St. Paul seeks equity, finds chaos


Brawls broke out at two St. Paul high schools in October. Photo: KSTP News

Some St. Paul public schools are unsafe for students and teachers, writes Katherine Kersten, a senior policy fellow at the Center for the American Experiment, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

A Central High teacher was “choked and body-slammed by a student and hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury,” while another teacher was knocked down and suffered a concussion while trying to stop a fight between fifth-grade girls. There have been six high school riots or brawls this school year.

Hoping to close the racial suspension gap, the district has spent millions of dollars on “white privilege” and “cultural competency” training for teachers and “positive behavior” training, an anti-suspension behavior modification program, writes Kersten.

Aaron Benner

Student behavior is getting worse, says teacher Aaron Benner.

When that didn’t work, “they lowered behavior standards and, in many cases, essentially abandoned meaningful penalties,” she writes. Students can’t be suspended for “continual willful disobedience” any more. Often, students “chat briefly with a ‘behavior specialist’ or are simply moved to another classroom or school where they are likely to misbehave again.”

Behavior has gotten worse, wrote Aaron Benner, a veteran elementary teacher, in the Pioneer Press. “On a daily basis, I saw students cussing at their teachers, running out of class, yelling and screaming in the halls, and fighting.”

Teachers say they’re afraid, writes Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario. He quotes a letter from an anonymous teacher, who says teacher are told there are no alternative placements for violent or disruptive K-8 students.

(Teachers) have no way to discipline. If a child is running around screaming, we let them run around and scream. If a student throws a chair at the Smart Board we remove the other students and call for help. If a student shouts obscenities, we simply use kind words to remind them to use kind words themselves. I am not kidding.

. . . The only consequence at the elementary level is taking away recess or sending the offending student to a ‘buddy classroom’ for a few minutes.

At this teacher’s high-poverty, highly diverse school, “I have many students in my class who are very respectful, work hard and care about doing well in school,” the teacher writes. “The disruptive, violent children are ruining the education of these fantastic, deserving children.”

Theo Olson, a special education teacher, was put on leave after complaining about the discipline policy.

Theo Olson, a special education teacher, was put on leave after complaining about the discipline policy.

On March 9, a veteran high school teacher was suspended for social media posts complaining about the discipline policy, when Black Lives Matter activists charged him with racism.

Theo Olson, a special education teacher at Como Park High, wrote that teachers “now have no backup, no functional location to send kids who won’t quit gaming, setting up fights, selling drugs, whoring trains, or cyber bullying, we’re screwed, just designing our own classroom rules.”

He did not mention race.

Black Lives Matter had threatened a “shut-down action” at the school if Olson was not fired.

The same day Olson was put on leave, another Como Park teacher was attacked by two students, suffering a concussion. “The two entered the classroom to assault another student over a marijuana transaction gone bad,” an associate principal told the Star-Tribune.  Two 16-year-olds face felony assault charges.

Taking the ‘self’ out of self-empowerment

We’ve Had 100 Years Of Progressive Education And The World’s Getting Worse, writes Jordan Shapiro, a fellow at Sesame Street Workshop’s Joan Ganz Clooney Center, in Forbes.  “A century of well-intentioned progressive trends in education may have cultivated a generation of entitled I-me-mine individualist ‘winners’,” he suggests.

Each wealthy kid who is taught to follow his/her passion, discover his/her true vocation, or find his/her authentic self, is also inadvertently learning that personal success is a kind of implicit manifest destiny.

Parenting norms differ by social class, writes Robert Putnam in Our Kids. “Well-educated parents aim to raise autonomous, independent, self-directed children with high self-esteem and the ability to make good choices, whereas less educated parents focus on discipline and obedience and conformity to pre-established rules.”

Reformers “try to spread the message of self-actualization more equitably,” writes Shapiro. They forget that “self-confidence and individual empowerment” aren’t neutral or equitable. “Winners necessarily require losers.”

Shapiro dreams of “new classroom rules, new district wide administrative systems, new school designs and new educational customs that will break the cycle of winners and losers, haves and have nots.”

We need to teach our children that the goal is not self-empowerment for the sake of the individual, but rather for the collective. They must learn not only how to identify and discover their unique gifts, but also how to offer them up in service to the rest of us.

Do winners require losers? If Johnny learns to read well, is that bad for Susie?

And teaching kids to serve the collective is . . . kind of creepy, right?

Disorder hurts low-income strivers

Pushed by the U.S. Education Department, many cities have vowed to reduce school suspensions in the name of equity, writes Mike Petrilli on Bloomberg View.

But letting a few students disrupt class isn’t fair to the kids who want to learn, he writes. “Low-income strivers” deserve safe, orderly, academically challenging schools.

When district-run schools don’t prioritize the needs of strivers, urban parents can turn to charter schools, Petrilli writes. But high-performing charter schools in New York CityChicago and Washington, D.C. have come under attack for high suspension and expulsion rates. Disruptions aren’t tolerated.

The casual observer might wonder: What’s wrong with that approach? Why not ensure that schools are safe places to be? If the Success Academies and schools like it didn’t exist, many of those hard-working, high-achieving students would be in chaotic, low-performing public schools. Why don’t their needs count?

Specialized alternative schools may be the best way to help disruptive students, who often come from very troubled families, Petrilli writes. However, “poor children who are ready to learn, follow the rules, and work hard deserve resources and opportunities to flourish.”

Petrilli supports “universal screening” tests to identify gifted students in the early grades and middle-school tracking to put low-income strivers “on a trajectory for success in Advanced Placement classes in high school and at more selective colleges.”

Longer year boosts learning, widens gaps

Extending the school year would improve learning significantly — and widen achievement gaps, writes Seth Gershenson on Brookings’ Chalkboard.

That’s because high achievers benefit more than low achievers from additional learning time. His research is discussed in this IZA paper.

For kindergarteners in the 10th percentile of achievement, the effect of a 250-day school year is  about 0.75 of a standard deviation in math, while the average effect is 1.75 SD for those in the 90th percentile, he writes. Results are similar for reading.

This raises an intriguing question. Is equality (or less inequality) more important than boosting the performance of low achievers?

Equity or bureaucracy?

The Obama administration’s new “education equity initiative” is more likely to produce “a blizzard of paperwork than to improve the education of minority children,” writes R. Shep Melnick, a Boston College professor, in Education Next

In a 37-page “Dear Colleague” letter, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) demands “that each school district provide a detailed accounting of resources available to schools with varying racial demographics,” writes Melnick.

Cited in the DCL’s 63 footnotes are studies indicating that targeting large sums to high-quality programs can help disadvantaged children. But the letter virtually ignores a key question: what constitutes a high-quality program?

School leaders face a choice, he writes.

. . . they can devote abundant time and money to collecting the information that OCR demands, massaging the data to make themselves look good, and shifting money around here and there to show they are making “progress.” (For instance, the quickest way to appease OCR will be to increase the number of AP courses available to minority students, regardless of whether this is the school’s most pressing need.)

On the other hand, schools can call OCR’s bluff. They can say, “We . . . prefer to spend money on teachers than on accountants.”

Districts that lose federal funds for non-compliance can go to federal court, where they’re very likely to win, writes Melnick. They could overturn this “Dear Colleague” letter and earlier letters on sexual harassment, programs for English language learners and school discipline.

‘Equity’ leads to chaos, say St. Paul teachers

In the name of racial equity, St. Paul schools have turned to counseling — a 20-minute “time out” with a behavioral coach — rather than suspension for disruptive students, reports Susan Du in City Pages.

Saint Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva (Pioneer Press file: John Autey)

Saint Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva (Pioneer Press file: John Autey)

At the same time, students with “behavioral issues and cognitive disabilities were mainstreamed into general classes, along with all the kids who spoke English as a second language.”

Teachers are complaining of distrust, disorder and “chaos,” reports Du.

Under Superintendent Valeria Silva, St. Paul spent more than $1 million — EAG News estimates as much as $3 million — on consultants from Pacific Educational Group, which promises to create “racially conscious and socially just” schools.

Pacific offered racial equity training for teachers and staff, where they practiced talking about race. Teachers were asked to explore their biases, to preface their opinions with “As a white man, I believe…” or “As a black woman, I think….”

“The work begins with people looking at themselves and their own beliefs and implicit biases,” says Michelle Bierman, the district’s director of racial equity. If teachers could recognize their subconscious racism, everyone would work together to bridge the gap.

Teachers who say the discipline policy isn’t working are accused of opposing racial equity, says Roy Magnuson, who teaches at Como Park High.

At Harding High, Becky McQueen has been manhandled, injured and threatened — and seen her students attacked — by youths running into her classroom in what teachers call “classroom invasions.”

Now, to know who to let in, she tells her students to use a secret knock at the door.

“There are those that believe that by suspending kids we are building a pipeline to prison. I think that by not, we are,” McQueen says. “I think we’re telling these kids you don’t have to be on time for anything, we’re just going to talk to you. You can assault somebody and we’re gonna let you come back here.”

At one middle school, nine teachers quit before the end of the school year.

At a board meeting in May, teachers’ concerns about lax discipline were “drowned out” by parents and minority leaders who praised the drop in suspensions, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

. . . Aaron Benner, a fourth-grade teacher at John A. Johnson Elementary who is black, said that the district was doing a disservice to the children by not holding them to the same standard as students from other ethnic groups.

“Refusing to work is not black culture,” he said. “Assaulting your teacher is not black culture.”

A teachers’ group is working to replace four school board members in the fall election, reports Du. “They blame the board for backing Silva’s changes despite teacher outcry.”

Hmong students, who make up the district’s largest minority group, are leaving district schools, reports Du. They perform well below district averages. Yet, “all we hear is the academic disparity between the whites and the blacks,” says history teacher Khoa Yang. “This racial equity policy, it’s not equitable to all races.”

AP for all

Advanced Placement classes used to be reserved for top students. Now, schools are opening AP to nearly everyone, reports Marketplace. That’s challenged students to work harder and aim higher. It’s also challenged teachers to reach less-prepared, less-motivated students without watering down their classes.

More than two million high school students across the country are are expected to take AP exams this month.

Five years ago, only 10 percent of students took an AP course at North County High in a working-class suburb of Baltimore. Less than one-fourth of seniors planned to attend a four-year college.

Expectations were low, says Julie Cares, the principal. “A lot of kids not only didn’t believe it was possible, but it didn’t even occur to them that was something they might do.”

To build a college-going culture, the school added more AP courses, eliminated all of the requirements to get in and pushed every student to take at least one. In five years, the number of AP students has tripled, from about 200 to 600.

There are more students in classes like AP English Language and Composition, where a class of juniors recently wrestled with concepts like “polysyndeton” and “metonomy.” In an assignment designed to help prepare them for the upcoming exam, students are asked to identify the rhetorical strategy in a passage from literature or popular music.

At first, teachers were eager to “help more kids,”  says Jennifer Mermod, who teaches AP English. But some students aren’t ready. She breaks her class into small groups, sometimes asking better-prepared students to serve as leaders. “Other times you cohort them together so they can have their, ‘higher-level, you came prepared, you deserve to be rewarded with a better discussion,'” Mermod says.

She urges some students to take an honors class, a step below AP, to earn a higher grade. “I want them to get into college — that’s the point of the program, so I really don’t want a kid that’s going to come into the class and not at least get a C,” says Mermod.

uis Romero gets support for college applications and AP classes from teacher Brian Whitley, through a program called AVID. (Mary Wiltenburg/Marketplace)

Luis Romero gets support for college applications and AP classes from AVID teacher Brian Whitley. (Photo: Mary Wiltenburg/Marketplace)

The high school has added tutoring, and expanded a college-prep program called AVID. Luis Romero, who will be the first in his family to attend college, learned note-taking and study skills in his AVID class.

Romero has passed all but one of the many AP exams he’s taken, including Computer Science, Human Geography, U.S. Government and World History.

That’s not the norm at North County High: More than two-thirds of AP students don’t earn a high enough score to get college credit. However, students develop skills like writing and critical thinking that will serve them in college, says Principal Cares.

Apparently, the “honors” track doesn’t do that. That makes me worry about the school’s ability to maintain the rigor of AP classes. AP for more students makes sense. AP for all?

Obsessed by ‘The Test’

Anya Kamenetz’s new book, The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be, takes a simplistic view of testing, writes Robert Pondiscio on Education Gadfly.

jpeg“Tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness,” writes Kamenetz, an education reporter for National Public Radio.

Other than that, they’re OK.

Believing that testing “penalizes diversity,” Kamenetz ignores strong support for testing by civil rights activists, “who have used test scores to . . . highlight achievement gaps, all in the name of equality,” writes Pondiscio.

For example, a civil rights coalition has called for annual testing to remain in the new ESEA. They want achievement gaps to remain visible.

Kamenetz advises parents on opting out of tests, writes Pondiscio.

Here’s the advice I wish she’d offered: March into the principal’s office with a simple demand. “Don’t waste a minute on test prep. Just teach our kids. The second you turn learning time into test prep, our kids are staying home!” Imagine if Kamenetz and her fellow progressive Brooklyn public school parents did exactly that—teachers and parents could have the hands-on, play-based, child-centered schools of their dreams, and test day would be just another day at school. Unless, of course, the test scores came back weak. Then Kamenetz might write another, more complicated book. And that’s the one I want to read.

Dana Goldstein’s New York Times review highlights the book’s discussion of alternatives to standardized testing.

 . . . She reports on artificial-­intelligence experts who would harness the addictive qualities of gaming to instruct and assess kids online; computer programmers who seek to perfect the flawed software currently used to grade essays and track student performance over time; and school administrators experimenting with new measures of social-emotional growth, like student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

Kamenetz advocates using “long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking” to assess students, writes Goldstein. That’s a return to an earlier era in American education.

It also allows everyone in Lake Wobegon to be above average.

From ‘algebra for all’ to ‘algebra for none’

Thanks to the “algebra for all” movement, nearly half of eighth-graders were taking algebra or geometry in 2013, writes Brookings researcher Tom Loveless in High Achievers, Tracking, and the Common Core. In the Common Core era, only advanced — and advantaged — students will be accelerated.

California pushed 59 percent of students into eighth-grade algebra, though not everyone passed. Now districts have no incentive to offer algebra (or geometry) in middle school. In well-to-do Silicon Valley districts, parents are demanding eighth-grade algebra so their kids will be prepared for AP Calculus by 12th grade.

But urban middle schools with low-income, minority students usually place all students in the same math classes, writes Loveless. Smarter students can’t get ahead.

Accelerated math will survive in affluent school districts, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Parent pressure has been fierce. But students in lower-income districts won’t be on track for AP Calculus, unless they catch up in summer school or double up in math in high school.

Hector Flores, of San Jose, tried to ensure his son was on track to take calculus in high school — even sending him to a summer math institute. But the Evergreen School District placed him in an “integrated” Common Core eighth-grade math class, where he’s reviewing much of what he already learned. “He’s literally caught in the crack” of the Common Core transition, said Flores, a former math teacher. Now, to take calculus, his son will have to take an extra class in high school.

Low-income, black and Latino students who excel in math should have the chance to take the algebra-to-calculus track, writes Loveless. It’s not elitism. It’s equity.

Because of their animus toward tracking, some critics seem to support a severe policy swing from Algebra for All, which was pursued for equity, to Algebra for None, which will be pursued for equity.  It’s as if either everyone or no one should be allowed to take algebra in eighth grade.

Barry Garelick taught in a middle school that lets very few students take algebra in eighth grade, he writes in Out in Left Field.  A student asked him if she’d qualified for Algebra I. “I don’t want to be with the stupid people,” she said.

“In the name of egalitarianism and the greater common good,” the vast majority of students will take a watered-down Core version of algebra in ninth grade, he writes. They’ll end up as “stupid people.”

Union spin: Don’t say ‘equity,’ ‘reform’ or ‘rich’

Don’t say “education reform,” advises talking points developed for National Education Association leaders. It’s OK to refer to “education improvement or “education excellence.” 

“Providing basic skills and information” is out, according to the PR memo.  “Inspire curiosity, imagination and desire to learn” is in.

It’s Orwellian doublespeak, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. But replacing “inequality” with “living in the right zip code” highlights the fact that “Zip Code Education” keeps lower-income students out of high-quality schools.

NEA leaders will then have to explain why their affiliates, along with that of AFT,  fight . . . against the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice that have proven to improve graduation rates for black and Latino children.

. . . (Teachers’ unions) work together with traditional districts to oppose any overall of school finance systems that will lead to dollars following children out of failure mills and warehouses of mediocrity to any high-quality school, public, private or charter, that provides them with teaching and curricula they need.

 Conor Williams also sees the irony in complaining about zip codes while opposing choice and charters. The NEA doesn’t want to talk about “equity,” he notes.

. . . black and Latino children are more than four times as likely to attend high-poverty urban schools than their white peers. . . . Yet the NEA recommends that members instead talk about being “committed to the success of every child.”

Should we use “research driven practices” and “measure what matters” using “meaningful, rigorous evaluations?” No—apparently we should “get serious about what works,” because “love of learning can’t be measured,” and “testing takes time from learning.”

Schools are not supposed to be “effective learning environments” in the fuzzy new world. Schools are “where childhood happens.”

If that’s not completely meaningless, it’s wrong. Childhood happens at home, in the playground, where ever kids happen to be. Schools claim to be places where children learn important skills, knowledge and habits. If they’re just “where childhood happens,” we could save a lot of money.