Monday, March 29, 2010

Don't give kids an alibi for failure!

Race and religion is a hot topic in our community. Look at the number of posts that appear on any story that touches on race on the Daily Times. If you want to be the center of attention, there is no better way than to put yourself in the forefront of a racial or religious dispute. Race makes for a great alibi as well, whether you are white or black. If a student gets into a tussle with another student, its easy to go home and say to your parents, the school is biased against me because they favor white students, or Somali students, or black students, as the case may be. And the fact that we have racism in our community, just like others, makes the alibi all the stronger.

Listen. The single greatest cause of suspensions in the public schools, or private schools for that matter, is that the parents of the student in question are unwilling or unable to control their own child and get them to follow the rules at school. In some cases, the parents are coming to school and asking for assistance. They say, we support our teachers. We want our child to behave, but something's wrong. Help us work with you. In fact, in the vast majority of cases involving discipline, we get parental support and parental cooperation. With the parent's support, principals, assistant principals, and teachers can usually come up with a strict compliance plan so the student can succeed. The vast majority of students who are disciplined are disciplined once or twice. Only a small percentage of students are disciplined repeatedly, and usually the story is that we can't get parental support, or rarely, the parents too are having one heck of a time with a troubled child.

The key to discipline is parental support. We have an outstanding staff. They don't sit around all day trying to figure out how to pick on kids because of their race. They are professionals with human frailties just like you and me. We have lots of challenges in our community. Poverty, some intolerance, a rising number of kids who come to school not ready to learn. Our professional staff, by and large, is working really hard to overcome these issues.

One of the worst things that people can do to children is to propagate the lie that their failure to behave is caused by racism. If you want to destroy your public schools, the most effective weapon is to create an environment where children have an alibi to fail. "Its not your fault that you can't follow the rules; its your teachers." We have a few people in our community, but they are a dangerous few, who want to create an environment that convinces kids that the rules are unfairly made and unfairly enforced. Some of them are arguing that white kids can't get a fair shake because the schools don't discipline minority students. That of course is demonstrably false. Some of them are arguing that minority students can't get a fair shake because schools are too tough on minority students. That too is false. When people propagate alibis for students, white or black, for their misbehavior or failure in school, they are enabling failure and destroying their public schools.

If advocates want to make things better for kids, they need to roll up their sleeves and do something positive. They can start by supporting teachers and creating an environment in the community that says, we expect every kid to come to school ready to learn and ready to behave. The best strategy for improving opportunities for kids is to find some kids who need help and give them a hand. If a young person is having trouble in school, the key to turning that kid around is an adult mentor, or a supportive parent who will work with teachers to support a regimen of hard work and a vision of success. No kid ever succeeded with an alibi.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Closing the Gap: Demanding More from Parents

For some time, I've been advocating that public education needs to demand more of parents if we want to close the achievement gap. In my last post, I argued that the so-called achievement gap isn't about race. I said that there is nothing racial, nothing ethnic, nothing about poverty that has anything to do with learning success. The road to learning success is the same road for everyone. It begins with mastering the English language, and understanding how words and sounds are put together. It requires hard work; it takes persistence; and above all, it requires the kindling of a fire within that says learning will lead me along a road to success. So every time we connect achievement to race, or ethnicity, or poverty, we run the risk of missing a fundamental point about education.

In that last post, I argued that the key to closing the gap is kindling a commitment to working harder to catch up. I've said that if you are behind, there is no magic bullet. Catching up requires extra work. It is possible for students to catch on to the working-harder idea despite their parents. But the odds are much higher if parents are part of the equation, and the parent component begins with supporting the effort required to catch up.

These days, pundits are fond of talking about school-success stories. One of the success stories that is touted nationally is the KIPP--Knowledge is Power Program. Wow, the pundits all say, they take any kid out of the toughest neighborhoods and turn them into champion learners. Let's take a look at what KIPP schools demand from their parents. Here is a sample agreement that KIPP makes parents sign, as a condition of enrolling students into one of their schools. I'd like to ask whether Minnesota school districts should be taking a page from the KIPP agreement, and raise expectation for parents whose students are behind.

Parents’/Guardians’ Commitment
We fully commit to KIPP in the following ways:
  • We will make sure our child arrives at KIPP by 7:25 am (Monday-Friday) or boards a KIPP bus at the scheduled time.
  • We will make arrangements so our child can remain at KIPP until 5:00 pm (Monday - Thursday) and 4:00 pm on Friday.
  • We will make arrangements for our child to come to KIPP on appropriate Saturdays at 9:15 am and remain until 1:05 pm.
  • We will ensure that our child attends KIPP summer school.
  • We will always help our child in the best way we know how and we will do whatever it takes for him/her to learn. This also means that we will check our child’s homework every night, let him/her call the teacher if there is a problem with the
    homework, and try to read with him/her every night
  • .We will always make ourselves available to our children and the school, and address any concerns they might have. This also means that if our child is going to miss school, we will notify the teacher as soon as possible, and we will carefully read any and all papers that the school sends home to us.
  • We will allow our child to go on KIPP field trips.
  • We will make sure our child follows the KIPP dress code.
  • We understand that our child must follow the KIPP rules so as to protect the safety, interests, and rights of all individuals in the classroom. We, not the school, are responsible for the behavior and actions of our child.
  • Failure to adhere to these commitments can cause my child to lose various KIPP privileges and can lead to my child returning to his/her home school


For some time, I have argued, and I continue to argue that public education is selling its product too cheaply to parents and students. Public education comes at a price to the taxpayers. We have a right to set expectations for parents as well. And, if we don't set those expectations, then we don't really have a chance of closing the gap, do we. I've got to get to work this morning, so I can't complete this thought, but I'm going to have more to say about demanding more from parents and from students in future posts.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Some words on the achievement gap

At our last two workshop meetings the Board of Education has been listening to staff members present on the work that they have been doing to address what has sometimes been called the achievement gap. I have mixed emotions about blogging on this point, because we have a lot of difficulty here in St. Cloud talking about anything that has a touch of race or class in it. For some reason, it polarizes us and otherwise civil intelligent people seem to lose perspective and at times civility. But, you know, I think we need to work harder on maintaining a civil dialog in American and certainly in Central Minnesota, on topics touching on race, ethnicity, and poverty. So I'm going to give it a try.

One of the reasons that I have mixed emotions about raising this topic is that there is nothing racial, nothing ethnic, nothing about poverty that has anything to do with learning success. Statistics are just that. Statistics. They tell us something about the distribution of people who have barriers to overcome, but they don't tell us a thing about the path to overcoming those barriers.

The road to learning success is the same road for everyone. It begins with mastering the English language, and understanding how words and sounds are put together. It requires hard work; it takes persistence; and above all, it requires the kindling of a fire within that says learning will lead me along a road to success. So every time we connect achievement to race, or ethnicity, or poverty, we run the risk of missing a fundamental point about education. If the spark that is learning burns within, it doesn't matter your race, religion or creed, nobody can stop you from succeeding. More than anything else, the key to the achievement gap, whatever it is, begins the discovery by a young person that if you learn, you can become whoever you want to be, if you just work hard enough. This personal covenant to succeed no matter what, is at the root of everything else.

There are all sorts of strategies that are known to have an impact in the classroom. In our school district we are using many of these "best practices," but today I'm not writing about them. Those are the domain of professional educators. The main point that I want to make is that when people say that race, poverty or racism is the key to unlocking educational potential, they are headed down the wrong path.

Listen. The slave Frederic Douglas, overcome brutality and slavery, and learned to read and write in secret:

When Douglass was about twelve, Hugh Auld's wife Sophia started teaching him the alphabet. She was breaking the law against teaching slaves to read. When Hugh Auld discovered this, he strongly disapproved, saying that if a slave learned to read, he would become dissatisfied with his condition and desire freedom. .......As detailed in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Douglass succeeded in learning to read from white children in the neighborhood and by observing the writings of men with whom he worked.

No amount of deprivation; no amount of brutality, can prevent someone who lights the spark of learning within from using education.

Everyone has a different view of what the achievement gap is. For me, the achievement gap has very little do with race, because race has nothing to do with learning. It begins with a focus on the barriers to educational performance of what I call "first generation" children. These are children whose parents and grandparents didn't graduate high school ready for college. These are the children who, in their family, are going to be, or could be, the first in their family to graduate to post high school education. For some children, whose parents cannot provide even the basic skills necessary to learn in the early grades, the disadvantage can be overwhelming. But the disadvantage is not racial; the disadvantage works the same way, whatever your race. When a family can deliver the keys to educational readiness in the early years, then the children come to school with a monumental advantage.

If I have left the impression that only families whose parents have a college education can provide these learning skills, of course that is completely incorrect. The issue is not the parents final grade in school. Its whether the family is inculcating the learning idea and the learning ethic. Children who receive the gift of the learning idea have a huge advantage. Children who do not, have a barrier to overcome, and the key to overcoming the gap is figuring out how to overcome that gap.

Children who are read to; children whose parents keep books around the house; children whose parents engage in vocabulary building in the first five years of life; children whose family passes along the fundamental keys to success, these children do well, and they do well no matter what their race, ethnicity, religion or economic status. All these people who create bar charts and report statistics comparing free and reduced lunch or racial factors to educational success are leading us down the wrong path, because they are implying that there is some logical connection between economics, race, or ethnicity and learning, and there simply is none. Black and white children who are provided the keys to learning succeed. Black and white children who are not provided the appropriate advantages, can also learn, just like Frederic Douglass, but they must overcome greater odds.

So the achievement gap is about recognizing that kids don't arrive in school with the same advantages and figuring out how to light that internal fire within that says, I can do it; I can overcome the odds. They need to realise: I'm not stupid. I'm just behind. There is a stairway to success open to me. I can do it.

Now, our future as a community depends upon our ability to increase the number of students who graduate ready for post high school education. It includes children of all races. It includes recent immigrants, and not so recent immigrants. Frankly, instead of thinking of it as a racial, or ethnic, or immigrant issue, I like to think of it as making sure that our most precious asset--children of whatever background--reach their fullest potential.

In an earlier post, I quoted from the 2009 Minnesota State Budget Trends Study Commission. The Commission, authorized by the legislature, was comprised of fifteen members including five members appointed by the governor; five by the senate and five by the house. The Commission Report discusses the threat to Minnesota's future posed by a major, long range demographic shift which has grave economic consequences for the state:

Today, as the first of Minnesota’s 1.4 million baby-boomers begin to reach retirement age, the state has reached an inflection point - a moment of profound change that produces an immediate shift from recent trend. This milestone requires a complete reassessment of the way the state’s economy is perceived. No longer can Minnesota sit by and watch as the crest of this giant aging wave grows larger. As Minnesota’s population begins to transform, new, long ranging factors will begin to weigh more and more heavily on the state’s tax base, spending needs, and overall economic progress. The wave is beginning to break and policymakers have not adequately prepared for the overwhelming implications this will have on state government finances.

The report continues:

A rising dependency ratio will have profound implications on virtually all aspects of state and local government. For instance, a larger dependent population will put upward pressure on government expenditures. Dependent populations rely more heavily on health care, education, economic assistance,and social service programs. .....Current trends signify that by 2020 the number of seniors in the state of Minnesota will exceed the number of school age children for the first time. ......

It is becoming more and more critical that we find ways to successfully educate a larger portion of our children, because the productivity of these children is critical to solving this rising dependency ratio. The strength of our country, the prosperity of Minnesota and the nation, depends upon solving this problem. We can argue all we want about this issue: we can use it as an excuse to get angry, we can play Fox versus MSNBC, but it won't change the fact that we have to figure out a solution to the challenge that we face, or pay a heavy price. We are going to need everyone to contribute and everyone to count. Norwegians, Swedes, Germans, Hmong, Vietnamese, Somalis, African Americans, Indians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and all the rest.

With that said, what do we need to do in public education, and what do we need to do in our community, to make that happen? And what are we doing? For the children who come to us with limited English proficiency, we need to get them speaking English as soon as possible. Forget about where they come from. Stop worrying about the things that don't count. Speaking and writing English is, of course the key to unlocking the door to education, and it is more. It is an important bond that brings us together as a people. Every immigrant parent, whether Somali, Hispanic, Asian, African, or of European descent wants this for their children. When I talk to Somali parents, it is absolutely at the top of their priority list. We want our children to learn English as soon as possible. Over the last several years, we've been working extremely hard as a district to respond to this important objective. The truth of the matter is that Americans have not been very good at learning and teaching foreign languages, and we've settled across the country for the idea that learning the English language takes way longer than it should.

But as I have said, in our school district, a lot of work has been done to examine what we are doing in the area of English language instruction, with a goal to getting non English speaking students to fluency faster. This should be a goal that brings us together as a community. I don't care what your political persuasion, or who you like or don't like, whether you are a flaming liberal or a wild eyed devoted conservative, this is a goal we can agree on. We're going to be a better community if we do everything that we can possibly do to make sure that immigrants to our community learn English as soon as possible.

In St. Cloud, there are too many people focused on race, and too few focused on unlocking the keys to learning. We have too many people, on the left and right, who want to identify race and poverty as the problem, or who want to claim that unless we overcome racial barriers, we cannot close the achievement gap. It is education that is the weapon against poverty; it is education that is the sword and shield against racism and bigotry. We don't get rid of racism so that our children can be educated; we educate, and by educating we defeat and destroy racism.

Tomorrow, I'm going to have more to say about race, poverty and education. I'm hoping that if it engenders some dialog, that the folks who comment will comment with a good will. I don't mean that you should necessarily agree with me. But let's have the dialog with discretion and sensitivity, and even a sense that we all have something to learn from each other.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

About MSB Model Board Policy 206

In my last post, I explained that the Board of Education is evaluating its approach to obtaining citizen input at board meetings. In the midst of this, I've been engaged by citizens who have discovered Board Policy 206 and who believe that this board policy gives any citizen the right to get on our agenda to make comments on any agenda item by requesting time from the superintendent. As I've discussed this with the proponents of this view, I've found myself sounding a lot like a lawyer parsing technical language. I can't avoid doing that, as painful as it may be to readers, because we are discussing the meaning of a binding policy, after all, but I don't want to lose sight of the central focus that started the discussion. The Board is looking for more effective ways of involving the public in its deliberations. But I thought it would be helpful, for those of you who have been looking at Board Policy 206, to explain why its not really a solution.

Since I wasn't involved in drafting or passing Board Policy 206, I tried to go to the horses mouth, as it were, to see who drafted it and what they had in mind. It turns out that Board Policy is a "model policy" drafted by staffer who is no longer at the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA). I contacted the current policy wonk at the MSBA and she said that MSBA does not interpret the policy to provide the right to speak on agenda items at board meetings. She explained that you have to read Board Policy 206 carefully, and also read it along with Board Policy 203.5. Taken together, she says, these policies provide for a method for a citizen to request that the Board of Education place an item, suggested by the citizen, on the agenda. Then, if the matter is placed on the agenda, the policy provides a mechanism for the citizen to be heard on that item.

Now before we get into a huge debate about the meaning of language, let's just begin by acknowledging that the folks who drafted the policy in the first place don't believe that Board Policy 206 provides the right for a citizen to place herself on our agenda. And let's acknowledge that we probably will never recover what the person who drafted it a decade ago was thinking. At the end of the day, the solution to finding improved ways of involving the public is going to involve a brand new policy.

Board Policy 206 says:

Citizens who wish to have a subject discussed at a public school board meeting are encouraged to notify the superintendent’s office in advance of the school board meeting. The citizen should provide his or her name, address, the name of group represented (if any), and the subject to be covered or the issue to be addressed.

Board Policy 206 provides a mechanism for a citizen to request that the Board of Education place an item on our agenda. It is simply not designed to individual citizens the right to place themselves on the agenda. It provides a method for a citizen to say, I would like to bring this to your attention, and would you please consider putting this topic on your agenda as a citizen suggested item.

Now the rest of Board Policy 206, it seems to me is dealing with what happens in response to that request. The MSBA staffer explains that you have to look to Board Policy 203.5 to remind yourself who gets to decide whether to honor that request or not. And the answer is that the Board makes that decision. Board Policy 203.5 says:

It shall be the responsibility of the school board chair and superintendent to develop,prepare and arrange the order of items for the tentative school board meeting agenda for each school board meeting.

Board Policy 203.5 also echoes policy 206 by saying:

"Persons wishing to place an item on the agenda must make a request to the school board chair or superintendent in a timely manner. The person making the request is encouraged to state the person’s name, address, purpose of the item, action desired and pertinent background information. The chair and superintendent shall determine whether to place the matter on the tentative agenda."


The agenda decision's of the committee are subject to approval or modification by the Board, as the policy explains:

Items may only be added to the agenda by a motion adopted at the meeting. If an added item is acted upon, the minutes of the school board meeting shall include a description of the matter.

Nothing gets on our agenda, except through the agenda committee, or by addition by motion of the full board.

Now I should mention in passing that this cutting from Board Policy 203.5 has actually been partially superseded by a later adopted policy, which says that agenda development is the responsibility of the agenda committee, which includes the superintendent, the board chair and the board vice-chair. In our school district, for as long as I've been on the board, the agenda committee meets a week before the agenda and creates the tentative agenda and reviews the agenda packet for submission to the board. Thus, if a citizen notifies the superintendent that he or she wants to suggest a citizen item for the agenda, then the first point of decision is the agenda committee. Not even a board member can force an item on the agenda, so certainly a citizen cannot either. Agenda items are placed on the agenda, in an orderly fashion to make sure that when they come before the board, there has been adequate preparation and it is something that is ready for the board's consideration. (As we have gone to an active committee system, another way that an item can get on our agenda is through a board committee, still subject to the recommendation of the agenda committee).

In any event, the rest of Policy 206 deals with items that are placed on the agenda by the board at citizen request. It says that in that event "Citizens who wish to address the school board on a particular agenda item may speak during the discussion of that item." And this explains the misunderstanding. This provision is simply not intended to allow citizens to place themselves on the board agenda to talk about any item of their choosing. Presentations to the board on those items are dealt with by the "open forum" provision, which says:

The school board provides a specified period of time where citizens may address the school board on any topic, subject to the limitations of this policy. The school board reserves the right to allocate a specific period of time for this purpose and limit time for speakers accordingly.

Now there are some smaller councils and boards who follow the practice of letting citizens interrupt their meetings to talk on any agenda item that they please. This is a common, but increasingly less frequent practice in small communities. But in a community our size, it would be impossible and unwise to conduct business in this way.

That brings me back to the question I originally posed, about what is the best way to get citizen input. At the present time, we provide a short period before each workshop meeting where a citizen can stand up and speak at the podium for a limited time. But board members have long recognized that this is not a very useful method to get meaningful input. For this reason, during the time that I've been on the board, a variety of other devices have been tried. On several occasions, we've tried the "circle of conversation" method, in which the Board invites a target group of representative citizens to join us in conversation. We've done that periodically at schools. And, on occasion, we've done that to discuss a particular subject matter.

The advantage of the circle of conversation approach is that a citizen doesn't have to stand up and give a speech in front of a bunch of people. In addition, this approach provides for more dialog and exchange. We are listening to a group of people in more intimate dialog.

Another device that we've tried is to conduct topical forums where information is presented and then citizens can ask questions. We've also visited schools and invited citizen comment respecting that particular school. We get input in a variety of other ways of course. People stop us on the street or in a coffee shop and speak their mind. We get emails: I read all my board emails and try to respond thoughtfully. We get a phone call now and again. Occasionally, we get letters. Over the years, I've received several anonymous letters with no return address making one or another assertion, but leaving no method to follow up. For me, the blog dialog is another source of information. It gives me a sense of what the people who are crazy enough to post want to tell a board member who is crazy enough to want to blog. The questions are often challenging, and I find myself often following up by double checking or digging further to get information. So, actually, though it may not always seem, so, it helps me do a better job.

Another approach that we have used to getting input is to convene a panel of citizens who know something special about a particular topic. We did that several months ago by bringing in a group of people with experience in early childhood education. We also attend various forums and meetings scheduled by citizens groups which may invite us to listen to them.

In the next couple of months, I expect that the board will be discussing this issue further. Just as important to getting public input is doing a better job of involving parents and other stakeholders in the decision making process at the school district and in schools, before they get to the board.