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K-12 Education in Minneapolis: A Matter of Class
Write-in "Doug Mann" for School Board
by Doug Mann, 29 Oct 2004, Submitted to the Star-Tribune for publication 28 Oct 2004
by Doug Mann
The people who run the public school system in Minneapolis are doing a pretty
good job, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial board.
How does the MPS administration account for a secondary school dropout /
pushout rate of nearly 50%? Why do most students fail the Minnesota Basic
Standards test on their first attempt?
The answers given by the school administration are: lack of parental
involvement, ineffective parental involvement, poverty, neglect or abuse by
parents, and so on. It's not the schools that are inferior, it's the kids!
That's also the Democratic Farmer Labor Party line.
No confidence should be placed in the board to improve the quality of
instruction and to "close the gap" in academic achievement. In order to make
our school system excellent and equitable, we need to organize. We need to
make demands on the board. And we need to run our own slate of candidates for
the school board next year.
The current school board says that parent involvement is the ticket. Some
parents are told to spend as much as two hours per day per child on homework.
If a student needs that much involvement from the parent to complete her /
his homework, why bother to send them to school at all? There's obviously a
huge problem with the curriculum and learning strategies that are used at
school. Many home schooling parents spend an average of 3 hours or less per
day on direct instruction and get better results.
The problem is a school board that makes decisions which benefit a minority
of the students at the expense of the majority. For example, the 10-year-old
class size reduction program initially increased the concentration of
inexperienced teachers in predominantly black schools.
Then the district implemented a student assignment plan, the Community
Schools plan, that further segregated the schools by class and race. Class
sizes were increased at Community Schools that serve poor, predominantly
black neighborhoods in North Minneapolis. Class sizes were reduced at
Community Schools that serve low-poverty, predominantly white neighborhoods
in SW Minneapolis. Of course, the district's more experienced teachers are
going to fill positions that come open in SW Minneapolis, and the least
experienced teachers will fill positions that come open in North Minneapolis
(where teacher turnover is also high).
It's the same thing with decisions about the use of ability-grouping, the
choice of curriculum products, and special education practices. The board's
philosophy is help the best and damn the rest. It's all about feathering
nests and pleasing the people who are used to having privileges (and playing
on their fears).
It is understandable that parents with children who are getting the best
education the schools have to offer are afraid of losing what they have.
However, "preserving excellence" for some at the expense of others weakens
the entire school system. It's not enough to preserve excellence where it
exists. It is also necessary to create excellence where it does not exist.
The underlying problem: The school system is part of a larger social and
political system based on economic exploitation and nourished by racism,
sexism, heterosexism and so forth. The truth is that the people who own and
control most of the wealth in this city need to keep us ignorant and
squabbling over the crumbs. That's why it doesn't matter if a third of the
kids don't learn how to read, and most do not learn to read well.
The school system is consciously stratified in order to prepare our kids for
their future roles in the work force or prison system. It wouldn't do to
have low-wage workers think they are basically as smart as the highly
compensated managers who boss them around. Nor would it do to have "middle
class" workers who identify more with low wage workers than they do with
It all comes down to a question of power: Who exercises power for whose
benefit. The school board's power is preserved by keeping us divided and
fighting among ourselves. They ask for our input about policy issues. They
need our input to validate their decision-making process and to help them
market their policies. But our input doesn't really have much influence on
what they decide to do.
As Malcolm X once said, "Power never takes a step back except in the face of
greater power. And Power in defense of freedom is greater than Power in
defense of tyranny, because the power of a just cause is based on conviction,
and leads to resolute and uncompromising action."
We can and must use our collective power to make the entire school system
excellent and equitable. I'm sure that many teachers, students, and
non-parents will support us in this important struggle.