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Blaming the Victim
Altering Perceptions Instead of Overhauling a Failing  K-12 School System

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Blaming the Black Community
25 February 2000 - Extracted from Perfuming the Minneapolis Public Schools

White-washing the Minneapolis Public Schools
Speech to the Minneapolis School Board meeting, 14 March  2000

Perfuming the Pig
Speech to Minneapolis School Board meeting, 15 December 1998
from White Supremacy and the Politics of Apartheid in Minnesota

A Case of the Criminal Calling the Victim the Criminal
Based on a speech to the Minneapolis Board of Education - Oct 26, 1999

Blaming the Black Community
Extracted from Perfuming the Minneapolis Public Schools
       25 February 2000 - At the Minneapolis school board meeting on February 8, it was reported that nearly half of the district's non-white and Hispanic high school seniors have yet to pass the Minnesota Basic Standards Test, a requirement for graduation this year.
        Of the district's African-American high school seniors whose native language is English, 45% have yet to pass the Minnesota Basic Standards Tests in reading and math, and it is expected that 37% will not pass these tests before the end of the school year, and therefore won't get a diploma this Spring.
        By comparison, 11% of non-Hispanic White seniors in the Minneapolis Public Schools have yet to pass both parts of the Minnesota Basic Standards Test. It is also remarkable that in the Minneapolis Public Schools, only 44% of all students who entered 9th grade in 1994 graduated on time in the Spring of 1998, and the drop-out/push-out rate was close to 50% for the class of 1998. [Source: Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning]
        State-wide, only 33% of African-American students who entered the 9th grade in 1991 graduated on time in 1995. For White students, the on-time graduation rate was 82% and the drop-out/push-out rate was 9% [Source: MN Dept. of Families Children & Learning].

Who is to Blame?

       In response to the news that nearly half of the district's non-White and Hispanic seniors are not expected to pass the MBST this year, including more than 300 African-American seniors, Sandra Miller, a director of the Minneapolis Board of Education commented:
         "It kind of makes my blood boil. There's a lot of help out there for these students. There's mentoring on every corner. The district has done everything they can do. Now it's up to the kids and families [Star-Tribune, Wed., Feb. 9, 2000]."

       John Shulman, an attorney for the Minneapolis Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People replied:

      "It is disturbing that elected officials who are placed in positions of authority by the white political majority are overtly blaming the victims for the failure of the district to educate children of color in the city of Minneapolis [Star-Tribune Feb 10, 2000]."

       Star-Tribune columnist Doug Grow characterized Shulman's comment as "one of his standard (ho-hum) tirades" and applauded Miller, who is Black, for preaching the gospel of individual responsibility. Speaking of the Minneapolis Public Schools in his column on Feb. 14, 2000, Grow writes:

       "...It was never a perfect system...[It's a lot better now than it used to be.] But there are no free passes. Students - with encouragement from their parents - must reach out and grab the opportunities that are available.

        An "Our Perspective" editorial in the Star-Tribune on February 15 repeated the message that most Black high school seniors who don't get a diploma this Spring will only have themselves, their parents and the Black community to blame. The editorial states:

        "...The two board members [Sandra Miller and Albert Gallmon], who are Black, are absolutely right to sound an alarm and light a fire under Black communities. They know that the school district has gone the extra mile and done just about all that it can to serve its diverse student body..."

       More recently, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson claimed that students who attend school 95% of the time will do well in school, so long as they are not being disruptive in the classroom. In other words, good attendance and good behavior cause good academic performance. Johnson claims that there is solid evidence to back up this assertion.
   However, at the February 8 School Board meeting, the director of research for the district, David Heistad noted a strong correlation between attendance and academic achievement, but also cautioned that just because high achievers generally have good attendance records doesn't mean that a high attendance rate will cause a child to be a high-achiever. It's possible that high-achievers have the best attendance records simply because they are more highly motivated to attend school.


White-washing the Minneapolis Public Schools
Speech at the Minneapolis School Board meeting March 14, 2000

         On June 27, 1995 the Board adopted a resolution ingeniously titled "Closing the Gap: Ensuring that all Children Can Learn," which states that the district's highest priority goal is to reduce the academic achievement gap between Black and White students.
         The district claims that it is making progress, and the so-called "Measuring Up" study sponsored by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce and Minneapolis Foundation shows that many schools are meeting 100% of their goals for performance and growth. Yet the district's own data on student achievement shows that the test score gap between Black and White students is getting bigger, not smaller. How can Superintendent Carol Johnson, Board President Judy Farmer, and the rest of those seven zombies who are sitting on the Board say that the district is making progress?
          On March first, during the mid-morning show broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio, Judy Farmer offered a pseudo-scientific explanation for the failure of the Minneapolis Board of Education to make any progress toward closing the test score gap.
          Farmer claimed that in the past two years, the district has assessed the pre-literacy skills of children entering Kindergarten and found a huge learning gap, with only about 30% of the students knowing which end of a book is up, and that print is read from left to right, and from the top to the bottom of a page. She also noted that there are big differences among children in the number of words that they use and understand.
         Farmer went on to explain that these type of differences reflect an underlying difference in mental capacity. According to Farmer, brain research on infants and toddlers has shown that there are certain kinds of connections that must be made in your brain by a certain age, and that a certain amount and kind of stimulation is needed to make those connections. Any connections that aren't made by a certain age are lost -- you lose mental capacity.
         What Farmer was referring to is a process called imprinting, in which a behavior is acquired easily and automatically, so long as the behavior is modeled for the child. For example, a child learns to speak through regular exposure to human speech. However, the size of one's vocabulary at age 5 doesn't determine one's ability to learn new words, and, unlike the spoken language, learning the written form of a language is not a pre-programmed ability.
         In his info-mercial in the March 1 edition of Education Week, National Education Association President Bob Chase explained that,

        "Unlike speaking, reading is not a biologically evolved skill. We have had speech for 4 million years. But reading and writing have been around for only about 4,000 year -- not time enough for the human brain to develop any neural hard-wiring specifically dedicated to handling written language. "

         An alternative explanation for a persistent test score gap was offered by the Congressional Committee on Equal Education in 1972. It found that a process of curriculum differentiation through ability-grouping, which is done in the Minneapolis Public Schools, reinforces and increases disparities in basic academic skills, noting that,

         "Once students were placed in low ability groups, they were likely to be there for the duration of their school careers. The Committee determined that educational inequality was the result of lower teacher expectations, limited curriculum, and negative self-concepts that students developed as a result of being placed in low ability groups [Volume 4 of the Equal Educational Opportunity series published by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in September 1999, page 2. For a free copy of the report, call (202) 376-8110].


Perfuming the Pig
 [Speech to Mpls. School Board, 15 December 1998]

       In his report to the Board on November 24th, Dave Heistad, the director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment for the district does an excellent job of perfuming the pig. He states that "We are meeting the challenges with the students that have the most needs, and that we're becoming known across the great city schools as one of those school districts that's really showing progress. Not all the great city schools have data that show that they're making growth greater than the national norm."
       Mr. Heistad then reported that most students who have been continuously enrolled and tested in this district from the second grade in the Spring of 1990 to the ninth grade in the Spring of 1998 have been making gains in reading above the national norm. Between the last two years of testing, 63% of these students registered one year or more of growth in reading, and only 6% became less proficient at reading.
       However, Mr. Heistad failed to mention that only 37% of ninth grade students who were tested this year and in 1997 have been continuously enrolled and tested in this district since the Spring of 1990, and it is not a representative sampling of the entire student population.
       Nearly 70% of all students enrolled in the Minneapolis Public Schools are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches because of low household income. From the Spring of 1997 to the Spring of 1998, only 35% of these low-income students showed growth of a year or more in reading, and only 40% showed growth of a year or more in math.
        On the other hand, of the district's higher-income students, 65% showed growth of a year or more in reading, and 60% showed growth of a year or more in math. And we're talking growth at the basic standards level.
The truth is that most students in this district are falling behind, not catching up. This is so because the district excludes a huge majority of students from academic curriculum programs in grades K-8, and from college preparatory curriculum programs in high school.
        Also at the school board meeting on November 24th, several teachers reported big gains in reading proficiency by doing some direct instruction in phonics, and noted the importance of learning about the sound-symbol relationship between the spoken and written language.
        The Minneapolis Public Schools has been using phonics workbooks in early elementary grades, but most students can't make use of the information they get in the phonics workbooks because their teachers don't set up activities that will help them learn a critical decoding skill: how to blend the sounds of letters and word chunks.
        Just about every student has the capacity to learn this basic decoding skill in kindergarten, and certainly by the start of first grade. But the district's administration does not allow teachers to use effective learning strategies which conflict with a policy of ability-grouping the students, and a philosophy of helping the best and damning the rest.
        That's got to change, and yesterday won't be soon enough.


A Case of the Criminal Calling the Victim the Criminal
Based on a speech to the Minneapolis Board of Education - Oct 26, 1999

        In the Minneapolis Public Schools, about 12% of the students are enrolled in special education programs. That figure is high, but the percentage of children with learning disabilities is even higher. An estimated 15-20% of the entire population has some type of specific reading disorder. And that does not exhaust the list of learning disabilities that are under-diagnosed in this school district.
        On the other hand, many children are misdiagnosed as learning disabled due to Emotional-Behavioral disorders. In Minnesota, EBD is diagnosed at a rate that is ten times the national average. About 26% of all African American students in the Minneapolis Public Schools are enrolled in special education programs, about 90% diagnosed with Emotional-Behavioral Disorders.
         In most cases, children are identified as learning disabled because they fall behind and develope behavioral problems.  In line with State policy, eligibility for special education services in Minneapolis is determined by administering a set of tests that are used routinely by some school districts (e.g. Eagan-Apple Valley) to evaluate teacher effectiveness, a combination of cognitive-ability and academic achievement tests, or on the basis of academic achievement test scores that indicate a child has fallen at least two grade levels below minimum grade level expectation. It is assumed that if a child is being left back, there must be something wrong with the child, not the educational institution.
       On the other hand,  about one-fourth of the students in the early elementary grades are being enrolled in programs for the  "gifted and talented."  White students are over-represented, and black students under-represented in the gifted and talented programs.
       The district spends a lot of money to identify so-called "gifted" children, but not a penny on trying to identify students with reading disorders. The district doesn't even give parents the information they need to get their children evaluated for reading disorders at their own expense.
        And when a parent manages to find these resources despite misdirection from the district, discovers that their child has a reading disorder, and learns that their child is eligible for a special education program, such as tutoring by a licensed teacher with special training, they usually have to exhaust every kind of administrative hearing there is, and then go to court to force the district to do what the law requires the district to do for their children in the first place.
       The reason that so many students in this district don't learn to read is because the regular classroom teachers have not been trained to use the type of curriculum and learning strategies that would be an effective remedy for most children who have specific reading disorders, and most of the other children who are struggling and falling behind. Not only are the teachers not getting the training they need to help these students; those that have the know-how are discouraged from using it.
        The district recently adopted a new English-language curriculum product that [the district and publisher's reprepresentatives claim] is easier to use in conjunction with direct phonics instruction.   Most of the district's students need, and many parents have been demanding direct phonics instruction, but an emphasis on phonics instruction, which is consistent with best practices, is not displacing the "whole Language" approach.
        [Resistance to the introduction of phonics instruction from Minneapolis Public School teachers was really not a serious obstacle to the introduction of direct phonics instruction because the district did not attempt to introduce direct phonics instruction to K-4 classrooms.
      Compared to the old English language curriculum, the new English-language curriculum for K-4 students actually places an even greater emphasis on the "whole language" approach, also know as the "look-say" method or "whole word recognition" strategy. The "phonics piece" of the new English language curriculum is a scrabble game. The old curriculum included a phonics work book.-editor's note]
       Most students from "middle-class" families enter this school system with the educational foundation they need to do well under these circumstances. Most children from low-income families fail because their parents can't provide them with the educational opportunities, such as high quality preschool programs, and other advantages that correlate with a higher income.
       [Factors that the school administration can not control directly, such as family income, parent involvement, and so forth, are vastly over-rated as a cause of disparities in educational outcomes.  Institutional factors, such as curriculum, class size, and teacher efficacy have a much greater impact on a student's academic performance, in an average case, according to the district's own research.
       For example, a study done by the district's research department showed that 40% of the variability in scores on academic achievement tests between students can be attributed to teacher efficacy, which is measured primarily as years of current teaching experience (training and certification are usually factored in).  Inexperienced teachers are heavily concentrated in Community Schools that serve poor neighborhoods. -editor's note].
       It is not entirely accidental that the "ability-grouping" model was introduced to early elementary grades during the 1950's and 60's, and that the "Look-say" method of reading instruction, which fell out of favor in the 1950's, made a comeback in the 1970's as a corrupted form of the "whole language" method. This made it possible to integrate Black children into White schools and still give most Black children an inferior education.-editor's note]
       The district tells the parents whose children are struggling and failing that the problem must be a lack of parent involvement, or the wrong kind of parent involvement, or that there's something wrong with the child because of bad parenting. That makes the victims of ability-grouping, bad curriculum and segregation responsible for their own victimization.
        And the criminals who make the policy portray themselves as the victims of uninvolved or incorrectly involved parents.