It’s time again for one of Minnesota’s most enduring annual rituals. Each year our state education officials release testing results and a few predictable things happen.
Results for white students are lauded as examples of our stellar education system.
Aren’t we awesome. Don’t we invest so splendidly in education. Yay us!
We love up our teachers for their hard work. We have the best educators in the world.
Of course. We’re Minnesota.
Then, the good people of Wobegon put a hand over their heart, downcast their eyes, and give an insincere nod to our nation-leading (but easily to excuse, because, poverty) achievement gap.
The results are in, and, you can go right to hell
This year it’s bad news again. See it here (Black students on the left, White students on the right):
In the Minneapolis, it’s worse.
Results in St. Paul are painful to see:
Results for Minneapolis’ Black high school students – tragic:
Let’s stop here.
Take it in. I’m telling you that the vast majority of Minnesota’s Black students aren’t proficient in Mathematics or Reading.
And, in the Twin Cities we have “schools” where almost no Black students are proficient.
Don’t assign blame. Don’t look for a gotcha. Just imagine that numbers are great storytellers, and ask yourself what these numbers tell us about the future?
If we’re smart, if we believe in science, if we are honest , these outcomes predict future income inequality, high unemployment, inadequate housing, social exclusion, and economic exile for people who have lived with those troubles for too long.
These numbers scream injustice, and each of us has a role in demanding change.
For starters, schools don’t have kids, parents do. As parents we are ultimately responsible. These are literally our kids. We are called to ruthlessly fight for them.
So, what is our response when we see these numbers?
It’s hard to tell because stories written in newspapers about academic results virtually ignore parents, especially low-income parents of color.
Erasure is real.
If they don’t hear us, we’ll have to use our outside voices.
In high places with low expectations
Our top education officials are responsible too.
In Minnesota our top education official is Brenda Cassellius, a woman I know cares about changing the game for kids of color. Unfortunately that care gets lost in her relentless sloganeering in support of Minnesota’s unfair – indeed, racist – education system.
After this year’s testing results were released she said “It’s frustrating to see test scores slowly increasing over time, but there’s more to providing a student with a well-rounded education than can be seen in a test…[tests are] just one part of the picture”
Reading, writing, computing – not important. Look over there at the school with longer recess periods. Look at the joy on the faces of children who are on track for lifelong illiteracy.
Five years ago Cassellius set a goal to cut Minnesota’s achievement gap in half.
Today the numbers are flat statewide, and gaps have actually widened in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Still, she’s offering us a new promise, a new plan, a new PowerPoint
“We are proposing ambitious goals that address achievement gaps in our draft plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act that extend beyond just looking at the individual test scores we’re looking at today,” she says.
I’ll translate that for you: “since we have no idea how to raise proficiency for poor children of color we’re muddying the waters with feel-good measures that we’ll use to explain away our failure for years to come.”
It’s not “frustrating to see test scores slowly increasing over time.” It’s a loud ass socioeconomic fire alarm. It’s a fire-the-bosses-and-rethink-yourselves moment.
Will the real leaders please stand up?
Finally, superintendents, principals, and teachers have responsibility for student outcomes too. Only some of them seem prepared to make good on that responsibility.
The state’s top teachers’ union boss isn’t one of them. Denise Specht, their leader, has again suggested we ignore testing results because, in her words, “grades, conferences with teachers and even talks with the children themselves” are better judges of how students are doing.
That response is terribly irresponsible. It’s the type of thing you say when you don’t have Black children getting a raw deal in a kind, gentle, racist education system.
For cold comfort I’ll admit that Minneapolis’ superintendent Ed Graff sounds better than Spectht.
“Anyone who cares about kids and their progress cannot be happy about these results that we have seen,” he told the Star Tribune.
“For too long we have been caught up in MCA scores and haven’t focused enough on what leads up to those results….Third grade is too late to have a test tell us where our kids are at.”
Graff, Specht, Cassellius, and most parents I know don’t have all the answers. Neither do you.
A problem that must be owned
We have a morality problem, and the problem is not located in our children or their families. The problem is a system that hasn’t caught up yet with the changing needs of students.
We must fight to replace the nobody-is-in-charge leadership culture with a bucks-stop-here culture. Dedicating one public official solely to owning problem of race and academic outcomes would be a good start.
For the record, that official can’t be Cassellius. Her focus has been appeasing white school districts and the statewide teachers unions, and she has scandalously washed her hands of the disasters in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
She has also allowed her department to wage a low-key war on charter schools. Minnesota invented charters for good reason, and we can’t let politics obscure the important learnings they hold about educating non-white children.
We don’t have another five years to waste.
Let’s pump the brakes on “ambitious” goal setting and PowerPoints at all levels until there is a coherent educational philosophy in this state.
Let’s answer the vexing questions dogging our schools. How do we teach children to read? What are our systemic blind spots and our redundant, insufficient practices? How do we resource schools to succeed with struggling students? What do we do when school failure is chronic?
Tough questions for sure, but essential if we’re serious.
Now is the time for Minnesota to look in the mirror, make eye contact, and say firmly “I’m sick of your bullshit.”