From Somalia to St. Cloud

Students in St. Cloud, Minn.
Somali students study together at a St. Cloud school.

How does a small city in Minnesota cope with an influx of Somali immigrants? Tonight, PBS NewsHour looks at St. Cloud, Minnesota schools, which are trying help Somali students learn English and adapt to a new culture (and climate) while creating a welcoming and tolerant school climate.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a federal civil rights complaint against the St. Cloud school district in 2011, alleging widespread and frequent harassment of Somali Muslim students, reports Education Week.

If poor kids are unteachable, why teach?

Do teachers think low-income students are hopeless? That’s the message Derrell Bradford gets from a Duluth News Tribune commentary and graphic that was retweeted by American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten.

In response to a lawsuit challenging Minnesota’s teacher tenure law, the cartoon shows a seating chart filled with losers.

“Weingarten’s retweet shows what she and perhaps many of her members believe about our kids — that their entire identities can be reduced to the challenges they bring to the classroom, and that those challenges obviate and absolve the teacher’s responsibility in the learning equation,” writes Bradford.

Poor kids from tough places are no longer the outlier in America’s schools — they’re the majority of students.
 . . . Teaching is at a crossroads in this country but the issue isn’t which way we proceed with value-added scores or licensure and certification. It’s whether you’re up to the challenge of teaching poor kids or you’re not. There are no “better kids” waiting in the wings.

Bradford grew up poor. He could have been have been trapped in a “below poverty line” square, but he rode buses to get to better schools where teachers worked hard to educate him.

At #ThisTeacher Sees, teachers are making their own seating charts:

Apparently, some teachers have nothing but victims in their classes and others don’t have a single kid who rates “royal pain,” “never shuts up” or “cellphone addict.”

California court overturns Vergara ruling

The Vergara ruling, which threatened teacher tenure, seniority and other employment laws, was overturned today by the California Appeals Court on a unanimous vote, reports Mike Szymanski in LA School Report.

The three-judge panel reversed Vergara v. California, finding that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that minority students were subjected more to ineffective teachers than others.

“Plaintiffs elected not to target local administrative decisions and instead opted to challenge the statutes themselves,” the decision states. “This was a heavy burden and one plaintiffs did not carry.”

The trial evidence “revealed deplorable staffing decisions being made by some local administrators that have a deleterious impact on poor and minority students in California’s public schools,” the decision concedes. However, “the evidence did not show that the challenged statutes inevitably cause this impact.”

Raylene Monterroza is one of the student plaintiffs in Vergara v. California.

Raylene Monterroza is one of the student plaintiffs in Vergara v. California.

StudentsMatter, which represents the nine student plaintiffs, plans to appeal to the California Supreme Court.

A Vergara-like lawsuit filed yesterday charges that Minnesota laws on teacher tenure and dismissal violate children’s right to a quality education, reports The 74. Partnership for Educational Justice, a nonprofit founded by The 74 editor-in-chief Campbell Brown, is working with Students for Education Reform Minnesota on the lawsuit.

Partnership for Educational Justice also is challenging tenure protections in Wright v. New York, which is before the New York Supreme Court.

If unions lose agency fees, what next?

Teachers’ unions could lose money, members and political clout, if the U.S. Supreme Court rules against “agency fees,” writes Michael Antonucci in Education Next.

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association challenges the California law requiring teachers who haven’t joined the union to pay fees meant to cover collective bargaining, but not political activity.

Friedrichs plaintiffs assert that the agency-fee system infringes their rights to free speech and free association, he writes. “They maintain that collective bargaining in the public sector is itself inherently political.”

Wisconsin eliminated agency fees (and weakened unions’ bargaining power) in 2011, notes Antonucci. Union member has fallen by more than half.

Minnesota is an agency-fee state with about 111,000 K-12 employees, of which about 75,000 are teachers union members. Arizona, with no agency-fee law, has about 103,000 K-12 employees and only 16,000 teachers union members.

“In 2014, NEA membership in agency fee states grew by 5,300. In states without agency fees, it fell by more than 47,000.”

A typical California teacher pays $1,000 in dues asa union member, $650 in fees as a non-member. If non-members saved $1,000 a year, membership could go down sharply, Antonucci suggests.

The American Federation of Teachers pays heavily to play politics, reports RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

According to its 2014-2015 financial disclosure, the “second-largest teachers’ union spent $42 million on political lobbying activities and contributions,” a 45 percent increase over influence-spending levels in 2013-2014.

AFT gave $250,000 to the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and another $250,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative, “the other non-explicitly political wing of the Clinton family’s always-political efforts,” writes Biddle. The union has endorsed Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

‘New Americans’ start at community colleges

Minnesota isn’t  just for Larsons, Hansons and Olsons. The state has drawn Latino immigrants and African refugees to rural towns with jobs in meatpacking and agriculture.  “New Americans” are turning to community and technical colleges to move up the economic  and academic ladder.

Observing teachers: Is it worth the time?

Teacher evaluation is off to a “bumpy start” in New York City schools, reports the New York Times. For example, PS 130 Principal Lily Din Woo and her assistant principal “are spending parts of each day darting in and out of classrooms, clipboards and iPads in hand, as they go over checklists for good teaching. Is the lesson clear? Is the classroom organized?”

All told, they will spend over two of the 40 weeks of the school year on such visits. The hours spent sitting with teachers to discuss each encounter and entering their marks into the school system’s temperamental teacher-grading database easily stretch to more than a month.

So, the principal and her assistant now will spend 10 percent of their time visiting classrooms, observing and giving teachers feedback on their teaching. Is that really excessive?

“Talent coaches” are helping and retirees may be hired “to pitch in at schools where the workload is heavy.”

Writing up observations, which must be “low inference” and aligned to the “Danielson rubric,” will be more time consuming and taxing than the Times estimates, predicts NYC Educator.

Minnesota is piloting a new teacher evaluation system that includes more classroom observation by the principal, reports Hechinger’s Tim Post for Minnesota Public Radio.

Pine Island, Minn. – Principal Cindy Hansen’s fingers fly across her laptop as she types notes in a corner of Scott Morgan’s classroom, watching as the special education teacher works with a kindergartner on her social skills.

This is more than a principal pop-in. Hansen and Morgan are part of a new, experimental kind of teacher evaluation. Earlier, they met for a pre-evaluation chat. Later, they’ll talk over the teacher’s strengths and weaknesses and set performance goals. She’ll evaluate 70 teachers this way.

“It’s not meant to be a “gotcha” kind of a situation,” Hansen says later. “It’s really is meant to be a helpful kind of conversation.”

Beginning teachers will be observed three times a year for the first three years, while veteran teachers will be observed at least once a year, with a more thorough review once every three years. Student performance will count for 35 percent of overall evaluations. Student surveys also will be factored in.

Use of test scores to evaluate teachers is controversial. Now there’s resistance to principals evaluating their teachers’ classroom performance.

Different goals for different folks

Achievement should be defined broadly, argues Ted Kolderie, who works on redesign of K-12 education, with the Center for Policy Studies, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Bob Wedl, formerly Minnesota commissioner of education, asks: “If proficiency meant being able to speak two languages, which students in Minnesota would be ‘high-achieving’?”?

He asks, too: Why don’t we define the “gap” as being below-proficient and close that gap first?

And: Do all students need to be equally good in all subjects? Standards for aircraft differ based on what a plane is going to do. Why not for students? Proficiency might be enough in math for a student heading into the arts. It would surely be too low for one aspiring to an engineering career.

Education reformers — “middle-class folks with advanced degrees and aptitudes that are verbal, conceptual and abstract” — have decided that achievement is “doing well what they do well,” Kolderie writes.  Instead of pushing everyone to do well in school and go to college, we should “recognize that all young people can learn better and need to learn better, but that different students will do well at different things.”

Defining achievement down may sound reasonable, but it’s not, responds RiShawn Biddle. To start with, academic achievement is connected to success in non-academic endeavors.

. . . it is hard to engage in critical thinking without having a strong knowledge base that only comes from being literate, numerate, fluent in science, and knowledgeable about history and philosophy. This is especially important because critical thinking involves dealing with abstractions, the ideas at the very heart of civilization and society; even seemingly basic concepts such as the Golden Rule, as well as discourses mundane and critical, are formed from the complex interplay between ideas, facts, and morals. A child with a working understanding of, say, algebra, will also be able to understand why the Laffer Curve matters in discussions about tax cuts.

Low-income, minority parents have “learned the hard way about the consequences of not having the high-level reading and math skills needed for the high-paying blue- and white-collar jobs,” he writes. They know their children won’t have a future in the job market if they’re not “literate, numerate, and knowledgeable about the world around them.”

High-quality schools serving disadvantaged students, such as KIPP charters, have shown that “poor and minority children can succeed if they are provided comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, high-quality instruction, help in the form of intensive reading and math remediation, and the nurturing cultures of genius in which they are more than just future athletes and musicians,” Biddle concludes.

Remember “natural rhythm?”

Stopping cyberbullies

Predatory adults are rare on social media, compared to mean girls and crude boys, writes Emily Bazelon in How to Stop the Bullies in The Atlantic.

Facebook gets millions of complaints a week about cyberbullying, she finds. Employees are expected to decide in a few seconds which have merit.

Henry Lieberman, an MIT computer scientist, is working on a program to spot nasty posts immediately. In middle school, he  was a “fat kid with the nickname Hank the Tank,” he tells Bazelon.

. . . he and his graduate students built a “commonsense knowledge base” called BullySpace—essentially a repository of words and phrases that could be paired with an algorithm to comb through text and spot bullying situations. Yes, BullySpace can be used to recognize words like fat and slut (and all their text-speak misspellings), but also to determine when the use of common words varies from the norm in a way that suggests they’re meant to wound.

In tests, BullySpace caught 80 percent of the insults flagged by human testers.

Lieberman also hopes to use “ladders of reflection” to persuade kids not to harass others.

Think about the kid who posted “Because he’s a fag! ROTFL [rolling on the floor laughing]!!!” What if, when he pushed the button to submit, a box popped up saying “Waiting 60 seconds to post,” next to another box that read “I don’t want to post” and offered a big X to click on? Or what if the message read “That sounds harsh! Are you sure you want to send that?” Or what if it simply reminded the poster that his comment was about to go to thousands of people?

“Ash” and “Katherine,” members of the hacker group, Anonymous, publicized the identities and vicious tweets of four high school boys who were harassing a 12-year-old girl with rape threats and suggestions she commit suicide. She’d followed one of the boys on Twitter, then angered him by un-following him.

At first the boys railed against Ash on Twitter, and one played down his involvement, denying that he had ever threatened to rape the girl. But after a while, two of the boys began sending remorseful messages. “For two solid days, every time we logged on, we had another apology from them,” Ash said. . . . Katherine thought the boys hadn’t understood what impact their tweets would have on the girl receiving them—they hadn’t thought of her as a real person. “They were actually shocked,” she said. . . . we started talking to them about anti-bullying initiatives they could bring to their schools.”

“When i found out she was hurt by it i had felt horrible,” one of the boys e-mailed Bazelon. Perhaps a few seconds of reflection would have helped.

Anti-bullying laws can conflict with free-speech rights, argues Eugene Volokh, a law professor. A proposed Minnesota law bans “interfering” with an individual’s ability “to participate in a safe and supportive learning environment.”

Say that students are talking over lunch about how a classmate committed a crime, cheated, said racist things, treated his girlfriend cruelly, or whatever else, which causes people to feel hostile towards the classmate. That interferes with his ability “to participate in a … supportive learning environment.”

Bullying may include speech or conduct that “relates to the actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, creed, religion, national origin, immigration status, sex, age, marital status, familial status, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, academic status, disability, or status with regard to public assistance, age” of the individual or his/her associates.

Robotics is on a roll in Minnesota

Minnesota has more high school robotics teams than boys’ hockey teams, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It’s “chic to be geek.”

“Varsity robotics” is treated like an athletic sport.

Robotics team members are getting varsity letters and patches, being paraded before school assemblies like other sports stars and seeing trophies in the same lobby display cases as their football, basketball or baseball counterparts.

At the state tournament, teams compete for the championship by building robots to perform a task set every year. Last year, the robots shot basketballs. This year, they throw Frisbees.

Minnesota: Free online courses are illegal

It’s illegal to offer free, online courses in Minnesota, state education officials have told Coursera, which partners with universities to provide massive open online courses, or MOOC’s. Under state law, a degree-granting institution must pay get state authorization and pay a registration fee to offer instruction.

It’s a matter of  “consumer protection for students,” Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for the state’s Office of Higher Education, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, et al don’t charge students for Coursera courses and don’t offer degrees to MOOC students. That doesn’t matter, another official tells Slate.  Students can’t waste their money, but they might waste their time in a non-authorized course, says George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Coursera added a terms of service notice telling Minnesotans not to do any learning, unless they go out of state. I predict ridicule will lead to a MOOC exception very quickly.

Update:  Ridicule works! Minnesota education officials have issued a statement saying free higher ed doesn’t require state approval.