Don’t regress to the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ in Minnesota schools
Pioneer Press Editorial, May 23, 2012 –
The federal No Child Left Behind law was ushered in a decade ago with high hopes and the promise to end the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in our schools.
Minnesota’s first look at its test scores under a new rating system brings to mind the Bush-era phrase and the spotlight the landmark legislation placed — for the first time — on the achievement gap between white students and their peers of color. For years before NCLB, the gap was hidden among broad averages of student performance, and the lack of measurement led to a lack of attention and accountability.
But 10 years after NCLB, the gap remains, and Minnesota and other states have received waivers to get more flexibility in measuring student achievement.
For all its faults, test results reported under NCLB commanded our attention. Will the new system — Multiple Measurement Ratings that allow other measures of student growth, in addition to test scores — keep us focused and schools accountable?
The Pioneer Press’ Christopher Magan and MaryJo Webster illustrated the question by spotlighting Willow Lane Elementary in White Bear Lake, which “began the week on the list of Minnesota schools at risk of being labeled failing” under NCLB, but with the new system is “a school state education officials say should be emulated.”
Last year, Willow Lane was among roughly half the schools in the state that didn’t make adequate yearly progress toward proficiency in one or more areas. Willow Lane students, like those at many other schools, “faltered only in one subgroup, something (Principal Barbara) Kearn called a ‘blip’ for the school,” Magan and Webster reported.
Proponents of the new measurement system say it is a fairer way to measure how our schools are performing. Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius told us last year that it’s more collaborative and allows better sharing of best practices, by “shining a bright light” on schools doing the best work, rather than just emphasizing punitive measures against poor performers.
Other people who also care about kids fear loss of accountability under the new system and express concern about fewer schools facing consequences for poor student achievement. Our staff quotes Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, who maintains the system is flawed, in part, because it compares students’ performance with the achievement growth of peers at their school, rather than the grade-level standard. “You can’t be successful if you never meet the standard,” Bartholomew said. “That is frankly a lie to the kid to say you are going to graduate high school never having met the standards.”
A school can be labeled Priority (for overall low performance), Focus (for having wide gaps between the achievement of white and minority students and also between poor and more affluent students) or Reward (for performing in the top 15 percent of Minnesota schools that receive federal aid for the number of students in poverty).
Priority schools will receive support from the state for a turnaround plan. Focus schools will work with their district on a school improvement plan. Reward schools are recognized for their good work.
Under the new rankings, the St. Paul school district has 17 Priority or Focus schools, down from about 30 labeled under the old system as failing to make adequate yearly progress.
Education leaders will — and should — encounter concern about whether the new measurements create lower standards for students in poverty and the schools they attend.
As they respond, it’s worth remembering that the worthy intent behind NCLB — the expectation that our school system does right for all children — can’t be accomplished without ending the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”