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Do We Need to Fix the Schools, or the Kids, Parents & Communities of Color

Why do low-income kids, especially children of African and American Indian descent, fail to thrive in the Minneapolis Public Schools?  Do we need to fix the schools, or do we need to fix the kids, their parents, and communities of color?

I am not saying that all of the Minneapolis Public School parents are doing a good job of parenting.  Some are not doing a good job.  However, a strategy based on fixing the kids, their parents, and communities of color is bound to fail.

Are the schools doing a good job serving a "diverse" student population?  I say "no."

Can we eliminate most of the academic achievement gap between black and white kids, without lowering standards for kids who are now getting a good education? I say "yes." To do this, one must identify the biggest obstacles to closing the gap, which include: incoherent curricula, ability-grouping practices, and a high concentration of inexperienced teachers and large class sizes in schools that serve poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.

The importance of institutional, school-based causes of poor student performance is indicated by a study about "teacher efficacy" done by the Minneapolis Public Schools less than two years ago.  According to the district's director of research, Dave Heistad, about 40% of the variability in academic achievement test scores can be attributed to teacher efficacy.  The measure of "teacher efficacy" that is used in this type of study is years of teaching experience plus relevant training and certification.  Teaching experience is the biggest factor.


It is quite evident that the Minneapolis Board of Education failed to arrive at an accurate diagnosis of the academic achievement gap between black and white students before it implemented a plan to close it: the community school plan.

The board has certainly made progress in implementing the community school plan, but it hasn't made any progress toward its stated goal of "closing the gap."  Ordinarily, one would speak of an organization making "progress" in relation to achieving the stated goal of its overall plan of organization, which is what the Community School Plan is.  Yet, district officials say they have been making "progress" in the face of evidence that the academic achievement gap is getting bigger, not smaller.

Why is the gap getting bigger?  We know that class size and teaching experience makes a difference.  On average, the concentration of inexperienced teachers and class sizes have increased at schools serving poor, predominantly black neighborhoods since the community school plan was implemented in 1996.  The reverse has happened in schools that serve the most affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods.

Poor neighborhoods usually end up with inferior educational facilities, unless kids from poor and non-poor neighborhoods share the same facilities. Schools serving students in high poverty neighborhoods need more of the resources that make schools good, but usually have to make do with less.

A plan to desegregate the schools in Minneapolis is desirable because it puts some pressure on district officials to equalize educational facilities. As others have pointed out, the mayor proposed to desegregate the schools by desegregating the neighborhoods, but nothing has happened.  If you are going to deconcentrate poverty and desegregate the neighborhoods, you have to identify the cause.  It's not rocket science.  Poverty is heavily concentrated in certain neighborhoods as a result of illegal discrimination in the job and housing markets. The solution is simple: enforce fair employment and housing laws.


What about the effects of poverty, parental involvement, school attendance, student mobility, and so forth?  District officials say that extra school factors of this type are the main cause of poor student performance.  There is certainly a correlation, that is, a statistical association between these factors and student achievement.  But any student of statistics should know the difference between correlation and a cause-and-effect relationship.  Poverty, parental involvement and other extra-school factors hae an effect on student performance, but they are greatly exaggerated by school officials, as the district's own study about teacher efficacy demonstrates.

There is a difference between rationalization and explanation.  The Minneapolis Board of Education prefers to rationalize and shift the blame to the kids, their parents, and communities of color.