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Werewolves & Silver Bullets
Is it possible to turn around the Minneapolis Public Schools?

"Achievement: The racial gap is the district's most significant issue, and there's no silver bullet. Better attendance, kindergarten preparation, all-day kindergarten, parent involvement and less school-hopping -- by teachers and students alike -- all would help. One important step would be to assign more experienced teachers in the most challenged schools either by renegotiating the contract or offering financial incentives." -- Five big steps to a turnaround. Steve Brandt,  Star Tribune  April 12, 2004

If you identify the problems correctly, you might be able to find some silver bullets, i.e, effective ammunition for closing the gap. For example,

In the Minneapolis Public Schools there is a big gap in reading skills between students along racial and class lines (lower vs. higher income households / neighborhoods), which has a huge effect on student performance in most subject areas. What's going on in the schools that might contribute to that gap?

In the early elementary grades, high performing students are generally assigned to "high ability" reading instruction classes, and low performing students go to classes with other designated "low-ability" readers.  There are significant differences in the curriculum: different skill sets are being taught. That is what the district has been encouraging, and sometimes compelling teachers to do. That's the procedure recommended in the teachers' edition grade level expectation manuals for Language Arts, grades K-6, first published and distributed in 1997.  

Assigning students to separate instructional groups within a classroom according to perceived ability is called "ability-grouping." Assigning students to separate classrooms according to perceived ability is known as curriculum tracking or just "tracking." Ability-grouping and tracking are legal if students are periodically reassessed and there is a possibility, at least in theory, of being reassigned from a lower to higher, or higher to lower track. However, the district (the board of directors and administration) may be vulnerable to lawsuits from parents if it can be shown that ability-grouping and tracking present an obstacle to "closing the gap" because ability-grouping and tracking are defended as a means to "close the gap" as well as a means to boost the performance of the high performers.

The alternative to ability-grouping and tracking is instruction based on a college-bound curriculum and individualized educational planning. That, together with enrichment strategies is basically what gifted and talented education is all about. I am for using the same basic approach to educate all students. That's how public education is done in some Minnesota school districts, with excellent results. A successful untracking process would require support from a large majority of the school community (parents, teachers and students) as well as the board of directors and school administration.   

ANOTHER WEREWOLF, ANOTHER SILVER BULLET

There has also been a big gap in average teaching experience and teacher turnover between schools within the Minneapolis Public School system. That probably accounts for a big part of the difference in average student performance between schools. Schools serving predominantly white, high income neighborhoods generally have the higher-seniority teachers and low teacher turnover rates.

I have proposed the creation of temporary "teacher-in-training" positions for newly hired, inexperienced teachers to be scattered pretty evenly throughout the district. That  would reduce the exposure of students in the currently poor performing schools to inexperienced teachers.

I also endorse efforts to lure the best of the experienced teachers into some of the poor performing schools.  However, small class sizes, extra prep time, and adequate support staff might be more effective as a means to attract and retain teachers -- and boost student performance -- than a package of financial incentives doled out to a small number of "master teachers."

-Doug Mann, King Field
Minneapolis school board candidate and author of
"Flight from Equality: School reform in the US since 1983"
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