happens in any classroom in any school.

    The cure for most of these ills is far, far beyond the reach of any part of a school staff, whether instructor or administrator or custodian. Minnesota continues to approach this issue wearing an effective and long-standing set of blinders.

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 03/21/2019 - 10:13 am.

    Good luck getting accountability in public schools, ain’t gonna happen. Look at the pushback here in the comments when different solutions are being discussed. Public schools have become a system to push children through no matter their proficiency in basic reading, writing and math skills just for the dollars that child represents. From K-12 in Mpls school districts, that child brings in 250k over 13 years. Multiply that by 10’s of thousands of students and there you have the problem.
    Give the parents a 250k voucher per child for education and things would change. Parents would send their children to a school that actually taught the children the basics of learning reading, writing, math and problem solving. Race is no indicator of an ability to learn, economics is. Give the parents the right to spend that 250k the way they see fit.
    BTW, teachers union will fight this tooth and nail. They can’t give up their multi billion dollar monopoly on public education.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/21/2019 - 11:06 am.

      The pushback is because this does not bring about accountability. It brings about nothing. It brings about arbitralily punishing teachers.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 03/21/2019 - 01:28 pm.

      Your extremely unlettered view of teachers lining up at the trough simply for their pensions, and not the educational attainments of their students is simply wrong. Teachers want accountability, however it must be within ranges than are fair to the teacher.

      Within our education system, a projection of deficit beliefs are rampant. Yes, we should strive to help kids reach grade level proficiency every year, but that’s complex. Statistically, kids who are behind in high school are not likely to reach their grade level in whatever metric because of increasing subject complexity. For those students, I’ve long advocated that tracking and career resources would be much more appropriate than leaving them stuck in algebra. These students would surprise you as well, most are actually pretty smart, and if you give them something they can develop confidence in they display that growth. There is nothing wrong with a student who is behind grade level. Much more consideration needs to be provided to the whole student, not the test score.

      Also, we need to realize that learning and education is actually work. It’s not a passive activity, and often the pursuit of knowledge can be frustrating. Schools, specifically principals, all of them are incompetent as well, are much too focused on trying to please parents and students instead of trying to transmit knowledge.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 03/21/2019 - 02:05 pm.

        K-4 is strictly for learning how to read, write, do math and problem solve. Children don’t go from 1st grade to 2nd grade without certain learning benchmarks being met. By the time they get to Junior High and can’t read, it too late.

        • Submitted by David Lundeen on 03/21/2019 - 02:20 pm.

          It’s also about socialization as well. Students aren’t just robots to be sent down the factory assembly line.

          • Submitted by David Lundeen on 03/21/2019 - 02:21 pm.

            I’m curious Joe, you certainly have points you believe in which would make out educational system better. Why are your points valid?

            • Submitted by joe smith on 03/21/2019 - 06:32 pm.

              Because all children without a mental disability can learn to read, write and do math. Of course there will be better students than others but 50% of children going to Mpls public schools are not learning how to read, write, do math and problem solve. The school district is simply pushing kids through to get their 20k per student in funding.
              Our current system is not working, why continue doing the same thing? Schools have become broken by getting away from teaching children how to think not what to think.
              Getting a basic education so you can get a job or be an entrepreneur is essential for our society. Our public schools are not doing the job and as a result America is declining in qualified workers.

              • Submitted by David Lundeen on 03/22/2019 - 10:19 am.

                You’re wrong. I can’t say it more clearly than that. From your comments I know you’ve spent no time in a school or engaged in any serious analysis of the issues. Take for example, neurological development studies on children loving in poverty. Without disagreement, they all show the effects of poverty (lack of food, family instability, absence of reading, etc) overwhelmingly impair children’s ability to learn and retain information. How is a teacher supposed to overcome proven science in this regard with 150 students everyday? No teacher can.

                Put your money where your mouth is. Volunteer at a Minneapolis or St Paul public school. You’ll be shocked and impressed at how dedicated those teachers are, and how hard they work everyday to give their students the best chance in the most heart wrenching circumstances. These are professionals doing much more valuable work then any deployed military member. To stand idly by while you engage in the least substantive arguments and degradations against the teaching profession is to allow demagogues to frame the education conversation. Your turn.

  6. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 03/23/2019 - 08:30 am.

    Been just shy of 20 years since I was involved in public school activism. Today, it’s precisely the same topics, excuses and players all doing the same dance around the same core problems. The only thing that has changed is the cost of failure to the taxpayers.

    For involved, caring parents today, the solution is the same today as it was for us back then; get your kids out of there by any means necessary.

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