The 2007-2012 strategic plan: A balance sheet
by Doug Mann
Quoting from the district's web site,
"In late 2006, the Minneapolis Public Schools' (MPS) District
Administration and Board of Education decided it was time to develop a new
strategic plan that would set the priorities and direction of the District for the next
five years. The Board called in external help from two sources: The Itasca
Project, an alliance of Twin Cities business and civic leaders, and McKinsey
and Company, Inc., a global management consulting firm. McKinsey staff donated
their time to lead the process, starting in May 2007..." [page 6]
Action step 2 (page 13): "Identify and correct practices and policies that
perpetuate the achievement gap and institutional racism in all forms"
Part of action step 2 is to review district policies, practices and
procedures for potential bias, to be implemented by spring 2008.
Expected outcomes include:
Increased scores on MCA-II reading proficiency tests: goal (actual), page
.....Baseline 2006-07...Year 1 2007-08... Year 2 2008-09 (actual 2009)
Asian (American). 43.............50......................58 (47)
Hispanic ...............35.............44......................53 (36)
Caucasian / white.83.............84......................86 (85)
Minneapolis Public Schools, 2007-2012 Strategic Plan
Once again with feeling: Achievement gap in Minneapolis Schools (Daily
In the above-cited Daily Planet article, it is noted that in Minneapolis the reading
score gap for black and white fourth graders is the second-highest in the country,
[per National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal testing program], and for
Minnesota as a whole,
reading scores for black fourth-graders have decreased by seven points.
reading scores for white fourth-graders have increased by one point.
reading scores for Hispanic fourth-graders have decreased by eight points.
the gap between white and black fourth-graders is 45 points.
the gap between white and Hispanic fourth-graders is 46 points.
In the above-cited Daily Planet article David Heistad reportedly described
"...the current achievement gap and [pointed] toward success at both ends of
the [spectrum: Graduation] rates and kindergarten readiness." Progress
toward closing the "Kindergarten readiness gap" is certainly not an effect of
improved K-12 programs, and probably has more to do with reducing cultural
bias in assessments of pre-reading and numeracy skills than actual changes in
the skills being measured.
The data shows that in the Minneapolis Public Schools, the rate of reading
readiness for students entering Kindergarten is 93% for whites and 67% for
blacks. From 2007 to 2009, the proportion of students proficient at reading per MCA-II reading
exams in grades 3-8 went from 82% to 85% for whites and 31% to 32% for
African Americans, compared to the Strategic Plan goals of 86% for whites and
49% for African Americans in Year II of the plan, i.e., 2008-2009.
WHY IS THE 2007-2012 STRATEGIC PLAN NOT EFFECTIVE?
Action step 2 of the Strategic Plan, "Identify and correct practices and
policies that perpetuate the achievement gap and institutional racism in all
forms" failed to address two critical issues (teacher turnover and watered
1) Racial segregation and unequal educational inputs.
The Minnesota Desegregation Rule in place for about 10 years calls for a
comparison of 'educational inputs' between schools that are racially
identifiable and schools that are not racially identifiable. Educational inputs
that must be evaluated include measurable differences in teacher qualifications,
experience and turnover rates. Where disparities exist, the district is
supposed to formulate a plan. with opportunities for public input and
measurable goals and timetables to eliminate disparities. Otherwise, the
operation of any 'racially identifable schools is evidence of intentional racial
discrimination by the district, per the MN Desegregation Rule.
Note: A 'racially identifiable' school is one in which the enrollment of
students of color is more than 90% or more than 20% above the district
average for grade levels served. In 2005, the district had 23 regular public
schools classified as racially identifiable, not including charter and alternative schools.
Correlation studies have shown that teacher turnover rates and years of
teaching experience are closely associated with instructional quality as
evidenced by student test scores, attendance rates, suspension rates,
graduation rates, etc.
Experience with effectively lowering teacher turnover rates at Hall and
North Star elementary schools in the 1990s indicates that low teacher turnover
and increased levels of teacher experience, which go hand in hand, lead to
improved outcomes for students. Bringing down teacher turnover rates is
therefore an essential step if one is serious about bringing about the kind of
dramatic boost in test scores for students of color and the kind of racial
test score gap-closing projected in the 2007-2012 Strategic Plan.
The 2002 District Improvement Plan called for bringing teacher turnover
rates to low levels in all schools, but the district continued to fire and
replace most newly hired teachers before they completed their 3 year
probationary period. Turnover rates have been very low for tenured teachers (a
teacher is tenured after they start their 4th year of employment with the district).
Continued high teacher turnover rates indicate that a large percentage of
the teachers are on probation and turnover rates for probationary teachers
are extremely high, way above 50% overall.
In 2008 the district signed a non-binding agreement with a group of African
American educators and community members, known as 'The Covenant,' which
identified low teacher turnover as a critical factor for developing effective
academic programs for African American students. Board members agreed that
low teacher turnover was essential, but board member Lydia Lee stated that
the district can't afford to increase teacher retention / lower teacher
turnover rates in schools where African American students are heavily
concentrated, even for a couple demonstration projects. Yet the district has
kept teacher turnover rates to very low levels in schools where white students are
There are certainly reasons, including financial reasons that the district
administration perpetuates high teacher turnover rates, and why the public
employees unions have not taken a stand against policies and practices
that perpetuate high teacher turnover rates. However, due to the disparate
effect on students of color, these policies / practices should have been
stopped many years ago, and must stop now.
2) Watered down curriculum tracks (focus on K-3 reading)
Federal regulations require evaluation of ability-grouping practices. In my
opinion, the area which should get the greatest scrutiny is
ability-grouping for reading instruction in grades K-3.
During a period from 1997 to 2000 I closely observed ability-grouping for
reading instruction at one elementary school and worked with K-4 students
from several Minneapolis Public Schools as a volunteer reading tutor one summer
through a summer program at the Sabathani Center. I have also had many
opportunities since then to talk to parents, students, teachers and
administrators about ability-grouping practices utilized in reading instruction
through my involvement in advocacy work and as a school board candidate. I also had
many conversations on this subject over a period of 7 years with Evelyn
Eubanks, who had considerable expertise in this area.
This is what I noted through direct observation. A very basic skill that
many students don't learn early on is the skill of sounding out words. Without
that skill, information about phonics / phonetic rules that is part of the
curriculum throughout grades K-3 simply won't sink in. It takes a teacher or
trained tutor five minutes or less of one-on-one time to figure out if a
student has acquired this basic skill, and nearly all students should be
highly proficient within 8-12 weeks of the start of the first grade, even if
some of the students still have some pre-reading deficits (e.g., can't recite
the ABC song, can't identify all letters and at least one sound that often
goes with them).
As a general rule, the more that a student can incorporate an understanding of
phonics / phonetic rules into their reading, the more accurately they can read,
and the more easily and faster they can progress from one reading level to the
next. Students who are not absorbing much of the phonics instruction usually
have some phonetic awareness and a limited sight-word vocabulary, which they
can utilize, along with other cues to make a guess at what a word is, but they
typically make very slow progress, if any at all in advancing from one reading
level to the next.
What happens to students who are making little or no progress in developing
their reading skills? A common scenario: Doing assigned classroom work and
homework requires increased effort, they fall further and further behind. It
becomes increasing difficult to stay engaged in learning activities during
the day. School becomes increasing stressful. Many of these students develop
signs of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, become disruptive in
class, and find themselves in confrontations with teachers, which leads to
being labeled as having a Defiant Behavior Disorder.
In effect, the reading curriculum is watered down to varying degrees for a
large majority of nonwhite, and a sizable minority of white students, as
evidence by reading test scores cited in the Daily Planet article, Once more
There are self-directed activities, such as graded reading programs and
computer assisted tutorial programs that students can utilize to reinforce,
review and move beyond what is being presented in whole-classroom instruction
for reading and in other subject areas. If there is going to be any ability
grouping for reading, it might be appropriate to do it with groups of
students taking turns reading out loud, with students assigned according to the
reading level they attain in self directed activities. "Skill groupings" of
very limited duration that are focused on a very specific skill may be a
valid approach in some instances. But what typically happens is that students
spend about an hour per day, every day in ability-grouped reading instruction,
and teachers differentiate the curriculum according to ability-level. As a rule, the
more advanced-level groups progress faster than less advanced groups, leading
to a widening achievement gap as students move up the grade levels. I have
seen a widening racial test score gap in MPS student test score data that I have
reviewed, which is almost certainly a reflection, in large part, of gap-widening effects of
Ability grouping is not done in all school buildings and in all school
programs operated by the Minneapolis Schools District. Ability-grouping is not
allowed in Montessori Schools and is contrary to the Open School philosophy
as practiced at Barton Open School. And teachers in many college preparatory
programs generally don't ability group their students. So we have teachers
in the school district who can model the kind of teaching I advocate. There
is also a program that has been utilized in a limited number of schools
operated by the district, called Arts for Academic Achievement. Impressive
results have been obtained through the AAA program, such as helping all
students advance a full grade level per year or more in their reading and math
proficiency. AAA is sponsored by the Education trust and was specifically
developed as a tool to eliminate watered-down curriculum tracks.