Election 2014: Minneapolis School Board

Welcome to the most mysteriously contentious race of the year! This is a surprising one, actually. You rather expect the acrimony to be found mostly in races for jobs you can imagine wanting. I mean, I don’t want to be governor, but at least being Governor of Minnesota is a job that comes with some decent perks. You’re paid enough to live on and they lend you a spiffy house. Whereas the Minneapolis school board jobs are genuinely terrible. You’re paid a part-time salary (under $15K/year) for a more-than-full-time job where being hated by lots of people is a major function and anytime you have to make some painful and complex decision like whether to close down a half-empty school, at your next big meeting you can fully expect people to show up and tell you to your face that you’re a terrible person.

This is a race that also tends to be ruled by the DFL endorsement — the action is often at the endorsing convention. This year, the wild card is Don Samuels, who had no shot at a DFL endorsement for school board (the teacher’s union does not like him at ALL) but has the profile and name recognition to make a serious run without it.

There are four people running for two seats:

REBECCA GAGNON
DON SAMUELS
IRIS ALTAMIRANO
IRA JOURDAIN

Rebecca and Iris have the DFL endorsement, and Rebecca is an incumbent.

I’ll start out here by talking some about how I’ve approached this race in recent years. First off, I almost always vote for incumbents, unless that specific incumbent has really ticked me off. I think there’s some value in institutional memory, and the incumbents far more than the new recruits have a clear idea of what they’re getting into. In addition to being poorly paid and overworked, school board members get blamed for budget shortfalls that are, for real, entirely outside their control. They don’t get to decide their budget; the state does. They get to decide what to cut, and after listening to all the other candidates at the DFL convention saying that they would NEVER increase class sizes NEVER EVER, incumbent T. Williams sardonically noted that it’s easy to make that promise, but sometimes you have to go where the money is.

I also want to note that while I am not anti-union and I am definitely not anti-the-teachers’-union, I think it’s also worth remembering that it is their job to represent the interests of the teachers. Which is fine because teachers deserve representation and advocacy. But sometimes the interests of the teachers and the interests of the students do not fully align. The board’s job is to negotiate with the teachers’ union when the contract is up for renewal, so while on one hand I have no interest in a school board that will try to screw over the teachers, on the other hand I think it’s legit here that they’re sitting on opposite sides of the table; hopefully the negotiation process will not be acrimonious but it is a negotiation and not just “here, teachers’ union, everything you want is obviously what should happen.” Being disliked by the teacher’s union does not necessarily mean you’ll be a terrible school board member. It really depends on what it is they have against you.

Rebecca Gagnon

I was not super impressed by Rebecca when she ran the first time, but she definitely gets credit for running again. And although a ton of problems remain (like the achievement gap and the dropout rate), MPS has gotten markedly better over the last four years. They’ve stopped closing schools and started re-opening them. In a weird way, I think MPS benefited from the economic meltdown, financial crisis, and slow recovery. Minnesota does school funding through the state budget, and your district gets more money the more students you have. The recession and financial crisis were a complete disaster for private education; sending your children to a private school is totally optional, and will probably drop to a low priority if you’ve just lost your job or are afraid you’re about to. Anyway, a lot of Minneapolis-based students came back to the Minneapolis public schools.

But, they’d have left again just as quickly if their parents had felt their kids were getting a substandard education. In fact, there are a lot of good schools in Minneapolis. There are a lot of extremely experienced, committed teachers. There are at least a few really talented principals.

(Can I just note that people focus really strongly on quality teachers and tend to overlook the importance of principals? Good principals can make a huge, huge difference to a school. I’m not even sure how. I mean, half the time I’m not sure what they do. It’s clearly a really complex skill set, because for one thing, you have to manage teachers. Managing teachers is DAMN HARD, because a lot of teachers are very fond of working with children and not wild about dealing with other adults and in particular they want to run their own classroom and have the principal leave them the hell alone. Anyway, a good principal can turn a school around. A bad principal can ALSO turn a school around. I’m not even sure how they evaluate principals, especially given that the old principal at Molly and Kiera’s former school was once “Principal of the Year”…)

Her website says she’s in favor of balanced budgets, she voted for the new discipline policy designed to reduce suspensions (that’s a point in her favor, IMO), she supported the Safe Schools initiative (that’s an anti-bullying policy that particularly strives to protect LGBTQ students), and she helped to pass an Equity and Diversity Policy “that requires all board decisions pass the equity and diversity impact assessment to ensure we are identifying, addressing and eradicating institutionalized racism throughout all levels of MPS.” This is all good stuff, although for Minneapolis school board candidates, not exactly controversial.

I’ll add here that she refused to participate in a forum because it was co-sponsored by Students for Education Reform, a probably-astroturf group that has been campaigning for Don Samuels. She also refused to fill out the questionnaire from Educators for Excellence, which I think is rather unfortunate given that what they did with the responses was put them together in a convenient booklet. (I guess you might be concerned about lending them credibility, but frankly, I find agenda-driven questionnaires to be useful in ways not necessarily intended by the people with the agendas.)

Apparently SFER and E4E and various other lobbying groups have been spending absurd amounts of money in this school board race. (Specifically, pushing Don Samuels.) There was a blowup a few weeks back because Iris Altamirano (endorsed DFL candidate) appeared at an event with Don Samuels. I’d say there’s an overall perception that Dan is running against Rebecca; everyone seems to like Iris, and few people are taking Ira all that seriously. So, I can understand her suspicion of the groups that are Don boosters, although I kind of think she may be shooting herself in the foot by treating them like they contaminate all that they touch.

Don Samuels

Don ran for mayor last year, and I remember thinking that given how focused he was on education issues (which the mayor of Minneapolis has very little to do with) he ought to be running for school board. And now he is. And…I have some big hesitations about him.

He’s a board member at Teach for America. You know, I really appreciate the energy, drive, and idealism of people who teach with TFA but in point of fact, very few teachers are all that good their very first year. I do support alternative certification programs; I think there’s something really nutty about the fact that if you have a PhD in Physics, you can’t teach science to high school students unless you go and get a Master’s degree in Education. (I’m not saying you should be able to waltz in off the street with your PhD and teach high school students, I’m just saying that demanding a whole separate graduate program is not enforcing professionalism, it’s enforcing hoop-jumping.) But the thing about TFA is that it’s all about teaching for two years and then doing something else, so basically a bunch of kids in the neediest schools are getting one teacher’s Probable Worst Year Ever after another. This is not helpful.

I mean, with a newly minted teacher, someone has to be the first year, just as someone’s going to have to be the first patient intubated or stitched up by that new resident in the ER. If the person’s goal is to become a teacher as a career, then you know, some class full of kids will have to suck it up. But I have some huge reservations about providing an endless stream of two-year teachers to the students who most need really GOOD teachers.

If I were going to set up a program like TFA, I would exploit the enthusiastic recent graduates by employing them as EAs and one-on-one reading and math tutors and after-school enrichment providers. I might even add a coursework component and make this an alternative certification option.

Here’s the other thing about Don: I am super hesitant about these groups backing him. On the other hand, he’s also endorsed by RT Rybak and a whole lot of City Council members (past and present) as well as two former school board members.

So, looking at his actual website, there’s stuff I like and stuff I don’t like. “We often hear that poverty is a barrier in education that cannot be overcome. We know that is just not true. Two of Minneapolis’ best schools are Harvest Prep Academy and Hiawatha Academy, and those schools serve 99%+ kids of color, 95%+ free or reduced lunch kids, and yet their outcomes beat the state average by double digits every year.” Harvest Prep and Hiawatha Academy are both charter schools. And he’s right; they do a stunning job. Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul does, too, with a similar population. It’s absolutely worth asking what these schools are doing and how they’re doing it and what strategies can MPS try.

On the other hand, he wants a longer school day and year. At my kids’ old school in Minneapolis, they got twenty minutes total for lunch and recess, K through 8. Six and a half hours with a ten minute recess is bad enough. If the school day is getting extended, they also need to make recess (real recess) mandatory.

He talks about useful and timely data. He doesn’t acknowledge that he’s talking about still more testing. He talks about teacher quality: “Teachers cannot be viewed as interchangeable parts. We need to identify great teachers, no matter what their background and training, and empower them to succeed. Once we’ve done that, we should be aiming to get the best teachers in front of the neediest kids.” Here’s the thing about that. I can tell you about great teachers I had, and great teachers my kids have had. I can even tell you precisely what made some of them so great. But I cannot tell you how to measure it. I can’t tell you how to incentivize it. Neither can anyone else. The problem with identifying great teachers is that way too often it involves identifying teachers who are particularly good at teaching to the test, or teachers who are particularly good at being well-liked by their peers. You can use metrics with some professions but teaching is a really, really, really hard one to measure.

He also talks about Early Childhood Learning (which is great, we agree on that completely) and on the role and importance of parents (ditto).

Iris Altamirano

Iris has a compelling political biography: she was the daughter of a school custodian who went to Cornell University, shocking the socks off the local school superintendent who pulled her mother aside and said, “why YOUR DAUGHTER?” (to which she responded, “why NOT my daughter?!?”) (Don Samuels also has a compelling political biography: he’s an immigrant from Jamaica who came over, was really successful in business, and turned to community service. He still lives in one of the more challenging neighborhoods in Minneapolis.)

Her issues page emphasizes kindergarten readiness (by funding High 5), thinking about the needs of students who are new immigrants, good teachers and principals, and community building.

You know, this really is the problem with figuring out who to vote for in school board races in Minneapolis.

To be honest, I would love to see a candidate say that they want to say to hell with kindergarten readiness, let’s think about what kindergarten was originally supposed to be for and focus on first grade readiness. Originally, kindergarten was supposed to be universal preschool, where kids could learn their colors and work on their fine motor skills to get better with crayons and scissors and learn school behaviors like sitting down and paying attention. Over time we’ve transformed kindergarten into what we used to refer to as “first grade” and defeated the whole entire purpose of that preparatory year so now once again we’re dealing with a readiness gap between those kids who arrive knowing the letters of the alphabet and those kids who arrive never having experienced any sort of formal school environment in their lives.

I know, this is crazy talk. You would never ever ever in a million years hear a DFLer say that in Minneapolis, but I really think it’s worth considering as a strategy. They did, at some point after Molly’s (truly disastrous) Kindergarten year at her Minneapolis school, assign an aide to every kindergarten classroom, which is a really good idea. When Kiera was in preschool, I remember that in the younger rooms, the lead teacher would assertively lead everyone over to the rug for storytime while two assistant teachers would round up and redirect the kids who were having trouble changing over to this new activity. If a kid got restless during storytime, it could still continue while the assistant teachers soothed, quieted, distracted, or (if all else failed) removed the disruptive kid. It really helped with the process of socializing kids to the norms of a classroom.

Anyway, Iris has a truly impressive list of endorsements that includes Keith Ellison, most of the City Council members, a bunch of state legislators including the House Education Chair, a long list of current and former school board members, the DFL and all the unions (except for the Teacher’s Union, which opted not to endorse directly and instead instructed its members to vote for whoever the DFL endorsed).

Ira Jourdain

Ira was an extremely distant fourth in the primary. (Rebecca came in first with 31%, then Don with 27%, then Iris with 23%, then Ira with 6%.) This is largely being treated as a three-person race for two seats. Turnout for the primary was super low, though, making it hard to really suss out what’s likely to happen on Election Day.

Ira’s from the Red Lake band of Ojibwe (I think) and works at one of the human services organizations that serves Native Americans. His “platform letter” says that he thinks MPS is putting its resources in the wrong places. “For our youngest students kindergarten classes are too full. For our oldest students our high schools do not completely offer culturally relevant curriculum that engages them and welcomes them into their learning environment.”

I totally agree with him on class sizes. Minneapolis has appalling class sizes. The standard class size is 27 students K-3, 32 students 4-5, and I’m not even sure what happens in the upper grades. It’s ridiculous. The charter schools, all of which get less money per student, all manage to have much smaller class sizes. For a while Minneapolis blamed the fact that they had a bunch of half-empty schools that they were paying to heat; then they closed a bunch of schools so I’m not sure what their excuse is now.

I have some real hesitation about “culturally relevant” curricula. I went to an elementary school that was wildly enthusiastic about being RELEVANT and somewhat less worried about supplying factual content. Also, what kids need varies a lot. (He talks about that, too, saying that we shouldn’t use a one-size-fits-all standard of teaching.) There are kids who will learn science better if they’re exploring culturally relevant topics like ethanol and the water quality of the nearest lake; other kids want a more methodical and structured curriculum rather than a topic-driven one.

He also talks about wraparound services; this is the approach that says, “a kid is not going to do well in school if he’s not getting health care, if he doesn’t have enough to eat, if his family is homeless,” and tries to make sure that services to provide nutrition, stability, and health care are being provided. I totally agree in principle while also kind of resenting the fact that we’re dumping yet more stuff on schools. (It really should not be the school’s job to make sure kids have access to health care; it should just be a societal given.)

I think I’m going to come down on the side of Iris and Rebecca but I may change my mind before the election.

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