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Some painful truths about Minneapolis Public Schools’ academic progress

Photo by Ann Marsden
Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is fond of saying that culture will eat strategy for lunch.

Here is an ugly thought I have been holding at bay for a few months: What if we — and by we I mean the public officials, taxpayers, families, educators and others who make up Minneapolis — are in the process of squandering the collective sense of urgency we’ve been creating around equity in education?

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is fond of saying that culture will eat strategy for lunch. What if the culture she has been trying, with broad swaths of the city behind her, to change for four years has taken a final, fatal bite of her once-bold strategy?

That’s the question I had when I saw the most recent annual report on academic progress, which was presented to the Minneapolis School Board earlier this week. The presentation dispensed with the bad news in two broad-overview PowerPoint slides labeled “Incremental District Progress” and “Significant Disparities Exist.” The appendix containing the Dickensian fine print was not discussed, just uploaded to the board’s online agenda where those in the know can find it.

Here are some of its unpalatable truths:

3rd grade reading proficiency, by race/ethnicity
Source: Minneapolis Public Schools

Third grade is the time by which basic literacy is required if a student is to stand a chance of keeping up in other subjects. One in six Native American third-graders now reads at grade level vs. 44 percent in 2010. One in five African American third-graders are proficient, as are 23 percent and 24 percent of Latinos and Africans, respectively.

Yes, reading scores fell statewide two years ago because of the implementation of higher standards. But they fell less for white students than for students of color and American Indians. And it doesn’t necessarily mean the proficient students are brilliant — it simply means they are on track to be prepared to start college.

With the exception of a four-point uptick for Native Americans, literacy does not rise as students go from grade to grade. Reading proficiency in all grades is 10 percent for English-language learners, 15 percent for special education students and 23 percent for students in poverty.

Math is a tiny bit better; science is actually worse, with some proficiency rates in the single-digits.

The percentage of students scoring a 21 or better on the college admissions ACT test is 35. District materials explain that this is the national average and the score needed to qualify for admission to a state college, but University of Minnesota figures show that the average scores for those entering its academic colleges in 2014 range from 25 to 31.

Just 13 percent of impoverished students, 11 percent of African Americans, 10 percent of Latinos and 1 percent of English-language-learners score 21 on the ACT.

Percent of students scoring a 21 or higher on the ACT — overall and by student group (2014)
Source: Minneapolis Public Schools

Thirty-four of the district’s 70 schools are in one of the three federally defined categories of schools that persistently fail their students. MPS’ alternative learning centers graduate 14 percent of their students. Wellstone International graduates 10 percent.

The presentation came at the end of a marathon board meeting — the last for three of its members— at which a majority voted itself a modest pay increase. Johnson was under the weather and not in attendance.

Her absence was palpable. When Johnson’s tenure as superintendent began, an outside consultant warned that MPS administration was best viewed as a series of “silos” whose occupants did not communicate with one another and were ambivalent about their leader’s vision.

That ambivalence stretched down through the ranks to the classroom level. Some teachers and principals have embraced Johnson’s goal of using data to drive effective instruction while others — half by some accounts — have simply ignored the initiative.

When last year’s dismal report was tendered, Johnson announced a “more focused” strategy that would lean heavily on early literacy and place co-teachers in classrooms in struggling schools. A team of associate superintendents would work closely with schools to see that proven gap-closing strategies were implemented.

Instead of reviewing this year’s dismal numbers, district brass Tuesday night focused on a list of interventions planned or underway. There’s no reason to doubt the leaders presenting the strategies have the capacity to implement them — except for past experience.

The penultimate slide in the presentation was entitled “Meaningful Change Takes Time and Dedicated Effort.” The associated graphic was a chart depicting eight steps toward organizational change that dipped precipitously at the halfway point, labeled “period of disruption,” which followed “sense of urgency” and “resistance.”

Source: Minneapolis Public Schools

A yellow arrow at the bottom of the curve — a perhaps-unfortunate adaptation of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ famed stages of death and dying — suggested that the alternative to pushing through to a “new way” was to abandon the shift and return to the status quo.

The disruption, CEO Michael Goar explained, is a systemic change that threatens MPS’ central office bureaucracy. The smaller the administrative staff, the larger the share of its $250 million cost that can be directed to schools empowered to make their own decisions about how to spend it.

The notion that it might be a watershed moment rings true. What if we have announced the same bold plan and failed to implement it so many times that the vision has lost its luster — and more problematic, the sense of possibility?

The room was packed with talent and leadership at last lined up behind a more unified vision. Whether it’s one shared by the board seated next month remains to be seen. 

Comments (38)

  1. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 12/12/2014 - 09:35 am.

    Mpls 3rd Grade Test Scores

    ” it doesn’t necessarily mean the proficient students are brilliant — it simply means they are on track to be prepared to start college.”

    Since many people won’t or can’t go to college, why are they being taught to be English majors? Many of them will get great jobs as carpenters, salespersons, meatcutters, plumbers, cooks, car mechanics, health aides, landscapers or snowplow drivers. Why don’t they teach those languages?

    The average IQ is still 100, I believe. Think about it.

    • Submitted by Dana DeMaster on 12/12/2014 - 10:06 am.

      Everyone needs to be literate

      Every one of those jobs requires literacy levels not required 30 years ago. The need to read and understand text is critical for everyone – even those who don’t go to a four-year college. Nearly all the jobs mentioned above require at least some post-secondary education.

      • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 12/12/2014 - 03:00 pm.

        Not Everyone Needs Post-Secondary Education

        Landscapers and Snow Plow Drivers need post-secondary education???? This is the mentality that is letting our public schools off the hook.

        When I graduated from High School in 1969, half of my classmates got half way decent jobs as secretaries or entry level jobs in the trades or manufacturing without any further education. These jobs have not fundamentally changed over the last 40 years. What has changed is that kids coming out of high school no longer have the skills that they used to get.

        The public schools are so focused on trying to get everyone ready for college, we’ve totally given up on kids who are not on the academic track. The schools no longer teach typing, or have shop classes. These are the classes that used to teach real skills that kids could use to get a decent job. Not only that, but these classes also created the context for kids to learn to read plans and do basic math.

        Public schools need to turn back the clock and get back to teaching basic real life skills.

        • Submitted by Elsa Mack on 12/12/2014 - 07:46 pm.

          1969 was a long time ago

          Secretarial work, at least, has changed enormously in the digital age, and I would bet a lot of jobs in manufacturing have as well. Changed or disappeared entirely.

          While I agree that not all students in public schools should be prepared for college, reading is absolutely a basic life skill without which it is very difficult to fully function in modern society. And if the kids can’t read, they’re going to have trouble learning anything else.

    • Submitted by jody rooney on 12/12/2014 - 10:32 am.

      Third grade english is probably reading

      for some understanding of what you read and writing so that you can convey simple thoughts to people who they can’t talk to. They aren’t teaching Shakespeare, or writing novels.

      I would be really disappointed if the people in the professions you mentioned couldn’t read instructions or communicate in writing in addition to verbally. I would be pretty sure the people in occupations on your list would be pretty insulted if you thought their jobs only required them to read and write at a third grade level. Heck the safety instructions alone on some of the equipment need to be read.

      Without being able to be comfortable reading you can only be exposed to the thoughts and ideas of people you meet, and you can only share them with people you can talk to. This limits your world pretty significantly.

    • Submitted by Jon Eisenberg on 12/13/2014 - 10:09 pm.

      First, the measure itself does not mean they are going to college. It is simply a measure of preparedness, so you can see if they are on track or not on track. Second, college includes both four year and two year colleges, such as Minneapolis Community and Technical COLLEGE. Minnesota employers are looking for well-educated and well-prepared employees. Employers deciding where to locate facilities evaluate states and localities carefully according to how educated their workforce is. It is important that as many students as possible be PREPARED to attend college so that they have the opportunity to do so if they wish to pursue further education. To be successful in today’s work environment, they need it. Today, even manufacturing jobs require many employees to be computer operators.

    • Submitted by Theo Kozel on 12/18/2014 - 09:25 am.

      I interpret this differently

      I think the point of using “prepared [on track] to start college” as a measure is to give kids some sort of choice in their lives. If they are not on track at an early age the decision about whether or not they will go to college will have already been made for them- they simply cannot. There’s nothing wrong with being a carpenter, plumber, etc. – in fact for a great many people that’s the best choice. But reaching college age and not having any choice to go to college at all is not an acceptable educational outcome.

  2. Submitted by John Egekrout on 12/12/2014 - 10:03 am.

    deja vu

    This article could just as well have been written in 2004 or even 1994 instead of 2014. We keep looking to the schools to solve the problems of our society. Schools are a product of our society, and not vice versa. I’ve said it before and I will say it again – show me the number of students on free and reduced lunch and I will tell you what the test scores are like.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 12/15/2014 - 09:52 am.

      Chickens or Eggs

      I agree whole heartedly that wealth and grades are directly correlated.

      The factors that keep people financially poor seem to also cause them to be academically poor.

      Now for the big question: What to do about it?

      Spending more on welfare and schools does not seem to be working. What next…

    • Submitted by Maria Anderson on 12/17/2014 - 03:58 pm.


      That is classist, and plain mean. People get their children on the free and reduced lunch program for a variety of reasons, none of which are necessarily caused by a lack of educational prowess. I think you made poor folks an easy target, when it is clear that kids in the main, ever shrinking, middle class are struggling in our public schools as well. Things are more complex than your flip comment, sir.
      Maria Anderson
      proud mama of a free lunch kid

  3. Submitted by Rod Loper on 12/12/2014 - 10:08 am.

    Why does it have to be college?

    Trying to steer every kid from challenging circumstances toward
    a college degree is dooming both the school and the kids to

    • Submitted by jody rooney on 12/12/2014 - 10:41 am.

      The college scores are just

      used as a proxy for progress in this article not as an indictment of occupations that don’t require additional learning.

      I would however agree that the elimination of “shop” from secondary schools has done a significant disservice to students that are not academically inclined . There isn’t a gender breakdown in the article but I believe that we are failing boys more than we are failing girls regardless of race/ethnicity in the schools.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/12/2014 - 10:29 am.

    Language matters

    I would argue that a sentence in the article needs to be reworded.

    The original states, “…Thirty-four of the district’s 70 schools are in one of the three federally defined categories of schools that persistently fail their students.”

    That sentence should be reworded to say, “…Thirty-four of the district’s 70 schools are in one of the three federally defined categories of schools where students persistently fail.”

    Schools don’t fail. A teacher sometimes might. A parent sometimes might. Mostly, it’s students who fail. The relevant question(s) remain:


    What, if anything, can we do about it?

    Unless it can be shown that Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American kids in Wayzata, Edina, Orono, Maple Grove and other affluent suburban districts fail at the same rates as their MPS counterparts, the appalling failure rate has nothing to do with race. I’ve so far seen no comparison(s) made in the ‘Strib, on MinnPost, or in other local media between MPS students of color and more affluent suburban district students of color. If the response is that there just aren’t many students of color in those more-affluent suburban districts, why, I think we might have a clue to at least one of the culprits for those failure rates in MPS schools. The SCOTUS had something to say about that 60 years ago, I believe…

    It might also be useful to make a comparison between MPS students of color and *less* affluent suburban district students of color. Brooklyn Center comes readily to mind, but there are likely others, and if there are significant minority populations in some outstate communities, comparison with their urban/MPS counterparts might be instructive.

    What I suspect, and it’s only a suspicion, since I’ve conducted no research on this, is that the time-honored and largely ignored mantra that socioeconomic position remains the single best indicator of student academic success may well be one we ignore mostly by choice. To do otherwise would require not just funneling more state aid to MPS, and perhaps to St. Paul schools as well, but an admission of wholesale racial *and* economic segregation throughout the metro area, with all the pernicious effects that accompany that segregation. Such an admission might require wholesale change in the way the state and its economy operate, so that the socioeconomic position of a huge portion of those families whose students are currently failing miserably improved significantly.

    I also suspect, again without any research, that Ms. Johnson’s allegation that “culture eats strategy for lunch” may well be true, not only in the sense in which she used it, which I think was directed more at the culture within MPS district schools and among district staff, where resistance to change may well be difficult to overcome, but also in a sense that she pointedly ignored, and that is the culture of poverty-stricken families, and the place that education, and academics in general, occupy in those families. I suspect the resistance to change in that context might be at least as difficult to overcome as any resistance encountered in MPS schools and among their staffs.

    It’s not as if these issues, particularly the achievement gap, are unique to the Twin Cities, or even to Minnesota. The same issues have been on the figurative table in urban areas (and some rural ones, too) all across the country. Specific minorities and/or their proportions will vary, but the gap is still there, though perhaps not quite as jaw-dropping as it currently is in MPS. Education is a tenuous and fragile seedling in a society that provides boundless amounts of trivial entertainment. Nurturing that seedling requires resources readily available to the comfortable and affluent, not so much, or not at all, to those who are not.

    How many column-inches does the newspaper of record in Minneapolis devote to sports over the course of a week? How many minutes of airtime on local TV? How many column-inches and/or minutes of airtime are devoted to the academic success of those MPS students who ARE successful? Which is more likely to be seen as important, given the media coverage it receives?

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 12/15/2014 - 08:42 am.


      “I also suspect, again without any research, that Ms. Johnson’s allegation that “culture eats strategy for lunch” may well be true, not only in the sense in which she used it, which I think was directed more at the culture within MPS district schools and among district staff, where resistance to change may well be difficult to overcome, but also in a sense that she pointedly ignored, and that is the culture of poverty-stricken families, and the place that education, and academics in general, occupy in those families. I suspect the resistance to change in that context might be at least as difficult to overcome as any resistance encountered in MPS schools and among their staffs.”

      This is really the nut of it. If you use the exact same teachers, using the exact same programs, under the supervision of the exact same administrators, you’ll get very different results in wealthy Edina versus the poorer neighborhoods of Minneapolis. I’m sure some improvement from the school side is *possible* but it’s not the driver of disparity here.
      I don’t know of any reasonable way of changing that culture to make student progress more likely. Does anyone have any ideas?

    • Submitted by Theo Kozel on 12/18/2014 - 09:47 am.

      Good post

      I like your post overall and agree that socioeconomic factors should get greater emphasis. However, I think your statement “the appalling failure rate has nothing to do with race” is too strong. The importance of race is murky because different studies show different results (which is not all that unusual, really, when looking at such a complicated issue). Here is an MPR article that in part examines this issue of conflicting studies.

      Note the passage:

      “[Using] state MCA test scores as an example…In 2010, white students who were on free and reduced lunch still scored slightly better on math than black students who were not on free and reduced lunch, 57 percent to 53 percent.”

      I would say race likely has something to do with the achievement gap, but emphasis on it has perhaps been disproportionate.

  5. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 12/12/2014 - 11:31 am.

    I am consistently impressed

    by the insight and intelligence Mr. Schoch demonstrates in his comments to MinnPost.

    Thank you, sir.

  6. Submitted by Jim Bartholomew on 12/12/2014 - 01:25 pm.

    deja vu – not true!

    An earlier comment – “show me the number of students on free and reduced lunch and I will tell you what the test scores are like.”

    This is wrong……!

    There are plenty of schools in Minnesota and the U.S. that demonstrate every day that a student’s demographic status (e.g. income, race) does not determine their ability to learn and succeed in school.

    Students and schools face challenges, no question, but that does not mean they can’t succeed.

    We need to not only know what works, but put it into practice. Blaming poor results on students is not the answer (frankly, its insulting to students, families and educators).

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 12/15/2014 - 10:03 am.

      Please share with us which schools they are.

      After years of searching I have not found one. The ones that succeed have enrollment applications, enrollment interviews, student and parent behavior/effort contracts, take only the most dedicated, etc.

      In essence they are succeeding with parents and kids that are really willing to work at it and really want it. And they expel those who lose the drive.

      That is a HUGE difference from the students in the typical Mpls school.

      “You can take a horse to water but you can not make them drink.”

      HCZ is the only model that I think would work, but it requires a lot of money and no union resistance.

  7. Submitted by David Frenkel on 12/12/2014 - 01:33 pm.

    Social issues

    There should also charts overlaying achievement with poverty levels, single parent homes, those not living with a parent(s) and homeless children. Until we conquer poverty and broken homes we will not be able to properly educate most of these children.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/12/2014 - 05:21 pm.

      We will never conquer poverty. But we can conquer the link between poverty and the disintegration of families.

      Of course that will require the re-establishment of shame and personal responsibility as things of value into our society. It’s probably too late for that.

      I spent a decade fighting the status quo’s corrosive influence in public schools, even though my own kids were safely enrolled in quality private institutions. In hindsight fishing would have been a more worthwhile use of my time.

      • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 12/16/2014 - 10:28 am.

        We will never conquer poverty.

        Sounds like an excellent rationalization for ignoring the problem.

        “Re-establishment of shame and personal responsibility”? Some of the same right wingers who complain about personal responsibility have written multiple rubber checks or defaulted on large Federal loans. And no, it is not too late for changing this.

        Your fight against “the status quo’s corrosive influence in public schools” included campaigning for school board against the “homosexual agenda” of the St. Paul schools.
        I agree that fishing would have been a more worthwhile use of your time.

  8. Submitted by Joe Weiner on 12/12/2014 - 02:12 pm.

    MDE Achievement Gap Data

    Students identified as proficient in Math and English per MDE’s District Achievement Gap data:


    Orono – White 85%, Black 52%, Hispanic 69%, LEP 59%
    Edina – White 90%, Black 25%, Hispanic 72%, LEP 64%
    Wayzata – White 90%, Black 60%, Hispanic 73%, LEP 76%


    Orono – White 86%, Black 48%, Hispanic 68%, LEP 47%
    Edina – White 89%, Black 61%, Hispanic 76%, LEP 54%
    Wayzata – White 89%, Black 60%, Hispanic 73%, LEP 59%

    Those gaps are huge and raise serious questions about how schools across the state educate students of color (MDE does not list information for Native American students in these districts presumably because the number of students does not meet a reporting threshold). While the disparities in these districts are not as horrible as in MPS, they do speak to the need for a larger discussion among all stakeholders statewide about addressing these disparities.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/16/2014 - 03:51 pm.


      These numbers are problematic. It’s clear that the issue isn’t as simple as teaching quality or income, but something (or things) very specific to race. I would like to see the numbers normalized to educational status of the parents, as well as by income.

      Part of the gap might be that students don’t have the benefit of experience of the parents. In other words, it’s easier for a student to recognize, or at least take for granted, the benefit of education if their parents benefited from it. Academically gifted students need to be challenged and those less gifted need to be guided through the difficulties of working toward achievement. If the parents don’t have experience with those difficulties, they have a hard time providing guidance. My experience getting into college and then grad school, dealing with scholarship applications, making decisions about schools and preparing for student life, followed by success in a career were all on my own as neither of my parents had any idea how to help. Lucky for me, I didn’t need too much guidance. But other need to learn the skill of independence, and generally, it’s a parent that teaches it.

  9. Submitted by Bill McKinney on 12/12/2014 - 03:24 pm.

    MPS Results

    Very disappointing results. I’m a parent of 3 Minneapolis kids, and we’ve been fortunate that they’ve had a great experience and have done well academically. The race/economic status comparisons mentioned above are definitely worth considering. There’s clearly something to the concentration of kids that need more help being a confounding factor, though. For anyone who wants to go digging, the state has an outstanding database of results that is very easy to navigate and has very rich data.

    Looking at the same districts highlighted above on some of the factors that are clearly at play:

    % Free and reduced lunch
    Orono – 7.9%
    Edina – 7.9%
    Wayzata – 13.2%
    Mpls – 64.8%

    English language learners
    Orono – 1.8%
    Edina – 4.2%
    Wayzata – 2.1%
    Mpls – 24.6%

    Racial makeup % white/black/Hispanic/Asian/other
    Orono – 93%/1%/3%/2%/0%
    Edina – 80%/6%/4%/10%/0%
    Wayzata – 72%/8%/4%/16%/0%
    Mpls – 33%/37%/19%/7%/4%

    I’m not excusing the performance or taking anything away from the success of the districts mentioned, but comparing the two and suggesting they are comparable is absurd. It’s also extremely important to compare the relative size of the districts we’re talking about. Minneapolis has 36K students. Orono has <3K, Wazata has 10K, and Edina has 8.5K. To put it in perspective Minneapolis has more ELL kids than Edina has total kids. Minneapolis has 2X more free and reduced lunch kids than Wayzata has TOTAL kids. Minneapolis has 2.5X more special ed kids than Orono has TOTAL kids. Heck, Roosevelt High School has more ELL kids than the entire Wayzata district.

    When your ratio of kids that need extra help (say poor, special ed, or ELL) to those that don't is 1:10-15, it's a lot easier to see how you get them to 50-60% proficient. When it's 3:1, it's clearly much more difficult. To me it's pretty shocking that a district like Orono which has incredible resources can get barely half of its African-American kids to the proficient level. For crying out loud, they ONLY HAVE 39 African-American kids. They should be ashamed!

    A quick look vs. suburban districts with similar demographics to Minneapolis (Brooklyn Center and Richfield are close on poverty and race) indicates that Minneapolis is consistently outperforming Brooklyn Center (proficiency, 4-year grad rate), and outperforming Richfield on proficiency but lagging them on 4-year grad rate.

    Just sayin'!

    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 12/14/2014 - 11:27 am.

      Problem with your conclusion

      On one hand you excuse school districts failure on the percentage of the population which is impoverished. Then despite the fact Orono’s achievement levels for African American students appears to be twice that of Minneapolis you say they should be ashamed. What is not provided however is the percentage of the population in question which is empoverished. For all we know 100% of the African American children in Orono might fall in that category. That would make Orono’s performance look exceptional. There simply isn’t enough information for you to come to your opinion rationally.

      It is interesting that a city which has been run exclusively by progressives/Democrats since the early sixties, with a school board that has typically been politically left of the mayor and city council, has made little to no progress in their core goals with education. A general philosophy with over fifty years of complete control with nothing to show for it. It is especially telling that the main excuse for this multi decade failure is that it is an issue of demographics. That poverty makes success to difficult or impossible. An excuse that seems to blatantly contridict the foundational progressive mantra that education can cure poverty.

      Maybe people should listen to Bernadeia Johnson when she says “Culture will eat strategy for lunch”. It always has and always will. The numbers reflect a failure in academic culture, not academic strategy.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/15/2014 - 12:12 pm.

        “A general philosophy…with nothing to show for it.”

        You are too kind to those in MPS who come up with failed scheme after failed scheme by calling what they have cooked up a “philosophy”.

        You could as well have called it “a system of fixed, rigid ideation” rather than a “general philosophy”.

        It is an article of faith with these folks that the dreadful outcomes is about NOTHING except race and poverty, NOTHING. In particular and most especially, it has NOTHING to do with personal responsibility. And if you disagree, they’ll talk about your “mindset” – a code word for racism. You see, their system of faith has led even to their own coded (and loaded) language, especially suited to finger-pointing and hand-washing.

        Ms. Johnson is on to something in her quote on the dogged persistence of culture. The culture in which these failing students were raised, and the culture of failure within the school administration, are two examples of “cultures” that are clearly involved in the MPS failure.

        Here’s my answer to your grand, top-down schemes in the matter of proficient reading: give virtually any child a half-hour to an hour of DAILY reading with an adult participant – really, ANY collaborator with reading skills will do – starting in kindergarten or even pre-school, and extending continuously to the third grade, and that child WILL PASS the 3rd grade reading proficiency tests. Every time.

        Call it A Thousand Days of Reading, a bottom-up solution. The only child who won’t succeed here is the truly impaired child. When you make a suggestion like this, the rigid monomaniacs (see above) come out with howls of racism, “mindset”, the impossibility of spending that amount of time with a child, etc. etc. Yet MILLIONS of people DO spend that extra time reading with their children, and the results are OBVIOUS – except to the implacable proponents of you-know-what.

        Reading proficiency requires that time and effort be invested in a child – in the most practical, consistent, down-to-earth ways, and with the persistence of the “culture” under discussion here. It does not require grand schemes of top-down systems.

        • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/16/2014 - 10:37 pm.


          This is a link to basically what Mr. Appelin provided, with a little more background:

          In effect, the idea that reading to kids more will solve the achievement gap is not backed up by the research.

          The actual data shows that sucess or failure is driven far more by who the child’s parents are (with income being a big factor) and not what the parents or schools do. This conclusion doesn’t really help as far as education policy goes, but maybe a start would be to stop blaming educators for something that is largely out of their control. I think Mr. Defor’s comment about teachers and policies in Minneapolis and Edina is spot on.

          • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/17/2014 - 08:10 am.

            That study drew sweeping conclusions based on…

            …self-reporting by parents, and took that self-reported data as fact. Self-reporting can produce extremely low quality information. In the study referenced, the conclusions the authors tout are almost entirely reliant on data of this type. I have learned through professional experience to regard data of this type as unreliable.

            Here’s another point, and it’s not trivial: that same study queried parents ONLY about reading TO their child. Starting at the point a child can recognize words, the reading I’m talking about is a two-way street, and before long, it’s basically the other way around – the CHILD READS to the parent. There is a huge difference here.

            Agreed: “something that is largely out of…control” of educators. If this is the case, of what use are all these grandiloquent, failed schemes MPS continually trots out ? I’m not saying they shouldn’t be trying, but when your thesis fails over and over again, it’s time to consider whether you need a new thesis.

            I appreciate your comments, but I disagree that this study establishes that it doesn’t matter what parents do – that only the attributes of the parents matter (socioeconomic, education, etc..

            • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/17/2014 - 01:11 pm.


              This is only one of many studies that shows that student performance is based largely on socioeconomic status. You may be able to pick around the edges with reading programs like you describe, etc. but for the most part, its something that schools can’t fix. The plans keep getting trotted out because we want to fix them and trying it through schools is much easier than eradicating poverty, which is the real problem.

              I’m all for trying. I did a lot of reading to my own child and feel that it was very valuable. My real issue here is blaming teachers (and school administrators) for failing to solve a problem that may be impossible to solve. Lots of people want to pretend that poverty isn’t the real problem and its just that schools in low income areas have hired poor teachers while schools in wealthy neighborhoods have great teachers. Its nonsense.

  10. Submitted by Bill McKinney on 12/12/2014 - 03:38 pm.

    Slight misreading…

    In reference to my previous comment, I misread Joe’s point. I thought the comparison was between Mpls’s proficiency and the wealthy suburban districts. He is spot on in pointing out the disparities WITHIN these districts. Given the relative size of the populations and the lack of concentration of poverty/ELL/Special Ed kids the numbers are remarkably bad. It speaks to the difficulty of the challenge.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/17/2014 - 09:52 am.


    For one thing I have to scold the author, Ms. Hawkins. If you’re going to present data, use the same metric consistently. Don’t compare 1/6 to 44%- it’s 17% compared to 44% (either that or convert 44% into a fraction What? 11/25?).

    Another question I have is: Why does the MPLS public school system have a CEO and a Superintendent?

    Anyways, I hate to say it but we can see here why this problem appears to be so intractable. We keep looking at the same data, as if merely looking at the data will solve a problem. The education gap is already so well documented as to be a “given” in the US educational system. Documenting the gap won’t resolve it. Likewise participation in free lunch programs has been well documented, but it doesn’t really explain the gap.

    I’ve read this article three times and maybe it’s just me, but I’m not seeing any real substance. Basically we know that Superintendent Johnson has been trying to implement some kind of “change”, and that change is difficult. We have a “chart” showing how change can be difficult. Apparently the attempts at change have met some indifference and even push-back. Meanwhile we have “data” that the achievement gap persists.

    Unfortunately none of this is a basis for a serious conversation about the education gap. In order to have that conversation we need to know exactly what “changes” have been attempted and why? That’s a nifty chart but another reason a “change” may fail is because it’s poorly executed or inherently ineffective. One reason people will ignore initiatives is that they judge them to be ineffective or worse. I’m not saying that’s the case here but we can’t pretend to be evaluating a policy without knowing what the policy actually is.

    Whatever this attempted “change” was, how was it implemented? Was it pushed down from the top across the board system wide or was it targeted to certain schools, and then expanded based on success and example?

    Data frequently has to be supplemented by information. For instance we can look the large population of Black students in MPLS but does that tell us how many of those Black students are from East African immigrant households? I’m guessing since MPLS has one of the largest Somali populations outside of Somalia a larger percentage of MPLS Black students are from Somali families than are the those in Orono or Edina? I think it’s safe to assume that such students have unique challenges that education policy would have to recognize and address.

    Looking at racial data Ad nauseam isn’t going produce good policy. Here’s what we know: we know that skin color doesn’t produce poor test scores. If Black students are performing poorly for instance, skin color doesn’t explain that. So on a basic level we have to ask why we spend so much time collecting data based on skin color? Not ALL black students perform poorly so you have to take a closer look at the students who are having difficulty and figure out WHY they’re having difficulty. You need to get from the general to the specific and find patterns or common characteristics that are creating challenges. Isn’t anyone doing that?

    Here’s something else we know: somebody somewhere knows how to deal with this. We have thousands of people all over the world studying psychology, neurology, linguistics, perception, sociology, anthropology, learning, and memory. We have decades of accumulated knowledge. Don’t tell me that nobody anywhere knows how to teach a child from immigrant families or some otherwise disadvantaged background how to read how to read and do math. Don’t tell me we don’t know how to identify students who are having difficulty and design effective interventions. We have to stop pretending that nobody knows how to do this. Which brings us back to Superintendent Johnson.

    Johnson had initiatives: what initiatives? Since this article was published Johnson has resigned but what exactly was she trying to do and why? We can’t just assume that her initiatives made sense, or that their implementation was made impossible by institutional resistance. Her initiatives may have been driven by data, but what data? Maybe she had good ideas but didn’t know how implement them. Maybe she had good ideas and knew how to implement them but simply didn’t have the resources or budget to pull it off? Maybe her ideas failed because they weren’t very good ideas? You’re not going figure any of this out by looking at test scores and free lunch data. And that data alone cannot produce good initiatives.

    I don’t know, it just seems like as long as I can remember we just circle around the problems in our education system rather than dig in and really really engage.

    And of course we could look at the tests themselves. I still think the math test is out of whack. We need to be realistic about what kinds of math skills people really need and how they acquire new skills as needed. You can get a lot of college degrees without knowing any calculus for instance.

  12. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/17/2014 - 11:38 am.

    “Not ALL black students perform poorly so…”

    “…you have to take a closer look at the students who are having difficulty and figure out WHY they’re having difficulty. You need to get from the general to the specific and find patterns or common characteristics that are creating challenges. Isn’t anyone doing that?”

    Good question, Paul. But the leadership of the MPS and all the various hangers-on ain’t listenin’. You see, they already KNOW why !! It’s racism and poverty, of course – and don’t even think about suggesting otherwise.

    It is also NECESSARY, if MPS is truly interested in understanding the real causes of the heartbreaking disparities in outcomes, to look at those poor black students who ARE succeeding, and figure out WHY they are succeeding, both in the regular public schools and also in the successful charter schools. I mean – according to the prevailing theory in MPS – of racism and poverty as the exclusive cause of failure – these students should be failing, right ??

    The preconceptions and fixed ideas underlying all these schemes and initiatives – that the disparities could not possibly be due to anything but racism and poverty – go unquestioned, for reasons of blind faith and politics.

    In this kind of atmosphere and with this kind of leadership, the real causes CANNOT be investigated objectively, without passion or prejudice.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/17/2014 - 12:40 pm.

      Yes but…

      “It is also NECESSARY, if MPS is truly interested in understanding the real causes of the heartbreaking disparities in outcomes, to look at those poor black students who ARE succeeding, and figure out WHY they are succeeding”

      Yes, you do some comparative studies, but not so you can tell one child they need to be more like some other child in order to succeed. Telling people they need to be someone else is a recipe for failure.

      It’s clear that poverty and institutional racism are huge contributors to the disparities we’re seeing in a variety of ways. Let’s not pretend that with enough research we might discover that poverty and racism are irrelevant.

      The thing is, we know that children aren’t doomed to illiteracy because of their skin color or economic background. Children from poor families can learn how to read and do math. We just have to figure out what resources we need to deploy, where, and how. What is it exactly that makes it so difficult for some children? Test results aren’t going to tell us that.

      In cities like MPLS where you have diverse student populations you’re going to need a diverse approach. Poor Hmong students may not be struggling for the same reasons that poor Somali students struggle. My guess is that you’ll end up with general classes for everyone, but specific interventions that help individual students succeed in those classes. (as apposed to having different math classes for different ethnicity’s for instance). At any rate, clearly a school system like MPLS needs more resources than a system with a more homogeneous student population. We need to pay for that.

      We know how to do this, we’re just not doing it.

  13. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/19/2014 - 03:37 pm.

    I taught on the college level, but here are some things

    I noticed while teaching Japanese for eleven years:

    1. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all educational model for either teachers or students. Any method does not match a particular teacher’s talents will fail. Any method that does not take a student’s strengths and weaknesses into account will fail.

    2. Students learn better when they have an attainable goal in mind (“I want survival skills for the start of my semester in Yokohama” instead of “I want to become fluent in Japanese”).

    3. There are times when drill is necessary, but you have to intersperse it with activities that will capture the student’s imaginations and interest.

    4. Sometimes students who have been plugging along at a mediocre level for months will suddenly “catch fire” and start devoting a lot of time and effort to their studies. It’s wonderful to see, but I never figured out how to force it to happen.

    Another more general thought:

    There is too much emphasis on education as job training. We cannot predict which jobs will be the hot jobs in the 2020s and 2030s, when today’s students are in their prime working years. But we can predict that they will need to be informed citizens who understand history, geography, science, and math well enough to make informed political and economic decisions and know enough about literature, art, music, and lifetime sports to be able to spend their leisure time somewhere other than in front of the TV.

    K-12, or at least K-10, should be about fostering well-rounded intellectual development. There is plenty of time afterwards for vocational training, and really, the business world functioned beautifully until the 1980s by hiring liberal arts graduates for entry-level positions and training them in-house.

    • Submitted by Alan Muller on 01/02/2015 - 08:30 am.

      Perceptions of someone who has never taught….

      I’m impressed by the thoughtfulness of the comments on this article, but not so much by the article itself. For instance, the “Meaningful Change Takes Time…” slide. Where did it come from? What is it based on? One suspects that the bureaucrats in MPS have seen many superintendents and many proposed overhauls of the system come and go, without much real improvement happening. So they just carry on regardless. Is that what Bernadeia Johnson is really saying?

      There is a lot of common sense in Karen Sandness’ comment.

      My understanding is that basic literacy and numeracy, basic readiness to enter the work force, was defined by completing the 8th grade. Some subgroups like the Amish, who are generally very successful in the work force, stick to this pattern. (Perhaps it works for them because of strong “cultural” factors?)

      Suppose it was resolved (seriously) to teach every MPS student to read well. And suppose one thought, as suggested above, that a key to this was reading individually two hours per day with each kid not getting that at home. What resources would be needed to do that? Is is true that MPS spend an average of $20,767 per student per year ($57 per day/365)? it seems that individualized reading attention should be within reach….

  14. Submitted by Bill McKinney on 01/24/2015 - 11:01 am.

    Well, as it turns out…

    I haven’t checked in on this thread for a while, but good to see the dialogue. A couple of follow up thoughts, and some additional facts from the states data.

    Dan Berg raised the issue of poverty v. race in the outstate schools, and the good news is that the state’s database actually lets you cut the data that way, so here are the proficiency results for poor (defined as recipients of free and reduced lunch) and African-American students (more detail farther down):

    In 2014 poor, Black kid proficiency by district:
    Orono: 23.5% (4 out of 17)
    Wayzata: 38.2% (125 out of 327)
    Edina: 43% (74 out of 172)
    Minneapolis: 21.3% (1,148 out of 5,400)

    So, I guess my Orono point stands Dan, but clearly Edina and Wayzata are doing much better with this challenging population. I don’t know a lot about the politics of the other districts, but it’s hard to say that any of these districts are doing a “good” job with poor kids of color. Sure, some are doing twice as well as others, but none of them are even getting half of their kids to the proficient level.

    One other interesting tidbit that I thought was interesting. I know lots of people (of all races) choose suburbs over city for “better schools”. If you were going to pick your school district based on % of students passing proficiency tests and you should check carefully to see how the district does with kids like yours. Here’s some interesting data I pulled out of the states data:

    % Proficient, WHITE, NOT on free or reduced lunch:
    Wayzata 85.8%
    Edina 84.6%
    St. Paul 83.8%
    Minneapolis 82.4%
    Minnetonka 82.2%
    Eden Prairie 79.7%
    Orono 78.5%
    Stillwater 77.3%
    Osseo – Maple Grove 76.2%
    Eastern Carver 75.5%

    City Schools do GREAT with these kids. If you’re a relatively well off white family in Maple Grove, Chaska, or Chanhassen, you should be thinking hard about switching to the City schools if you want to do what’s best for your kids! However, if you are poor and black, you would make radically different choices

    % Proficient, BLACK, ON free or reduced lunch
    Minnetonka 44.7%
    Stillwater 44.7%
    Edina 43.0%
    Wayzata 38.2%
    Eden Prairie 33.9%
    Osseo – MG 28.5%
    Eastern Carv. 27.7%
    Orono 23.5%
    St. Paul 22.4%
    Minneapolis 21.3%

    The rankings for Black, NOT on free and reduced lunch look similar: Edina and Minnetonka at the top and Mpls and St. Paul at the bottom. Not sure about everyone else, but I find this to be super interesting.

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