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Re: School enrollment & accounting gimmicks
Subj:      Re: [Mpls] School enrollment & accounting gimmicks
Date:     9/4/2004 3:14:46 AM Central Daylight Time
From: (Doug Mann)

As David Jennings has said, the district does a great job of educating and retaining a minority of students (including about half the white students and a large majority of the white middle-class students). In my opinion the district is also doing a poor job of educating and retaining a majority of students, including a very large majority of African-American students. When a student is not thriving academically and is having a negative experience in school, and conditions at school don't change, the parent is pretty likely to pull
that student out of the school system. They move to the subburbs or send the kids to a suburban public school, a charter school, a private school, or home-school them. That is what the current enrollment crisis is all about.

Below I will outline what are, in my opinion, the district's most important systemic problems that could be fixed.

The district has an extraordinarily high teacher turnover rate. Despite layoffs within the past 3 years, nearly one-fourth of the districts teachers had been employed for less than 3 full years as of last spring. Excessive layoffs boost the turnover rate because some of the teachers who the district plans to recall get other jobs and must be replaced with new hires. I consider laying off about 33% of the teachers in anticipation of an 8% enrollment decline to be "excessive." The teacher tenure act allows the district to lay off teachers as necessary and does not allow teachers to hop from one district to another unless they give notice prior to April 1, which is before most districts start hiring for the next year, or unless the district agrees to release them from their contract.

There has also been a high concentration of probationary teachers (hired within 3 full years) in high poverty, high minority schools. Due to the problem of teachers getting a job elsewhere and turning down offers of reemployment, the district has to scramble to hire new teachers at the last minute. The staffing situation is therefore extremely unstable in schools that teachers generally don't bid into. On the other hand, teachers generally need upwards of 10 years experience to bid into some of the districts better schools. I believe those disparities in average levels of teacher expertise account for a very large part of the test score gap between schools.

And the high concentration of inexperienced teachers in high poverty schools amounts to a huge subsidy for some of the district's better schools, where a teacher generally needs to be about half way up the district-wide seniority list (which is somewhere between 10 and 13 years). The starting pay for new teachers is about $33,000 per year plus benefits. A teacher with 10 years experience and a masters degree gets about $57,000 plus benefits.

And there is the tracking system. Most of the K-6 students are divided into separate classrooms within their grade level for reading instruction according to perceived ability. The students in the high ability groups learn reading skills that prepare them for gifted and talented programs. A very large majority of students in the low and medium ability reading groups fail to thrive academically, are not well equipped to do the reading required in other subjects.

In my opinion, the district could rapidly close most of the gap without holding back the high achievers by refraining from laying off excessive numbers of teachers at the end of each year, by distributing probationary teachers evenly through the district's schools, and by phasing out the tracking system. But instead of entertaining the idea of fixing the schools, board members change the subject and complain about too many parents not doing their jobs properly, communities of color not valuing education, etc.

-Doug Mann, King Field
Mann for school board