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Still fact-checking: Emmer misspoke on Minneapolis dropout rate

Tom Emmer
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Tom Emmer

At the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Nisswa debate last week, which I have been obsessively fact-checking ever since, Repub guv nominee Tom Emmer said to Mark Dayton, with reference to education funding:

Emmer: “Senator, if dollars were the answer we would not have a 60 percent dropout rate in the Minneapolis schools and those kids would be succeeding in closing the achievement gap. And it’s not happening…

“The issue is not dollars. The issue is the union is standing in the way of any real reform in the state. Senator, if you follow the path that the union [Education Minnesota] that just endorsed you wants you to follow, we will not get alternative teacher licensure, we will not get the accountability measures that we must have and we’ve gotta have pay for performance in some fashion. Where else in our society does someone get to keep their job simply because they’ve been there the longest?”

A lot of assertions and issue positions are packed in there, but really only one fact that can be checked. And that fact is wrong. The Minneapolis School District does not have a 60 percent dropout rate.

Emmer acknowledged as much when I asked for backup for that statement. Emmer spokester, Chris Van Guilder, says Emmer “misspoke.” Van Guilder e-mailed:

“Tom actually meant a graduation rate of 60%, not dropout rate. He misspoke, probably because he had the 4-year graduation rate in mind.”

The second version of the statement is defensible. There is no way to accurately claim that Minneapolis has a 60 percent dropout rate, but there are ways to claim that Minneapolis has a graduation rate of 60 percent and even lower than that. But those ways are oversimplifications, especially if you don’t define “graduation rate” and if you assume that a 60 percent graduation rate means a 40 percent dropout rate. (That’s what I would have assumed, until I got educated by researching this fact-check). Most of what follows was explained to me by Dave Heistad, research chief of the Minneapolis School District.

If all kids either graduated from high school within four years of when they started or dropped out of high school and never came back, and if the schools kept track of every kid, this would be fairly simple. But that ain’t the case. Some kids are still in high school for a fifth or a sixth year, still trying to graduate. You can’t count them as dropouts until they stop trying to graduate, right? And there’s another category of kids who attend a Minneapolis high school for some period, leave, and the district loses track of them.

There are also multiple ways of dealing with these possibilities for purposes of calculating a dropout or graduation rate. One simple way — which is how Minneapolis reports its graduation rate to the feds — is to count only those kids whom the district knows have either graduated or dropped out. This method is sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Education and is used by Minneapolis to report its results to the feds for “Adequate Yearly Progress” measurement under No Child left Behind.

By that measure, Minneapolis had a graduation rate of 76.36 percent in 2009, and a dropout rate of 23.64, according to Heistad, which would be a heckuva lot better than Emmer said at the debate or even what he meant to say.

The National Governors’ Association (NGA) has been pushing a more complicated, and I would say more accurate, measurement that sorts kids into four categories: those that graduate on time, those that are still trying after their fourth year, those that have dropped out, and those whose status is unclear because they have transferred away from the district where they started. According to Emmer spokester Van Guilder, this is the methodology used by the Minnesota Department of Education and the one Emmer had in mind when he spoke at Nisswa.

Here’s how Minneapolis looks on that one for the most recent year available:

  • Graduated on time: 43.39 percent
  • Dropped out: 15.85 percent
  • Still in school past the fourth year: 28.80 percent
  • Status unknown: 11.96 percent.

(There’s yet another round of numbers in which those who graduate, or who stop trying, during their fifth year is taken into account. By then, Minneapolis shows 50.95 percent have graduated, 19.57 percent have dropped out and the rest are either still trying or lost from the accounting.)

According to those numbers, Van Guilder said, if you grant that Emmer’s reference to dropout rate was supposed to refer to a 60 percent graduation rate, Emmer was not only accurate but generous.

Van Guilder: “The four-year graduation rate is 43%, and the five-year graduation rate is 50%. So 57% of students don’t graduate in four years, and half of all students do not graduate in five years.” [Me: That isn’t exactly right, since those numbers don’t account for the significant portion whose status is unknown, some of whom certainly would have graduated.]

Anyway, perhaps you see why I say Emmer’s statement, once you turn dropout rate into graduation rate, is defensible, but quite likely misleading, since it disregards a significant number of students who are still working toward their diplomas and another number who may have graduated.

Now, if you can stand some good news — I would say surprising good news, considering the degree to which the entire political discussion of the public education system seems to be about what is wrong with it — Heistad noted to me that the Minneapolis district’s graduation has been rising, steadily and quite a bit.

Using the simple method that I described above — where only students who have either graduated on time or dropped out are considered — here is the record of the graduation rate of Minneapolis’ public high schools over the past eight years:

Source: Minneapolis School District

Emmer is implying that nothing very positive can happen in public education until the power of the teachers’ union is broken. DFL nominee Mark Dayton is asserting — and this fact did check out — that funding for public schools has declined (on a per pupil, inflation-adjusted basis) over the past eight years. (That’s why Emmer’s quote at the top of this post starts out “the issue is not dollars.”)

Acknowledging that Minneapolis is only one district (although one of the biggest, and one that faces among the most difficult challenges), the graduation rate of Minneapolis Public Schools has risen every year for five straight years.

Seems to me this is something we should be celebrating. Sometimes it’s kinda hard for good news to break through.

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Comments (45)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/23/2010 - 09:22 am.

    And the next step would be to compare these numbers with other demographically similar school districts over the same period.
    I suspect that we’d look a lot better than Denver, for instance.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/23/2010 - 09:32 am.

    It has been clear for the past few decades (although not publicly stated) that the right wing (including Emmer) has taken on the project of wiping out, as much as they can get away with, public education.

    So far the public has fallen for their main ruse which has been to find fault wherever possible (even if you have to invent statistics for graduation rates and bloated teachers’ salaries). The clear purpose of NCLB, in fact, the way it’s set up guarantees that within a couple more years EVERY public school in every state will be judged to be a failing school.”

    The right wingers then hope to convince the public that the way to get better performance out of the schools is to punish them by reducing their funding, wiping out teacher’s labor organizations, allowing people without a reasonable and proper educational background to enter what will come to be a “trade” rather than a “profession” and generally making teaching FAR LESS attractive to talented young people than it already is (because reducing our pay ALWAYS works to make the rest of us buckle down and work harder, and wiping out the unions has already done SO MUCH for the well being – specifically the pay and benefits of the American Middle Class).

    Up to this point, the public doesn’t seem to mind that what we’re really doing is punishing our children and grandchildren and ensuring that our nation won’t be able to compete in the world.

    This can only be because of their desire to save themselves the tax money to support a now-seriously-underfunded system AND to provide themselves with a less-educated, and therefore, more compliant and desperate workforce of people who are unaware that they even have rights, let alone that they might press for those rights.

    Adequately-funded eduction, which used to provide the foundation for the strong nation the US used to be, stood in the way of the Reichwing project to turn our nation into a third-world country in which the rich have everything, a rich oligarchy controls everything and the regular working folks are left desperate, if not starving (as in the “Enterprise Zones” scattered around the third world).

    The question is, has the public awakened to what their Republican friends are really trying to do – destroy public education? If we don’t do so soon, our grandchildren and great grandchildren will never be able to achieve anything like the life we, ourselves have enjoyed.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/23/2010 - 09:37 am.

    Interesting comment P.B. The Republican project to destroy public education is much farther along in other places. Perhaps we should compare (making sure we’re actually doing apples-to-apples), what their “reforms” have “achieved” in those places (likely nothing short of massive destruction whose effects are only beginning to be felt but will gather steam like an avalanche moving down a steep mountainside and whose correction will be as difficult as putting the debris in that avalanche back up on the mountain from which it fell.

  4. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 08/23/2010 - 10:22 am.

    Just look at the DC school voucher program. The parents wanted it, the children improved their performance with it, and the Democrats and teachers just killed it. Republicans are not trying to kill public-funded education. What they want to change is the monopoly held by unions and bureaucrats that in many areas are failing the students, most of which have no other choice for their education.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/23/2010 - 10:50 am.

    Actually, there’s no evidence that vouchers have resulted in any improvement in education.
    In places like D.C., the voucher users are self-selected — parents who are more involved in their children’s education choose them. These are children who would do better than average even if they stayed in public schools.

    There are two cases (Cleveland and Milwaukee) where voucher recipients were randomly selected (because the demand for vouchers was higher than the supply). In both cases, the children who received vouchers and went to ‘private’ (mostly parochial) schools did no better than the similar students who stayed in the public schools.

  6. Submitted by Leslie Davis on 08/23/2010 - 11:19 am.

    As a candidate for Governor (write-in),
    I hope to have my first radio commercial airing in 10 days.
    People of Minnesota can take heart in knowing that Lt. Governor candidate Greg Soderberg and I are still out here and ready to go to work for them.
    “The Davis Money Plan is one of our key issues and it’s GREAT. Check it out.
    I know how disheartened people are thinking about the choices they have for governor in the major parties and the handful of inexperienced others. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
    The only thing that keeps me hopeful for our future is that Greg and I are in the race and as long as we’re in you have hope.
    For the People,
    Leslie Davis for Governor 2010

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/23/2010 - 11:40 am.

    Where to start….

    It’s a given that in politics, weasel words will replace “misstatements” which replace misinformation which replaces simple, hard facts. It’s a pity then, that what passes for “factchecking” by the left is in fact a process by which hog lard is applied to misinformation.

    Now I’ve already torn Van Wychen’s specious, teachers union puppet show (BTW, when will MN2020 reveal what funding it receives from EdMN?) to tiny little shreds when he posted it on the “Community voices” section, so I’m not going to bother putting it through a fine grind now other than to say that unless you use the special inflation index that was invented to cover the accelerated pace of government costs increase, the K-12 budget has not been cut.

    But if it did, and if we take Black’s graduation rate chart at face value, it would only serve to prove Emmer’s point; since (according to Black & Co’s tortured accounting) the rate has steadily improved, money is not the problem…

    The simple fact is that the Anoka-Hennepin school district’s operating budget increased 4.7% in 2003 over 2002, 9.1% in 2004 over 2003, .8% in 2005 over 2004, 3.4% in 2006 over 2005, 4.6% in 2007 over 2006, 6.3% in 2008 over 2007 and 8.0% in 2009 over 2008.

    This state spent $ 4.8 BILLION to fund our public schools last year. (Thanks to Deb Olson at MDE for the hand-holding)

    Minneapolis spends approx. $1,400 per pupil, per year to graduate less than 50% of the students on time. Put as much lard on that as you wish and it still means that thousands of kids hit the streets without the benefit of even the substandard knowledge necessary to earn a public school diploma…the fact is that many of those kids are functionally illiterate.

    Oh, and by the way, it’s also a fact that Minneapolis and Saint Paul have *the worst* graduation gap In-The-Country.

    The fact is that through the blue collar trade labor union that has co-opted the teaching profession, the public school system in this country has been a wholly owned subsidiary of the left for the past 60 years.

    Since the early 1960’s, its mission has been re-directed from providing a high quality, academically rigorous education for American children to a reliable source of high paying union jobs, political indoctrination and leftist socio-economic experimentation….and the kids have paid the price.

    Dayton proposes that all that is necessary is to heap more bales of cash on that pile of failure, and magic will happen. Only a complete moron (or a Teacher’s union boss) would buy that line of BS.

    I love a good knockdown, drag out battle where politics is concerned, but when it comes to the subject of the public schools, and the destruction the left has wrought to them, I simply become too nauseous to express anything more than deeply held, utterly sincere disgust with the left, their apologists and their enablers.

  8. Submitted by Lori Tolonen on 08/23/2010 - 11:48 am.

    Thank you Eric Black for your due diligence on the candidate. Now if you could just scan Emmer’s heart and brain regarding his intentions for a leadership position.

  9. Submitted by Brian Simon on 08/23/2010 - 12:07 pm.

    Good fact check. While Emmer is clearly abusing the facts to make his point, it’s also pretty clear that Minneapolis has plenty of room for improvement. Even if you assume, optimistically, that all of the students who can’t be tracked did graduate on time, the numbers are still atrocious. That the current graduation rate represents improvement over the last 5 years is cold comfort.

  10. Submitted by Michael Hunt on 08/23/2010 - 12:21 pm.

    Greg, on what facts do you base your claim that education is “Now seriously underfunded”?

    As usual, I’m not gonna even waste time on Swifty’s posting. If it’s his typical tripe, he’s gonna criticize other’s “facts”, then post enough unsupported crap to pour into your waders.

  11. Submitted by NIcole Masika on 08/23/2010 - 12:33 pm.

    I support Dayton, but many of the problems in the Minneapolis school district have nothing to do with either the teacher’s union or the per pupil funding. I still think better govt. could make an impact though because it relates to crime, drugs, and families in distress. My kids would take a bus to go 3 blocks to school because they didn’t want to walk past drug houses. I was able to move from North Minneapolis to Brooklyn Center to get away from this kind of environment ( though I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep my house now)but it would be better to eliminate the causes. I think more $ for police, for supporting single parent families and a better employment situation would go a long way.

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/23/2010 - 12:51 pm.

    Correction: MPS spends $14,000 per pupil, per year.

    Paul, in short, you’re wrong…as usual.

    According to a Harvard study, there has been improvement in math and reading among students using vouchers;

    “The Harvard team found improvements in voucher students’ language and math scores. This team was the first to use a study design and multivariate
    analysis procedure that reproduced the Milwaukee voucher program assignment process, assuming that it was random, and to use nonselected voucher applicants as a comparison group. Under this study design, the Harvard team isolated the effect of the voucher program by controlling for
    factors related to students’ assignment to schools.”

    It’s not much of an improvement, and there are caveats, but when discussing urban school districts *any* improvement is a step in the right direction.

    Oh, and by the way, the states spent considerably less on the voucher students than those attending teacher’s union, er, public schools.

    It’s not much of an improvement, and there are caveats, but when discussing urban school districts any improvement is a step in the right direction.

  13. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/23/2010 - 01:02 pm.

    Where to start, indeed…

    There is one point upon which I can heartily agree with Mr. Swift’s otherwise silly diatribe.

    That point is this: the graduation rate – whether it’s 60 percent or 76.36 percent – for Minneapolis public schools is appalling.

    Since I moved here from metro Denver, and have at least some minimal knowledge of the schools situation there, it would be useful to follow Paul Brandon’s suggestion to see if an apples-to-apples comparison could be made. The minority group situation is markedly different in that there’s a much greater diversity among minority student population here than in Denver (Denver is about 20 percent Hispanic, with little Asian and, as far as I know, no significant Somali population), so an accurate comparison might not be possible, but it’s at least worth looking into. In any case, the graduation rate from Denver public schools is similarly appalling, and the gap between white and non-white graduation rates is equally disturbing.

    I don’t think an application of “lard” is necessary to be less-than-pleased by spending $1,400 per pupil when less than half of them graduate on time. I’d still be less-than-pleased if we were spending $1,400 per pupil and the graduation rate was 76 percent. Mr. Swift is surely correct in arguing that many of those who drop out of school or otherwise fail to graduate are functionally illiterate.

    Beyond that, however, I’m not willing to jump on the teacher-bashing bandwagon that’s so popular on the right.
    I suspect the hostility to teachers organizations Mr. Swift exemplifies has more to do with their rather consistent support of Democratic political candidates than their pedagogical predilictions.

    In my 30 classroom years in another state, my job never qualified as “high-paying,” and throughout my career, I was paid less than a trash collector working for the city in which I lived. I know this because I checked the city budget annually to see what the pay rates were for trash collectors. My salary number was always less than that of someone working for the sanitation department who was experienced enough to drive the truck, and it never reached the “median” household income level in my community, or the surrounding communities. I’ve been retired for a few years, but I’ve seen nothing overt to suggest that teacher salaries have improved dramatically.

    I was widely regarded by my students and their parents as “tough as nails.” Mr. Swift’s broad generalizations would have a hard time surviving for very long in my class, but then, so would some other generalizations from the other side. I made a point of never revealing my personal politics in class, and I taught some very good students who had fairly accurately memorized their parents’ right-wing political rhetoric.

    While Mr. Swift provides no factual basis for his “…leftist socio-economic experimentation…” line, my job was to teach social studies, and it’s difficult to put much of a gloss on the era of the Robber Barons, whether a hundred years ago or now.

    Heaping more money into the system, of itself, doesn’t guarantee anything except more expense. What I don’t see anyone – left OR right – addressing is what has happened to the student population over the course of the past couple generations. By that I mean, the distractions, electronic and otherwise, provided by the consumer culture, the households where both parents work, the push to have every teenager behind the wheel of a car that usually has to be paid for (or at least its insurance) through a part-time job, and numerous other factors – all of them, every one, beyond the teacher’s control – that have dramatically affected the amount of time and energy, and the motivation, of huge numbers of students.

    Mr. Swift has obviously never been put in front of a classroom of adolescents, but if he were, he’d discover that, right wing or left, all that a teacher can do is OFFER an education. It’s up to the students to accept that offer, and the abysmal graduation rates in urban (and, increasingly, suburban) school districts suggest to me that huge numbers of adolescents have been, and are being, seduced by the very commercial culture that those on the right often worship.

  14. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/23/2010 - 01:08 pm.

    I base my “underfunded” statement on personal experience – on what’s happening in the rural (West Central for me) school districts in my surrounding area. The area school systems have gone to four-day weeks (in one case, others are considering it), cut down to nothing music, physical education (the state considerably watered down the curriculum requirements a few years back), increased class sizes and cut out everything but the barest essentials.

    As a student who was always at the top of his class and passionately interested in the arts, as well, I would have been bored to tears in such schools. That boredom would not, likely, have resulted in better behavior nor better educational outcomes. No teacher would now have the time to provide me with accelerated course work to peak my interest, nor would higher level classes likely now be available locally.

    I can’t help but wonder under the ways schools must now operate due to funding restrictions whether some of our best and brightest are experiencing education as worthless and useless and are, therefore, unlikely to pursue it post high school and unlikely to develop to their fullest potential.

    So, I call the schools underfunded and remain convinced that we are already seriously damaging our future by doing what we’re doing (not providing high-quality, creative people who will invent and develop the next high-tech industries, but, by design of the conservatives, creating good little worker bees who will never question authority nor seek better pay or benefits)

    If the creative types channel their creativity into rebellion, making themselves non-compliant employees, their fate is their own problem (never mind that what’s taken to be their rebellion often involves such sins as raising better ideas for policies, procedures, processes and products).

  15. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/23/2010 - 01:11 pm.

    Mr. Swift — I do not see Education Minnesota on MinnPost’s list of donors.

    You can see the donor list for yourself at their website by calling up the 2009 Annual Report.

  16. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/23/2010 - 01:32 pm.

    Ray Sooch complained: “I was paid less than a trash collector working for the city in which I lived.”

    Which proves nothing other than their union boss had a better grip on the city than yours did. Teachers are paid very handsomely while working and retire to a pension that no private entity could ever afford to fund.

    It looks, however, that you can find no fault with the most salient points of my “silly diatribe”, so I’ll take that.

    Greg offered: “I base my “underfunded” statement on personal experience – on what’s happening in the rural (West Central for me) school districts in my surrounding area.”

    So, do you base your “what’s happening” statement on the same sources you base your “underfunded” statement? Your back pocket has got to be bulging, Greg.

    How about spending a bit more time factually informing yourself and a little less picking through lint….why not start with the Minnesota Department of Education links I’ve provided.

  17. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/23/2010 - 02:15 pm.

    Mr. Swift–
    The source that you cite is not a Harvard publication; it is a GAO report (which are not peer reviewed) requested by Senator Judd Gregg and (like all GAO reports) it is based on the assumptions that the requesting Congressperson stipulates.
    It is a review — the authors of the report simply reported various other previously published studies.
    Note that their Tables 1 and 2 indicate serious differences between voucher and nonvoucher families BEFORE the program started, a major methodological flaw.

    While there are a lot of numbers tossed around, no formal statistical analysis has been done, and there is no indication which (if any) differences meet the standard criteria for statistical significance.

    Tell me, Thomas, did you actually read this report, or simply cut and paste from a blog site?

  18. Submitted by James Hamilton on 08/23/2010 - 02:22 pm.

    Neither Minneapolis nor Saint Paul is an appropriate district to look to for the success or failure of Minnesota’s educational system as a whole, for any number of reasons, including racial and economic disparities, the high number of immigrant families in the districts, and the flight to the large number of charter schools in the districts.

  19. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/23/2010 - 02:35 pm.

    Those Harvard studies are conservative philanthropy sponsored baloney. The best research on school choice comes from Stanford. Also – read the series on choice schools in Milwaukee – they are TERRIBLE – all caps!

  20. Submitted by John E Iacono on 08/23/2010 - 04:53 pm.

    On Problems in Education, Part A

    Most folks seem to agree that we have a problem with our public education system. But battles, it appears from the comments above, rage on as to the causes and cures.

    >It is argued that the different make-up of the student body is to blame, and the different home life from which they come. There may be some truth to that. In the ramshackle public school which I attended in lower “nordeast”, there was little respect for “education” in the majority of the student body, and I suspect current day testing might have shown it. Still, basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills were insisted upon, and students learned them, if only for fear of having to repeat a grade. The student who could not sign his name or read a book was non-existent, and there were academic stars even though the opportunity for advanced challenges was limited to the weekly visit by the Bookmobile. From my first day in a private, parochial school all of that changed drastically for the better, and I am sure my perception of public education is colored by that experience. The student body had not changed much (including bullies), but the educational environment made ALL the difference. An atmosphere of discipline, well trained and enthusiastic teachers interested in each student, and adequate physical facilities supported respect for education – unlike my public school environment. I have a dim view of those who blame the student population for the defects in the public school system.

    >There are those who blame parents, citing those who spend little time helping their children or providing a stable home environment, and demanding undeserved grades for their lazy and unruly offspring. Again, my recollection is that parents have not changed that much. While there were more mothers at home when I was young, I can remember only one single time in my first eight years in school that either parent EVER helped with my homework: it was considered MY responsibility. And most parents, both husband and wife, were too busy earning a living and maintaining a home to pay much attention beyond insisting their kids go to school. Two working partners now make this even more difficult. But I see much MORE parental involvement in their children’s lives than when I was growing up. I am skeptical of those who blame the parents.

    >Some claim that bureaucracies and unions are the cause of the problems. I believe there is some truth to that as well. Comparing the percentage of resources devoted to layer upon layer of administrative and district staff and buildings to the percentage devoted to staff actually in contact with students would, I believe, yield some embarrassing statistics and suggest changes might be in order. It is, however, also true that the intrusions into the schools by various government programs – which ALWAYS demand custom program design, extensive reporting and other paperwork, and concomitant allocation of resources – must share blame for SOME (not ALL) of this increasingly lopsided picture. I believe this pattern needs to change.

    Some union positions do certainly obstruct remedial changes in teaching staff, and seniority and work rules can make improvements in overall staffing too difficult to try. Though forced to sing in unison with the union, I believe most teachers would privately agree here: not one would claim their entire teaching staff is made up of heroes. But I can also recall when teachers were expected to work all day in the classroom, and all evening and weekend on preparation (a situation still encountered) for wages less than those of a factory worker. The latter has been not only fixed, but in many cases overdone as each contract clings fast to past benefits and insists on adding new ones.
    Unlike the auto workers, teachers have not had to confront the reality that they now enjoy benefits (health care, pensions, leave days, summers off) way beyond their fellow citizens and adjust to that reality. And school boards, with taxpayers rather than stockholders to account to, have been weak in demanding meaningful change. I believe this pattern needs to change. But I do not blame the unions for acting like unions, though I do think their excessive political power has led to the usual abuse and needs to be curtailed.

  21. Submitted by John E Iacono on 08/23/2010 - 04:54 pm.

    On Problems in Education, Part B

    >The problem with public education I find MOST distressing is a more intangible one: the notion that teachers and school administrators are an elite class, with no need to listen carefully to what the families that support them are saying.

    Being told at a parent-teacher conference to scrunch down into first graders desks to be lectured by school officials about why even more funding is needed within weeks of those parents having voted “yes” in a referendum was insulting.

    Being patronized by school boards, superintendents, and staff of all kinds when making suggestions – treated as though we have NO idea what we are talking about – I believe is surely part of the reason why the public is often resentful when thinking about “their” schools, and why many prefer the different atmosphere of charter or private If they can afford it) schools.

    Seeing financially illiterate administrators and superintendents making fiscally stupid decisions (contracting for computers at $3,000.00 each for systems readily available on the open market for $600.00) does not inspire confidence in their claims for additional funding. The Ivory Tower does not teach fiscal efficiency, as though cost did not matter.

    Being confronted with a six inch thick “budget” as my only access to planned expenditures in our district – and having to read it only at the district office – had the intended effect of discouraging me from studying it. On the web, it would have been easy – NOT what the district wanted. I doubt the School Board reads it, either.

    >The superior attitude that seems to infect school staff from the lowest teacher (some aides excepted) to the superintendent’s office seems to me to be the root cause of much of the problem with our schools.

    It may be convenient for these folks to cast themselves in the role of “teachers” to us all, but it completely blocks meaningful dialogue, and leaves parents and even school board members seeing the staff as like the adults in Charlie Brown movies, going “Mwah, mwah, mwah” and saying nothing of consequence.

    Without the good ideas of the community in which they work, and a more humble attitude that does not treat “education” as something beyond the understanding of mere mortals who have not gone through the educational ivory tower, many taxpayers see little hope for change except by cutting the budget or fostering charter schools, to show who is really the boss.

    I believe change in this basic orientation by the school system would result in numerous efficiencies, and in better support for new frameworks that would result.

  22. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/23/2010 - 05:05 pm.

    Once again, where to begin…

    First of all, Mr. Swift, learn to spell my name correctly, especially if you’re going to take me to task for disagreeing with you. You lose a point on the latest essay right off the top for that.

    Trash collection in the city in which I lived while teaching was done by the city, and its employees were non-union. Making less than “median” income for one’s community doesn’t qualify as a “handsome” income anywhere of which I’m aware, except, apparently in Mr. Swift’s fertile imagination. The same thing goes for the pension, though, having been meagerly paid for 30 years, it WAS nice to be able to retire – in a private, defined-benefit system. My income still does not rise to the level of “median household income” in the Twin Cities metro area, but it’s enough for modest comfort, and I think of it as a small measure of revenge against folks like Mr. Swift, who would surprise me, indeed, if he regularly voted “yes” on school tax levies. Most people, in most occupations, do not have their salaries put to a public vote.

    As for the previous Swiftian diatribe, not commenting on every point doesn’t mean that I found no flaw, or that I agree, or even that the points in question make sense. We’re limited to 5,000 characters, and even though I’m retired, other things sometimes require my attention. I should add that, much like the situation I occasionally found myself in when dealing with a few of my students in years past, reason has only limited effect on the ideologue. While there certainly are those on the left who qualify for that label, in recent years, their number is dwarfed by the number of folks of the Swiftian temperament and mind set.

    I’d argue, among other things, that there’s no way to make education both “effective” and “efficient” from a cost standpoint. Done properly, education requires individual attention, and anyone who’s been in business for more than a few days knows that individual attention – regardless of the field, product, service, what-have-you, takes time, and costs money. Usually, lots of both. Often – and I don’t know if Mr. Swift qualifies in this area or not – the very same people who criticize the inefficiency and cost of education simultaneously criticize what they usually label as a “one size fits all” approach. You can’t have it both ways. If you want me to pay attention to your daughter’s individual learning style and interests, I’ll need small classes and some other expensive resources (e.g., a library, electronic or physical, plus graphic and video recreations and representations). Or, we could dispense with all the technology and turn the class into something genuinely Socratic, but that, too, will demand a lot of my time and attention in preparation (and your daughter’s, too), and there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do that with the daughters of 150 households.

    Individual attention costs time and money. It can’t be made cost-effective in the usual bean-counter way. As a matter of fact, when companies try to cut costs and become more “efficient,” one of the first areas they look at (aside from personnel) is whether “one size fits all” can somehow be made to work in the customer arena by providing customers with fewer choices, or raising the price of choices.

    My short answer, oversimplified, is that the current appalling graduation rates stem from a variety of factors, most of which are completely beyond the control of the teacher. Unless you can show gross negligence or laziness on the part of the instructor, blaming the teacher for a student’s failure to graduate is similar to blaming Governor Pawlenty for failing to persuade all the members of the legislature, regardless of their political persuasion, that his view of government and its role is correct and true. Expecting that is silly.

    Young people have been seduced by our commercial culture into thinking that education should be easy, it should be entertaining and fun, it should not require concentrated or extended effort, and when it does, “trying” should be the equivalent of “doing.” I could go on, but I think the point is made. In doing so, I don’t for a minute want to demonize adolescents in current society. They’re responding to the environment around them in ways that make sense to them. Unfortunately, those responses are often not constructive at all for either their individual long-term well-being, or for the society at large, which I fear will collapse if/when enough badly-educated people (by their choice – the school offered, they turned the offer down) find themselves in positions of power. Sarah Palin is a case in point, but there are many others, in and out of government and business.

  23. Submitted by scott gibson on 08/23/2010 - 05:07 pm.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that Mr. Swift’s opposition to teachers union and public schools really merely centers on money. Let’s turn the question around. What does Mr. Swift think would be reasonable pay for being a public school teacher? And what kind of retirement program would be fair? Apparently, all of us MN public school teachers are rolling in it. I’ve taught 30+ years and I don’t feel that I am anywhere well enough off to retire. Just what kind of compensation does Mr. Swift feel would draw enough bright, dedicated people into the difficult job of educating an increasingly distracted population of young people?

  24. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/23/2010 - 05:16 pm.

    “It is a review — the authors of the report simply reported various other previously published studies.”

    Uh, yeah…the GAO report cites the Harvard study as the source of the data and conclusions it reprints. I actually found a link to the GAO report at Harvard’s web site.

    I also said there were caveats…or did you miss that?

    Did *you* read the report, Paul?

    James, the “immigrant families” excuse doesn’t wash.

    First, SPPS and MPS academic records, grad rates and attendance have been heading south for almost 30 years (while funding followed an inverse trajectory)…long before the arrival of significant numbers of Hmong immigrants.

    Secondly, it isn’t the immigrant kids that are failing; it’s native born black kids.

    Third, if immigrant kids are what the schools have to teach, that’s who they have to teach. Failure is failure.

    The exodus to charters, home schooling and private schools are a message that the defenders of the status quo ignore at their peril.

    Rob, this is the first time I’ve heard that Harvard research described as “conservative philanthropy sponsored baloney”; care to share the source of your enlightenment?

    Also, I’d love to read the series on choice schools in Milwaukee; got link?

  25. Submitted by Ron Salzberger on 08/23/2010 - 05:21 pm.

    Thank you, Eric, for a careful analysis.

    I wonder at what point in journalism history the word “lie” was replaced by “misstatement?” While lying requires some estimate of state-of-mind (i.e., he knew the allegation was wrong and said it anyway), a pattern of such politically self-interested falsehoods, it would seem, actually warrants the use of some form of the verb infinitive “to lie.”

    I also wonder what caused the disappearance of words like “liar?” I would guess that liability and not epistemic warrant drove the word “lie” out.

    It also seems to me that there has to be some basis in fact for using expressions like “misspoke.” That word and its close relatives implies that there is knowledge of the kind of error that occurred, i.e. an accident, an innocent mistake. What allows journalists this conclusion?

  26. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/23/2010 - 06:23 pm.

    And a note:

    Universities do not generally conduct or publish research.
    Most research is conducted by individuals (often at Universities) and published by them in journals that are usually reviewed by their peers.

    When the media says that ‘Harvard has published research’ they usually mean that Harvard sent them a press release describing that research.

  27. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 08/23/2010 - 07:45 pm.

    Can you please post the links to the peer-reviewed studies regarding Cleveland and Milwaukee Schools?

    And, if they are correct and it really comes down to parental involvement, then how in the heck can the Dems and the unions support ever increasing teacher salaries if the causal relationship lies elswhere?

  28. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/23/2010 - 07:57 pm.

    “What does Mr. Swift think would be reasonable pay for being a public school teacher?”

    Mr. Swift doesn’t believe there is a one size fits all answer to that question.

    For instance, the public system is glutted with social studies teachers, but teachers with math and science backgrounds are scarce.

    A degree in physics, biology, chemistry, math, engineering & etc. is worth more than a degree in liberal arts in the private sector; so should it be in teaching.

    A teacher that manages his or her classroom in an efficient, professional manner provides a better environment than someone that shows up dressed to dig ditches, hands out work sheets and sits behind a desk. They should be paid accordingly.

    A teacher that knows how to utilize the valuable resource parents can provide rather than marginalize them shows a capability for smart management.

    In short, there are some teachers that should be making mid six figure salaries, and some that should be selling used cars instead of teaching. The problem is that until teachers take their profession back from the union, they will continue to be treated, and compensated like the widget assemblers the union model was created to cater to.

    “And what kind of retirement program would be fair?”

    The best IRA/401K package available, just like the rest of us.

  29. Submitted by John Olson on 08/23/2010 - 08:37 pm.

    Mr. Iacono, I can relate to your experience. In our case, a portion of the funds from one approved excess levy were diverted from the intended (and advertised) investment in technology to artificial turf for the football field.

    The result? I’m an automatic NO vote on any excess levy request. The arrogance and condescending attitude of the administrators of this school district in this community borders on breathtaking.

  30. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/23/2010 - 08:44 pm.

    The teachers unions are, as ever, a favorite punching bag for critics of America’s education system, and not without reason. But I suggest that Mr. Swift also spare a thought for America’s ridiculous system of school funding through local property taxes.

    This is by no means the whole of the problem, but talk to young or prospective parents in most communities, for any length of time, and the obsession with finding a house in a good school district is astonishing. Or rather, the obsession is fairly reasonable; the situation which makes it reasonable is astonishing.

  31. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/23/2010 - 09:06 pm.

    From ERIC (I’m not sure if they peer review):

    This one is peer reviewed, although it does not deal directly with overall population effects in Milwaukee and Cleveland.

    There may or may not be more out there — educational research is not my specialty.

  32. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/23/2010 - 10:08 pm.

    So, Harvard isn’t a good source of accurate, non-partisan research, but the leftist Economic Policy Institute works for Paul.

    “educational research is not my specialty.”

    Yes, I think we’re done here.

  33. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 08/23/2010 - 11:14 pm.

    From the ERIC study….

    “Research on the voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee indicate that for African American students these programs have little or no positive effect on their academic achievement. Research from Dayton, Ohio, New York, New York, and Washington, D.C. shows no significant test score gains for Hispanic and White voucher students but statistically significant gains for African American students.”

    Not peer reviewed. Inconclusive. And when you posted the Cleveland and Milwaukee info you conveniently left out the contradictory studies. Tom is Right- we are done here.

    Wait one second, I forgot to ask – did any of these studies measure the life expectancy increases of getting the kids out of the dangerous inner city schools? Did they measure the gains in student behavior? Did they measure the reduction in criminal activity among the students? All of these are significant additional benefits to getting kids into an improved learning environment.

  34. Submitted by scott gibson on 08/24/2010 - 12:31 am.

    I am sorry that your experience was condescending, Mr. Iacono. I sincerely doubt that would have occurred in my district.

    Mr. Swift, I am a math teacher and one who rejects the idea that my discipline somehow carries more weight (and corresponding salary) than other disciplines. There will certainly be students for whom art, music, or athletics will be the key to a productive life, rather than mathematics or science. We are not profit oriented and we don’t produce widgets. That’s one reason we will never be as efficient as business.

    I also teach in rural MN where cuts have been near never ending (as referenced by Mr. Schoch). Declining enrollment, mostly, but Pawlenty has also tried to starve us into rolling over for him. We still have the strong support of our communities, for which I am very grateful.

    Many of MN’s rural areas are slowly being depopulated, but we’re still trying to give our students a quality education. Virtually every high school, no matter how small, now offers its students college credits at no additional cost. If anything, the experience our students get is better than what their parents and grandparents got at the same schools.

    I am proud of what I do and the folks who are my colleagues. We’re gearing up for another good year, despite whatever overheated rhetoric will show up during the fall political campaigns.

  35. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/24/2010 - 08:34 am.

    Good morning, Scott.

    You say you’re teaching math, but you don’t mention whether you hold a math degree. As I say, teachers with math and science educations are in short supply and I know that many classrooms are being staffed by teachers without the commensurate backgrounds.

    If you are a math (or physics) major, and are willing to work for a lesser salary I sincerely congratulate you. But the fact is that private industry is snapping up grads and in order to get them to consider a career in the classroom, I’m willing to pay them what they are worth.

    As you say, teachers are not assembling widgets, and I don’t think it’s fair to measure their contributions as if they are.

    BTW, Scott. In what way is the governor trying to force you to “roll over” for him?

  36. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/24/2010 - 08:46 am.

    What’s wrong with education in the US? You can see it on display in this comment thread. It’s a perfect example of the public policy paralysis that has resulted from magic plan, over-simplified, ideological battles launched by Republicans during the Reagan presidency. Conservatives have one overriding objective, erase the 20th century and return the US to what they consider to be the golden era of the Gilded Age.

    One of the biggest sore spots of the twentieth century for Republicans is the public school system. Since the time of Thomas Jefferson conservative Christians have been opposed to public education out of fear that children will corrupted by secular teachings. On a very basic level conservatives just don’t get that the point of education is not to teach people what to think, but rather how to think. This mindset is the product of a scriptural approach to morality and knowledge that focuses on revelation rather than observation and experimentation.

    You can see in play here with the conservative critiques of public education, and the magic plan policies that have been enacted by both Republicans and Democrats over the last few decades. What you see here is a raft of ideological complaints that have little if anything to do with developing a child’s intellect. Getting rid of unions, funding cuts, privatization, etc. Basically it’s an attempt to impose free market economic on the education system in the belief that markets will magically produce a better outcome than simply making good policy decisions and implementing them. None if these issues has any demonstrable connection to effective education. Many countries in the world have public education systems that are better funded, have strong unions, and are not run like markets, and they are all out performing our public education system.

    It’s this diversion from the task of education children into ideological debates that has crippled our public education system. The last several decades have been devoid of sound public education policy. Instead ideological battles over control of local school boards have displaced sound policy. How do you expect good education policy to emerge from an environment riddled with debates about school prayer, ten commandment, and creationism?

    As they’ve done with government, conservatives have spent the last 40 years trying to cripple and dismantle the public education system and replace it with and education “market”. Then they want to know why the system doesn’t work.

    Another problem at the very core of this issued is the fact that we are currently experiencing a era of anti-intellectualism. During such epochs a kind of collective unconscious expresses itself as an aversion to producing intellectuals. As far as conservatives are concerned the problem with the 60s and 70s was we lost control of our children. Free thinking and intellectualism produced demonstrations, conflict, and disruption. Hence the focus on teaching children what to think rather than how to think. The problem with intellectuals is you can’t control or predict where reason will take them.

    Conservative don’t trust intellectuals, and always prefer to rely on authority rather than reason. This is why the arguments you see here are basically authority arguments, there’s nothing here about how to teach a kid math or biology, it’s all about how to impose authority and what kind of authority to impose.

    If we want to improve out education system we have set all this crap aside. We have to acknowledge education isn’t a market, it’s a civic responsibility. Education can be more or less cost effective but it’s not going to be cheap. This isn’t magic, there are people who know how to teach and educate almost any student, but you have to give them resources they need to do the job, and you can’t expect to pay good educators poverty wages.

  37. Submitted by Mike Owens on 08/24/2010 - 08:50 am.

    Just a quick correction. AYP = Adequate Yearly Progress, not Average.

  38. Submitted by John E Iacono on 08/24/2010 - 09:39 am.

    Thank you, Paul, for a clear exposition of why teacher formation, teacher and administrative staff attitudes are not a problem, unions are not a problem, outcomes are not a problem — only attitudes of the public are a problem — those darned conservatives!

  39. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/24/2010 - 09:51 am.

    Thomas and Mohammed–
    You have questioned my qualifications — please state your own.
    I have a doctorate in Experimental Psychology (which includes training in research design and evaluation) with graduate minors in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science.
    I spent 45 years teaching Experimental Psychology.
    What training do you have?

    Another note?
    A basic tenet of scientific research:
    one assumes no difference between two groups unless there is evidence for a difference.
    Since one cannot prove a negative (a scientist will never assert that there is NO difference), the onus is on the person asserting a difference (in this case, that vouchers are effective) to provide such evidence.
    The only studies that I have seen so far do not show any evidence that vouchers produce differences that meet accepted practical or statistical criteria for effectiveness.

    And once again, there is no such thing as a ‘Harvard study’ — please cite by author and year of publication.

  40. Submitted by John E Iacono on 08/24/2010 - 09:53 am.

    (#34) scott gibson says:
    “I am sorry that your experience was condescending, Mr. Iacono. I sincerely doubt that would have occurred in my district.”

    Was and still is, Scott.

    I am sensitive to the problems experienced in rural districts, what with shrinking enrollment and the challenges it brings.

    I am also aware that teachers in rural districts have to cope with smaller pay and benefits packages than metro teachers. Some mitigation is relevant in view of lower living costs, but the income disparity is sometimes greater than that difference.

    Even so, government employees (including teachers) in rural areas are often the highest paid persons in the county. People working for minimum wage can feel just as burdened as city folk when the tax bill comes.

    On balance, it seems to me that the many benefits of living in rural areas do help offset the financial disparities involved. It’s a mixed blessing, but it IS nice to know your neighbors.

  41. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/24/2010 - 01:31 pm.

    //Thank you, Paul, for a clear exposition of why teacher formation, teacher and administrative staff attitudes are not a problem, unions are not a problem, outcomes are not a problem — only attitudes of the public are a problem

    The problem is public policy paralysis caused by constant diversions. Changes and improvements can always be made in the areas you describe above, but you’re neglecting forest at the expense of the trees. The priority should be creating an effective education system. You can bust unions, chastise teachers, and complain about staff, but they’re not the ones who cut budgets, drove the “back to basics” policy of rote memorization, or promoted teach to the test curriculum. Their also not the ones who turned text book publishing into a cultural battle ground.

    I know you Republicans are desperate to blame someone for the fact that 40 years of Republican policy have failed to deliver the promised results. And I know you’re favorite culprit is the faceless nameless government worker. The problem as always is reality. We’ll see how this blame game works out for you.

  42. Submitted by scott gibson on 08/24/2010 - 01:50 pm.

    In response to Mr. Swift: I have both B.S. in mathematics in both teaching and non-teaching forms. I have a minor in Computer Science with a, now non-supported, Cptr Sci in Ed. degree. I have a M.E. , a masters in education, not in mathematics, although I have learned that some schools will not grant lane changes for a masters unless it is in the area of expertise. As to our departing governor, Q-comp and Cheri Pearson Yecke, and the super-teacher movement are all attempts by Pawlenty to dilute or destroy the teachers unions. He has failed at all of them, yet still portrays himself nationally as being a big time ed reformer. Minnesota has pioneered open enrollment, charter schools and post secondary education options. As I mentioned, we are now trying to incorporate significant college credit options for high school students (something I am a part of).

    With consistently rank among the highest states in test scores and would rank well, globally. In Minnesota, a very high percentage of folks teaching in their classrooms have the necessary degrees. And, in rural areas, they may be among the best paid, but I am not ashamed of that. We often have invested the largest amount of time getting educated. We are on a salary schedule, meaning we can’t have boom or bust years like farmers/businessmen. We also can’t write off large percentages of our expenses or claim losses. Most moves from one district to another would actually result in lower pay (due to a loss of seniority). And similarly, if my salary were to be transferred to the metro area there many ‘middle class’ areas where I could not afford to live.

    Paying qualified public school teachers using the business model would cost the public more, not less. It would create a much less cooperative school environment. Think kids would benefit from that? I still think this is about money. I think the complainers would find many jobs that they feel could be done by unqualified workers. We are already seeing some of that ‘outsourcing’ in schools in attempts to stretch their monies. If you want to lose the professionalism that has been a hallmark of Minnesota schools, follow the Republican model.

  43. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/24/2010 - 05:08 pm.

    Ah for the good old days of President McKinley!
    No teachers unions — teachers were mostly single women with (at best) two year degrees from ‘normal schools’.
    Any idea what graduation rates were then?
    Of course, there were plenty of low paying (no minimum wage laws yet) jobs on the farms and in factories. I’d suggest a reading about conditions there.

  44. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/25/2010 - 08:23 am.

    //Even so, government employees (including teachers) in rural areas are often the highest paid persons in the county.

    Actually the highest paid persons in rural areas are farmers. The median income for MN farmers is $107,000. Very few government workers make that much.

    It’s also interesting to note that per capita, rural residents receive about $3,000 more in government aid and subsidies than urban residents.

  45. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/25/2010 - 08:45 am.

    All these complaints about the teacher’s unions are yet another example of the conservative obfuscation that has paralyzed public policy for 40 years. We’re trying to talk about improving the education system and instead we get these ideological attacks on labor. The complaint is that the unions obstruct and interfere with innovation. The problem is that Republican “innovations” are always veiled attempts to bust unions, so it’s not about improving education, it’s about busting unions. Well you can’t walk into a room with that agenda and expect cooperation.

    Busting unions is a purely ideological agenda. Besides the public education system another complaint Republicans have about the 20th century is the rise of organized labor. Republicans don’t believe in organized labor that can collectively negotiate contracts. Trickle down economics requires cheap labor that facilitates wealth concentration. There can be no trickle without concentration of wealth.

    This has nothing to with reality on the ground when it comes to building and running public institutions like school systems. One can work with unions. Unions all over the world, and throughout history have demonstrated a willingness to negotiate wage cuts and freezes during budget crises. All of Minnesota’s public worker unions have accepted pay and benefit cuts over the last two or three contract negotiations. Workers can provide invaluable insight regarding efficiencies and cost savings. But when the end game is always busting the union rather than working with the union you’re setting up confrontations. Obviously such confrontations don’t bode well for problem solving and innovation.

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