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MN2020 - Not Reform. Just an Attack with Extra Racism.
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Not Reform. Just an Attack with Extra Racism.

December 12, 2013 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

There are progressives with whom I disagree on education reform. There are conservatives with whom I disagree on education reform. And then there’s this. As MinnPost’s Beth Hawkins reported, the conservative group Better Ed sent out a postcard targeting the Minneapolis Public Schools. The attention-grabber was the gun pointed at readers, held by a ski-masked man in a hoodie.

It was a picture intended to shock and upset, which it did. Hawkins quoted University of St. Thomas Law School professor and Community Justice Project director Nekima Levy-Pounds, who said, “They know there’s a racial component whether they articulate it or not. They know that’s the message under the message.”

Quite so. Especially after all the justified anger over the Trayvon Martin case, it would be disingenuous at best for Better Ed to claim that they were unaware of the racist implications of their image choice. That it’s a white person under the black ski mask is not nearly enough to wave off the very clear racial dynamic at work.

Nor does the group offer much of substance, except to try to link themselves rhetorically to the Minneapolis district’s “Shift” initiative. All the postcard offers are two statistics -- 75% of crimes are committed by high school dropouts and only 50% of MPS students graduate -- and some cheap rhetoric: “It’s time to shift! Who’s the road block?”

It’s nothing but an attack. It’s part of a pernicious strand of education politics that really is just about calling public schools failures and seeking to dismantle them. There’s nothing constructive here, simply blame. It’s of a piece with past Better Ed messaging, also covered by Hawkins, that’s a rabbit hole of misdirection and shaming.

There is reason to be concerned about the graduation rates in Minneapolis, as people all over the ideological spectrum have acknowledged. At Minnesota 2020, we’ve covered the statewide graduation gaps, which are bad enough on their own. The situation is indeed worse in Minneapolis. However, simply screaming, “Graduation rates! Crime!” isn’t productive.

I doubt the folks at Better Ed would be particularly interested in talking about how to reduce the dropout rate while keeping MPS intact. I suspect they’re more interested in calling the system a failure and demanding its deconstruction. Still, for those who do want to address the dropout rate using the Minneapolis Public Schools, here are some options to consider.

Discipline Policies and Approaches

How a district handles discipline can either aggravate or reduce dropout rates and racial disparities. MPS has already built the framework for a restorative justice approach to discipline that emphasizes conflict resolution and thoughtful learning instead of the “law enforcement” mindset of traditional discipline practices. It has also rolled out a focus on positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) that can reduce misbehavior. Still, implementing these effectively at all schools must be an area of significant emphasis.

Additionally, the district can and should consider removing “defiance” as a misbehavior worthy of suspension [PDF, go to XI.E]. It’s too often a catch-all that doesn’t help anyone. The Los Angeles Unified School District eliminated their “willful defiance” language this spring after one of their high schools did so and saw suspensions drop from 638 in one year to one in three years.

Family Engagement

Schools must be intentional about reaching out to families and finding ways to increase family engagement and involvement. Staff can be trained in how to effectively work with families before student behavior or classwork becomes a problem. Schools can adopt community schools approaches that centralize support services before, during, and after school hours. Principals and their teachers can be given more flexibility in designing conference schedules that work for their particular students and families. Increasing family engagement, at least to some degree, is within the power of many schools, and a key step to keeping more kids in school.

Cultural Responsiveness

Students should not feel alienated from their school experience. Working to build the cultural knowledge and responsiveness of staff and administrators needs more attention than it’s getting in education debates right now. It’s far too easy for this to become a buzzword, when the real work is long, slow, and difficult. Nonetheless, it is essential, and far more important than labeling a student succesful or a failure based on their test scores.

The ideas listed here are partial and subject to imperfect execution (especially if leaders haven’t done the work of securing investment from their staffs). Still, they are a starting point, and one far better than the racist fear-mongering of Better Ed. Discussing and debating these can be a starting point for reform, which is much better than blaming, labeling, and attacking.

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