Autonomy or Laboratory

Do you know how it feels to distrust an institution, be hopeful when new people come in, and then be disappointed when the “new” starts to look like the “old?” That’s how I feel about the Minneapolis Public Schools. In the late 2000’s, a number of new people joined the school board in a reform movement that looked to refocus decision making so it would consider the needs of students first. Many of us were excited to finally have parents on the board which had long felt like it had uncomfortably close connections to business and construction interests in Minneapolis.

In the last couple of years, I’ve increasing felt we are back to opaque decision making with questionable outcomes and poorly managed communication. A prime example is the new school funding formula. Last spring, families with kids in special education found out the new funding model was going to decentralize the services many of them received. What they weren’t told is that the new funding model was in year two of a three year roll out and that a lot of money had been spent on consultants who had planned this new strategy. Families who initially thought they might be able to affect the announced changes soon discovered it was much too late for that.

The new funding model puts control of more of school budgets into the hands of individual schools, but may not always provide the funding needed for the expanded programming that results from this new model. Add on top of that theĀ  Community Partnership School experiment that was rolled out at four schools this year, and one wonders if MPS is trying to create a district of charter schools or just a laboratory with our kids as the rats.

The elementary school I attended in the 70’s was the testing ground for my district’s bright new ideas. We had new curriculum every year with new teaching methods based on new ideas about how kids learn. Sometimes we even changed strategies in the middle of the year. Reflecting back on that experience, I’ve felt that it was largely detrimental to the kids who were subject to all these high concept teaching methods. I know it had a negative impact on my later success in school.

This personal experience may explain why I got upset as the idea behind Community Partnership Schools was explained to me. Four schools in MPS are being given a lot of autonomy to decide how they are going to run their schools and how they are going to engage with the district. This model is not based on what the community wants, but on the plans of the district, which has consistently been vague about the details, even as schools applied to participate. It sounds like four laboratories to me: four sites allowed to make lots of decisions on their own so the district can learn what works…and what doesn’t. In addition, it lays the ground work for wider adoption of charter schools.

It worries me that in a district with a poor track record on engaging and empowering marginalized communities, these four schools self selected to participate based on the desires of the (mostly white) staff. How do I know the staff are mostly white? Because the teaching staff at MPS are most white, something that is very out of step with the diverse communities that make Minneapolis their home. Just another problematic aspect of MPS.

I understand that this “local school control” model is quite popular right now, but for a district facing many challenges, decentralizing responsibility for the services provided to students does not seem like a good way to improve outcomes for students or increase parent trust. It creates even more challenges around being transparent and accountable, both of which MPS already struggles with.

While all this is happening, the district is busy looking for a new Superintendent. In a blog post this week, David Fox raised some important issues about the search process, how community engagement has been managed, and the quality of the finalist candidates.

I think there are some on the school board who still have good intentions, but we all know where those can land you. I am frustrated with the district administration of MPS doing their best to obfuscate what they are doing, why, and to whom. For a district at the center of a lawsuit over segregated schools, I would think MPS should be working to build trust with district families and engage in culturally relevant ways, not continue business as usual.

Schools Aren’t Broken, but They Need To Be

Today over lunch I was looking online for discussions from different perspectives about the history of U.S. public schools and how people were talking about the question: is our public school system broken, or is it in fact doing exactly what it was supposed to do.

Last month I gave two workshops at the Twin Cities Social Justice in Education Fair and at the end of one, we were discussing the historical purpose of the public education system. One of the participants put her finger on it when she said the system isn’t broken. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. While I had heard this before, that day it had a different impact on me. Suddenly, everything I had doing and thinking that entire day about social justice in education was turned on it’s head and I realized I had been approaching everything backwards. While we might need to work within the existing system on pressing problems like bullying or inequitable applications of punishment, if we want things to really change in the areas of opportunities and empowerment, we need a new system.

No amount of lobbying the school board or attending district meetings or reforming how funding is allocated is going to change the fact that our current system sets aside much of what we know about how people learn, much of what we know about childhood development, and continues to use tools and techniques that were designed over a hundred years ago to control populations and create workers for the industrial revolution.

While reading along, I ran across the following statistic in an article on

Spending on elementary and secondary school students has risen dramatically throughout the past several decades. Back in 1959, schools spent only $2,101 per student. In the 2007-08 school year, by comparison, schools will have spent nearly $10,000 per student.

{The following paragraph has been edited to reflect a reader’s comment about my interpretation of these statistics}

There are quite a few different statistics thrown around regarding spending per pupil. There are a few things to keep in mind when trying to sort out useful information. We are asking our schools to do more every year, and not all those programs are tied to the metric of test scores. We want healthier lunch options, we provide more special education services, and we have joint programs in the schools to provide mental and physical health care and other wrap around services. Regardless of how much are are spending per pupil, our infrastructure is old, our classrooms are over crowded and our teachers are underpaid.

That being said, I’m not suggesting we should just throw more money at our education problems. While all those things are problems in our system, the real problem is the system itself. Students are not the problem, although standardized testing of students is problematic. Teachers are not inherently a problem although redefining how we judge performance and provide professional development would be good discussions. The problem is we are expecting a system to become something it was never designed or funded to be. If we want a system that empowers individuals to develop their unique abilities in a setting that prepares “young people for life, work and citizenship” than we need a new system from top to bottom.

In my lunch time reading, I found some discussions of the details behind this idea of changing the system, but what I didn’t find was a plan to change it. There are some interesting frames which reimagine how students engage with learning and debate the merits of various education reforms. However, I didn’t find a good discussion of what the entire system looks like that will give us the results we want. What do administration, local control, and equity look like in a new system? How do we move from what we have to a new way of approaching education? Who and what will try to block our way? How will we know when we have been successful in our reform?

I encourage you to set aside what you think you know about the education system and really examine our system. What do you think it should be doing? How should it do that? It’s 2015 and it’s time to envision what a new system looks like and how we are going to get there.