Minneapolis Public Schools: Our Children Deserve More than the Status Quo

Nekima Levy-Pounds, Star Tribune, November 2, 2014
Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School and the founding director of the Community Justice Project, a civil rights legal clinic. She is an expert on issues at the intersection of race, law, criminal justice, public education and public policy. Follow her on Twitter at @nvlevy.

I know that we don’t like to talk about it, but race still matters in Minnesota. Arguably, nowhere is that more evident than in the disparate outcomes between black and white students in Minneapolis Public Schools. When I express concerns about the intolerable racial disparities, typically there are four responses: 1) place blame on black parents and children; 2) express disinterest in the problem or remain silent; 3) defend the system at all costs; or 4) agree that there is in fact a crisis that needs to be urgently addressed. Although most folks that I encounter fall into categories 1, 2, and 3, or some hybrid of the above, I tend to gravitate more towards those who are brave enough to admit that serious problems exist and who are willing to lend their voices and social capital to speak publicly about these issues. Typically, these folks are not employed by the district, are not under contract with the district, and have some level of passion for social justice.

Time to challenge the status quo

Indeed, challenging the status quo is not easy, but it is necessary if we stand any chance of addressing the imbalances within the system and changing things for the better. Last month, numerous African American parents, children, and community members showed up at Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters to challenge the District’s inequitable practices as seen on this short video.

When we begin to put our differences aside and critically examine the available data, it becomes apparent that there are structural biases built into the Minneapolis Public School system that tend to reinforce and exacerbate racial disparities. For one, a disproportionate number of Minneapolis Public Schools are racially segregated, with a high concentration of children who receive free and reduced lunch. Within such schools, children are often taught by teachers with less experience and lower levels of educational attainment than their white counterparts at more affluent schools. It is not a stretch to surmise that students in most circumstances benefit from being taught by teachers with more experience and higher credentials. (Recent articles also show that poor students of color are also more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers, further compounding the problems, as shown here and here).

Are schools on the Northside being short-changed?

Assuming that premise holds true, if would not be unusual for a school district to want to assign its most experienced and highly credentialed teachers to the schools with the highest need for support in increasing academic proficiency for students. Yet for some reason, in Minneapolis Public Schools, that is not the case. The schools that seem to have the highest percentages of African American students and the lowest rates of proficiency in reading, math, and science, are provided with less experienced teachers on average than their white counterparts. Case in point, I searched MDE’s (Minnesota Department of Education) website and took a look at the section called School Report Card. I looked at two schools that had high rates of African American students and high rates of students who receive free and reduced lunch: Namely, Lucy Laney and Bethune. I then compared a few key statistics from those two schools with Lake Harriet and Barton, two schools with higher percentages of white students and significantly fewer students receiving free and reduced lunch.

Here’s what I found: Lucy Laney’s student population is 88% black with 98% of students receiving free and reduced lunch. In terms of proficiency rates, only 8.7% of students are proficient in Reading, 12.9% are proficient in Math, and 5.7% are proficient in Science. (Yes, you read those statistics correctly). 35% of the teachers have been teaching for less than three years and 33% have a Master’s degree.

Similarly, at Bethune, 85.8% of students are black with 100% of the students receiving free and reduced lunch. 10.5% of students are proficient in Reading; while 17% are proficient in Math; and 4.8% are proficient in Science. (And yes, you read those statistics correctly as well). 31% of teachers have been teaching for less than three years, while 47% have a Master’s degree.

By comparison, Lake Harriet Lower Elementary School, a crown jewel of MPS, boasts a population that is 88.5% white and 7.7% free and reduced lunch. 72% of students are proficient in Reading and 80.5% are proficient in Math (Oddly enough, no Science proficiency rates were reported). Interestingly, only 4.2% of teachers have taught for fewer than three years, while a whopping 91.5% of teachers have taught for ten years or more.

Similarly, Barton boasts a population that is comprised of 65.5% white students and 29% of students receive free and reduced lunch. 74.3% of students are proficient in Reading, 66.4% are proficient in Math, and 54% are proficient in Science. 79.7% of teachers have a Master’s degree, while 83.5% of teachers have been teaching for more than 10 years and only 5.6% of teachers have been teaching for fewer than three years.

The district has some ‘splainin’ to do

The question must be posed as to why schools with higher percentages of white students and lower percentages of students who receive free and reduced lunch, have significantly higher percentages of teachers who have taught for longer than ten years. Such schools are also more likely to be staffed by teachers holding at least a Master’s degree. The question must also be asked and answered regarding how and to what degree having less experienced teachers impacts student proficiency levels and outcomes. As a matter of district policy: Who ensures that human capital is deployed equitably throughout the district to protect against schools with the highest needs being given the least amount of resources? On what bases are such decisions made and how is what is in the best interests of children factored into the equation?

The data show that in truth, the district could be doing better by all children it serves. Given the high social costs of obtaining a subpar education, the district should pay particular attention to the quality of academic instruction that children of color from lower-socio economic backgrounds receive. This is a matter of human dignity, equity, and justice and should be treated as such.

We should refuse to accept the notion that simply because a child hails from a low income family or community, they are forever destined to be at the bottom of society’s social ladder.  If we are serious about closing the opportunity gap that exists, we must begin by challenging our own (sometimes biased) assumptions about poor children’s capacity to learn, and begin to critically examine and reassess policy decisions, formulas for resource allocations, teacher assignments, harsh disciplinary practices, uneven referrals to special education, vendor contract awards, and school climate and curriculum.

It’s not about good intentions

Let us remember, that accepting the status quo in our school system has nothing to do with good intentions, and everything to do with the history of race relations in this country and in our state, and the residue that still clouds our perceptions of the “other.”

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