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MPS celebrates making bigger-than-statewide gains

It might have been a lack of coffee, or it might be the fatalism that can result from the daily grind in an urban school district, but Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson had to repeat herself several times before she got a rise out of the audience yesterday at the year’s first Minneapolis Public Schools principals’ meeting.

After years of posting lackluster scores on standardized state tests, MPS students and their teachers last year made meaningful gains in math and reading on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments [PDF]. More than that, they made bigger gains than students statewide, particularly among impoverished minorities.

“I had to stop and say, ‘Did you hear what I’m saying?’ ” Johnson laughed as she retold the story a couple of hours later. “After I said it four times, there was applause.”

On virtually every measure, MPS kids’ growth outpaced students statewide. In some schools, students made double-digit gains.

Almost exactly a year ago, Johnson broke down in tears at a school board meeting after responding to questions about a second consecutive year of 1 percent gains. A wee gain is better than no gain, she said then, but at that rate it would take half a century to bring every student up to par. The lack of real progress toward closing the achievement gap imperiled generations of kids.

Momentum could eventally close gap
With just 56 percent of students reading at grade level, overall academic proficiency is still way too low, Johnson said yesterday. But if the pace of change is sustainable, the gap could actually close.

“The momentum we can get from this, the excitement — to get these results in an urban district,” she said. “Now we have something to build on.”

In grades 3-8, reading scores increased 4 percent over last year. Among white students, the gain was still just 1 percent. But the number of African-American students who met or exceeded state reading standards rose 6 percent and Latinos 5 percent. Asian students gained 5 percent and American Indians 3 percent over two years.

Also over two years, gains by English-language learners, special-ed students and kids who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch were 4, 5 and 5 percent, respectively.

In response to a new, tougher test, math scores went down — but by less than they did in Minnesota overall. In the 11th grade, where students took the old test, MPS kids made a 7 percent gain. And in eighth-grade reading, the district’s proficiency level rose by 8 percent, versus 1 percent statewide.

Most educators and policymakers alike agree that standardized tests administered largely to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind act, like the MCAs, are a poor use of time and money. The most interesting data they yield is often the identification of outliers — high-poverty schools that post high scores or outsized gains.

Johnson has already scoured MPS’ data in search of internal “outliers,” programs and instructors that posted double-digit gains.

Immersion-school students did well
Students at two Spanish-immersion schools did particularly well: Windom gained nearly 17 percent in reading, for example, while students at Emerson gained more than 12 percent. Education scholars believe language-immersion schools have a couple of advantages when it comes to gap-closing. Because they are working to keep up with classroom discussions, students tend to stay engaged. And because the second language is new to everyone, socioeconomic differences matter less.

Northrup pupils gained 11 percent and Washburn, which underwent a “fresh start” wholesale reorganization four years ago, 9.6 percent.

At the principals’ meeting, Johnson even name-checked a few highly effective instructors. “These teachers clearly have to serve as examples with their practice, so we can figure out what they’re doing and how to replicate it,” she said. “We’re understanding what quality teaching looks like.”

A deliberate strategy for reading gains
Johnson credits the elementary-level reading gains to a deliberate strategy: assigning each school a literacy coach and using formative assessments — mini-tests delivered on the fly — to identify gaps in individual kids’ skills. This approach is also used in many of the high-poverty, high-proficiency schools that show up on Twin Cities “beat-the-odds” lists.

This is the second year Johnson has insisted that MPS teachers have every kindergartener reading at a basic level by winter break. Last year, this goal was met with no small amount of grumbling on the part of teachers, many of whom found it unrealistic.

She’s hoping the gains announced yesterday help convince district staff that aiming higher is part of the equation for success. “We cannot lose the sense of urgency,” Johnson said. “We cannot lose the sense of importance.

“Today in Minneapolis Public Schools we are going to celebrate and acknowledge what we’ve done,” the superintendent concluded. “And then we’re going to get back to work.”

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/15/2011 - 01:46 pm.

    My beloved granddaughter – the only reason I’m a Minnesotan instead of a Coloradan – is 3 years away from the Minneapolis Public Schools. Ms. Johnson can only guess at the degree to which I will insist that both she and the district’s staff not just continue, but intensify, their focus on “…We cannot lose the sense of urgency…We cannot lose the sense of importance.”

    That said, I am not at all surprised that it appears the “deliberate strategy” for better learning flies in the face of current legislative policy-making, since it requires labor, time and attention-intensive instruction by actual teachers who, it should be said, ought not to be expected to deliver their skills and attention without just compensation. The goal of most industrial production is to lower labor costs, and to make as much production as possible automatic and machine-driven. Education ought to serve as the antithesis of “industrial,” and in doing so, it cannot be made “cost-effective” in the corporate or manufacturing sense.

    That an urban district has managed to make at least some minor inroads in the ongoing erosion of public education by ideological and political forces that have, themselves, either no idea, or only the narrowest set of ideas, as what ought to be included in an education, and why, and how, is a minor miracle. The trick will be to “scale-up” so that what is working in language-immersion and high-proficiency schools is practiced in every school. That will require a renewed dedication on the part of teachers who have been under attack since I arrived here, an acknowledgment of the difficulty of their task by both the public and policy-makers, and funding that the Governor and legislature have not been willing to provide since my arrival in Minnesota. In fact, the opposite has been occurring in terms of funding, a self-destructive tendency that remains among my primary complaints about the state and its political culture.

  2. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 09/15/2011 - 03:55 pm.

    Ray;

    One of the ways the district has managed to “scaffold” individual students’ skills is by using federal turnaround dollars to hire retired educators who “get” just that dichotomy to work with kids during school days that are longer, essentially, by a couple of class periods. Because it can’t contractually ask teachers to work those extra periods, and because teachers need time to work together in professional learning communities to figure out exactly what each kid needs, those educators cover the extra time. Pretty darn slick, huh?

    Know any retired educators who “get” that dichotomy? Just sayin’…

  3. Submitted by Linda Miller on 09/15/2011 - 03:57 pm.

    I think the Minneapolis Public Schools are doing many good things with too little classroom funding; so we should celebrate and acknowledge the gains made on these tests. There are many dedicated teachers and staff throughout the district.

    However, Washburn’s test scores increased mainly because they changed attendance boundaries for that school, forcing the mostly middle class kids in the neighborhood to go there, and vastly changing its demographics.
    Keep an eye on what is happening at South – they were the sacrificial lamb and I would guess their test scores won’t be improving a great deal in the near future.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/15/2011 - 08:55 pm.

    Hmmm. Retired educators? Is there an implication there somewhere, Beth?

    How long will the “federal turnaround dollars” last? That question comes, not from from a concern for the economic well-being of the “retired educators” who may be participants, but from a concern over the longevity and effectiveness of the program. This is something that, if it continues to work as it apparently has, needs to be ongoing and long-term, as long as a need can be demonstrated and genuinely positive results obtained. We already fail to fund public schools adequately at the state level, and I’d expect the federal turnaround dollars to go away, given the right wing’s stranglehold on Washington policy. After all, Mrs. Bachmann would eliminate the Department of Education altogether. When those federal dollars disappear, what will replace them?

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