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‘Beat the odds’ schools: exploring their lessons

Last month, when the results of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments were released, for the second year running more than half of those schools that “beat the odds” — that is, have both high test scores and high poverty rates — catered to a single ethnic or racial group.

The north Minneapolis charters Harvest Prep and Seed Academy, for instance, serve impoverished African-Americans who score well above state averages. Twin Cities International Elementary and Higher Ground Academy both post higher-than-average scores from African immigrants.

And then last week, my colleague Cynthia Boyd, author of MinnPost’s Community Sketchbook blog, posted a story about a recent survey that showed an exceptional percentage of Somali children enter kindergarten ready to learn, according to standardized measurements. She talked to a number of educators and service providers while putting together her article, which mentioned Somali parents’ intense interest in education as one possible factor.

Talking about the intersection of race, culture and education is about as charged a conversation as exists today — something I daresay is reflected by some recent red-hot comment threads on this very site. It’s easy for people to look at a particular set of numbers and assume that the message to be gleaned is that one group of kids is better positioned to learn, or otherwise holds the keys to the kingdom of success.

Cindy and I have had a couple of conversations about this in recent days because we’re both interested in continuing to explore the lessons these statistical outlier schools hold for anyone interested in closing the achievement gap.

Article bears revisiting
As a part of that exchange, she passed along a link to a story The New York Times ran a couple of years ago that I think bears revisiting in light of this discussion. The article took a look at what was then 138 charter schools that focused on specific immigrant or ethnic groups.

Among other things, it quoted a Somali parent with kids at the aforementioned Twin Cities International Elementary describing the appeal for her family. A snippet, to convince you it’s worth reading:

Some critics argue that these kinds of charter schools are contributing to a growing re-segregation of public education, and that they run counter to the long-held idea of public schools as the primary institution of the so-called “melting pot,” the engine that forges a common American identity among immigrants from many countries.

“One of the primary reasons that American society supports public schools is to give everyone a solid civic education,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian, “the sort of education that comes from learning together with others from different backgrounds.”

But there’s isolation, alienation
But Dr. Suárez-Orozco says the reality is that most new immigrants become isolated in public schools, and that large numbers of them become alienated over time and fail to graduate.

A place like Minnesota, with its strong charter-school movement, offers immigrant parents, who have long been conflicted about their children becoming Americanized, a strong voice in their children’s education, Dr. Suárez-Orozco said, and shows their eagerness to participate in democracy.

Aren’t you curious both about the phenomenon and about what it would take to have a constructive conversation about this? I am. I hope you’ll let us know if you have ideas.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/21/2011 - 01:15 pm.

    Diane Ravitch is among the very best writers on education, and the rationale quoted here for public education is among the strongest. Genuinely public education is one of the very few cultural institutions remaining that actually promotes democracy – not just political democracy, but economic and social democracy as well. That said, there are numerous interesting – and potentially threatening – points raised about the nexus of race, culture and education.

    To Beth’s not-entirely-rhetorical question at the end, my answer is yes. I’m curious about the phenomenon, and about the possibility of having a constructive “conversation” about it.

    Among the things that strike me in the ongoing debate / shouting match over what schools should or shouldn’t be doing, and how they should be doing it, is how little attention gets paid to these “outlier” schools. As a former planning commissioner, I know that planners routinely read about and proselytize about “best practices”: techniques, ordinances, working relationships, materials, and so on that actually produce the desired results, and that do so relatively economically and dependably. Somewhere, there’s probably an education-centered website that’s focused on precisely that, but I don’t know what it is, and as someone who’s no longer a practitioner in the classroom, my level of self-interest in whatever that site might offer is admittedly less immediate than it would have been 20 years ago.

    Still, “best practices” ought to be something worth investigating and replicating in education. Trying to do that will uncover a host of problems, I’m fairly certain, not least of which are the perennial “scaling up” and “burning out” issues that have plagued educational (and other) innovations almost from their inception. Lots of programs work wonderfully in a single classroom, or even a single school, with a particular set of teachers, students, and community expectations and support, but are quite a bit less successful, even flat-out failures, in other circumstances, with different teachers, students, and / or community expectations and support.

    Education is already extremely labor-intensive, intellectually and emotionally demanding work. New techniques and approaches often, simply because they’re new and untried, place an even greater demand on all concerned. Sometimes, those demands ease over time, but sometimes they don’t, and when they don’t, it’s fairly common for their advocates and practitioners to reach a point of what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, exhaustion. Adrenalin and the excitement and anticipation of something novel simply can’t carry either teachers or students forever.

    Be that as it may, yes, I’m interested in both the phenomenon and the fact that a “constructive conversation” about it might well require some extra effort or consideration. In itself, that tells me that this part of our national conversation continues to be prickly.

  2. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 10/22/2011 - 12:36 am.

    Thanks for Beth’s invitation to discuss these issues.
    Some ideas can be transferred. We helped the Cincinnati district public schools increase overall graduation rate by more than 25 points, and eliminate the high school graduation gap between white and African American students. We used a variety of research based strategies which I wrote about on Minnpost, here:

  3. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 11/30/2012 - 02:18 pm.

    I believe we can have a rational discussion about the persistence of racial segregation in our schools and how best to overcome it. I don’t believe this will be a pleasant discussion, because the topic of racism never has been and never will be pleasant, but we cannot avoid it. Whenever a majority-nonwhite school does well, we need to pay attention, and I thank Beth Hawkins and Cynthia Boyd for calling to our attention all schools that “beat the odds,” particularly when those odds include racism.

    I believe the only long-term solution to this problem is to overcome the racial segregation of our neighborhoods, which will require us to integrate our workplaces as well. Although I believe in social integration, I also believe social integration may have to follow economic integration.

    During the 1970s, I believe we put the cart before the horse when we tried to achieve economic integration by means of social integration. By mixing children of different races in our schools, we imagined we could overcome economic racism. Children who went to school together, we assumed, would grow up to work together, to earn similar wages, and to live in the same neighborhoods.

    What we failed to realize was how racism persists for as long as disproportionate poverty still determines the stereotype by which a race is marked. In the 1970s, the children of the poor, particularly if they were black, continued to be stigmatized, even as they were partially integrated, in some places, with the children of the rich. It was mistakenly assumed that mere exposure to privileged children (assumed to be mostly white) would be “good for” underprivileged children (assumed to be mostly non-white). Unfortunately, it was also assumed that mere exposure to underprivileged children would be “bad for” the privileged ones. These two assumptions, I believe, account for the strong backlash against bussing, especially among privileged white folks, but also among black folks who resented the related (and also mistaken) assumption that the only way they could improve was by becoming “white.”

    We need to put the horse in front of the cart. Here’s what I propose: Instead of bussing children, we need to bus our money, distributing it from rich districts to poor ones, so that every student gets what he or she needs. If we do this, and do it well, then maybe it won’t be necessary in the near future for every school to achieve perfect racial integration, though this always has been and always will be desirable wherever we can make it happen without directly threatening the success of majority-nonwhite schools that “beat the odds.” If we succeed in educating underprivileged children better than we have in the past, they will grow up to overcome both their poverty and their stigma. They will themselves join an integrated workforce and choose to live in integrated neighborhoods. Finally, the schools themselves will be racially integrated.

    I don’t know whether this sketch of a plan is realistic. I believe that our whole culture, except for a few enclaves, is prejudiced in favor of whiteness, and I believe that both now and in the foreseeable future, we must practice some kind of affirmative action to overcome this prejudice. However, a purely anti-racist policy that fails to change the economic inequality in our schools seems to me likely to fail, just as a purely anti-poverty policy that fails to take racism into account is likely to fail.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/24/2011 - 11:48 am.

    Before this discussion gets mired in disinformation, allow me to put to rest the notion that more, or even unlimited public school funding will save minority kids…been there, done that; failed miserably.

    The discussion that makes everyone queasy is the one that adresses the near complete collapse of the black American family, but it’s one that has to be addressed.

    Solid, dedicated parenting, dedicated Teaching Professionals and cohesive public support, in that order, are what is lacking in the public system.

    When the focus ceases to be providing a source for high paying, trade labor union style jobs, very last necessary ingredient to a successful academic experience is funding.

  5. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 10/24/2011 - 12:00 pm.

    Beth and Cynthia and all, this is a good discussion topic. Note that Joe and and yourselves are talking about two related but different topics. Harvest Prep and SEED score well on MCA’s while the metric to which Joe is referring is graduation rates and college success. With regard to Harvest Prep I believe they use a more scientifically justified reading curriculum. In Minneapolis those within the district’s leadership that promote this and add frequent and continuous measurement and problem solving as effective practices have been marginalized. Although I think this is changing I think a look at what actual instructional model is being used is worth pursuing. As Larry Cuyban says, “It is far easier to change school structures, like the length of the school year or the size of a school, than to change what goes on inside classrooms.” It is also more rewarding in terms of student achievement. There is too much focus on changes other than instruction. Eric just a comment about money. I think we have bussed our money but not from wealthy districts but poor ones that do not have racial disparities to those that do. I think Mpls is on a par for student spending with the western suburbs but way ahead of say North Branch.

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