Frustration is justified as Minneapolis students struggle

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 13, 2013 - 5:25 PM

There are plenty of strategies ready to be moved from talk to action.

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Despite a mix of internal and external support, the Minneapolis public schools have lost some ground in their efforts to close the stubborn achievement gap.

A recent review of student data showed that last year the district met only three of the 20-plus academic targets it set for students. That shows backsliding from the previous year, when it hit about one-quarter of its targets.

In statewide comparisons, the district improved but still fell short of its goals in reading and math proficiency and graduation and suspension rates. And it regressed in attendance and in meeting a college success threshold on pre-ACT exams.

One response to that disappointing news: Minneapolis School District officials say that some of the lowest-performing classrooms in the early grades could soon have two teachers instead of one. Some educational research indicates that this would be a wise move. Improved quality of instruction, including more individual attention from teachers, is one of the most important in-school factors for academic success.

The Minneapolis school board sent its own accountability message to Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson this week. Following her annual evaluation, she received less than 20 percent of the $40,000 bonus she could have added to her $190,000 salary if all the goals were met. In addition to meeting the three academic targets, board members said that Johnson had improved the district’s finances and had met nutrition goals. But they also said they were “frustrated with the incremental rate of academic growth.”

The district has recorded consistent improvement in kindergarten reading readiness and modest increases in graduation rates. However, disparities in third-grade reading proficiency remain unacceptably high — 60 percentage points for Latino students, 55 points for Indian students, 54 points for black students, and 41 points for Asian students.

Another strategy under consideration is to restore literacy coaches to lower grades — a strategy that has helped the district boost reading scores in the past. Coaches work with teachers on methods to help struggling students catch up and perform at grade level more quickly.

District officials should also try to direct some of the considerable external assistance they receive from nonprofits, businesses and the state to prepare preschoolers for kindergarten. About 82 percent of incoming 4- and 5-year-olds who have participated in the district’s prekindergarten High 5 program are considered on track with skills leading to literacy. However, too many students lack access to High 5 or similar efforts.

Local foundations and business groups have raised millions to help Minneapolis and St. Paul students succeed. We hope that a group like Generation Next, which has many of the region’s key players on its board and will be led by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak after he leaves office in January, will help bring focus to those initiatives.

Johnson should be applauded for using the recent data to respond quickly to classroom needs. Instead of being held until the end of the school year or the beginning of the next — a pace too often followed with previous efforts to close learning gaps — many of the staffing changes Johnson has proposed could be in place when students return from winter break in January.

The district will double down on the number of teachers in some low-performing classrooms by moving teachers who are now on leave to do administrative or curriculum work. And Johnson says she intends for central office administrators to work more directly with principals and teachers.

To be even more nimble with staffing and programs as student needs arise, the administration needs a more flexible contract with its unionized teachers. The next two-year contract is being negotiated behind closed doors with a mediator. For the sake of improving student learning, it should give school leaders more tools to get the job done.

  • JOHNSON’S PLANS

    In addition to an increased focus on instruction in early grades, including adding a second teacher in some classrooms, Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson says she will do more to help high-schoolers regain lost credit; will find alternatives to suspension, and will consider year-round school for some students. She remains committed to instructional protocol that keeps teachers on a similar curriculum. “Some people at the building level apparently thought that focused instruction was negotiable. It’s not. At least 90 minutes a day on literacy is crucial for our kids.’’

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