The Minneapolis school district, in the midst of perhaps the most disruptive event in public school history (COVID-19), has approved a plan that will compound the disruption in the name of furthering equity, with Arneson, Ali, Caprini, Ellison, Inz, and Pauly voting yes 6-3. Since bandying about the word "equity" is table stakes for any education debate (note the names of the largest pro- and anti-CDD groups), the CDD plan needs to be evaluated on its outcomes, not its stated intent (which probably isn't its real purpose anyway). Supporters of the plan have made statements along the lines of "our kids can't wait" or "doing nothing isn't an option", but having a sense of urgency is not a good thing when you're running full speed in the wrong direction. When the plan inevitably fails to fulfill its promises (as I believe all available evidence and historical memory strongly suggests it will), I predict the following:
- Achievement gaps won't budge. CDD does nothing to address the in-school factors that could make a difference here; for example, there is no plan to replace the district's reading curriculum, which includes elements of the discredited whole-language approach, with a scientifically validated program. CDD does nothing to implement evidence-based strategies (like PBIS, for example) to improve school climate and reduce discipline problems that contribute to a disrupted learning environment. CDD does nothing to confront the abysmally low and ever-lowering expectations routinely set for students in our hardest-hit schools (for example, my neighborhood high school recently adopted a grade scale where a score as low as 25% is still considered passing). Obviously, low expectations are great for the graduation rate, and district administrators and school board directors love to pat themselves on the back when they increase. But the goal of a school system is not to crank out diplomas, it is to transmit knowledge. (To be clear, improving graduation rates is an important goal, but it must be accomplished by improving upon what students know and are able to do, not by manipulations like "credit recovery" schemes and moving goalposts.) CDD must be evaluated based on objective, externally validated measures like MCA and ACT scores, and sadly I believe these will stagnate or decline in the years to come.
- By the time the data renders a verdict, the architects of this plan will have moved on to bigger and better things, with no way to hold them accountable. Ed Graff will go on to greener pastures in a larger district, as urban superintendents always do, and his school board allies will hold their seats as long as they want to because nobody can afford to challenge them for a full-time job that pays about $14k per year.
- North Side and Northeast families will not enroll in neighborhood schools in greater numbers. In Northeast Minneapolis, where I live, about two-thirds of parents do not send their children to MPS schools. I throw up a little in my mouth every time I'm out for a walk and I see a yard sign advertising a Minneapolis household's allegiance to St. Anthony or to a private school. This is not the hallmark of a healthy, functioning public school system. Nevertheless, parents have real concerns about the safety and academic quality of area schools, concerns that the district leadership either elided or set up straw men for. For example, parents may worry that their children are subject to more bullying because of the district's increasingly laissez-faire approach to discipline. MPS puzzlingly reframed this as a concern with the safety of the walk zones around the schools. MPS thinks they can attract parents to a school by rebranding it as a "STEAM magnet", slapping a shiny new label on it without changing the underlying fundamentals. As long as MPS continues to deny or deflect the real issues, they aren't giving families a reason to come back.
- CDD will precipitate a mass exodus of families from MPS. Many parents affirmatively choose to send their children to a district school; most parents don't make this choice for ideological reasons, although for a few it seems to be a strong motivating factor. We chose an MPS magnet school for a whole raft of reasons--diversity, school culture, K-8 structure, safety, academic quality, etc. Offerings like K-8 and Spanish immersion have been important tools for engaging the Somali and Latino communities. CDD drastically reconfigures magnet school structures and neighborhood school attendance boundaries such that nearly two-thirds of all MPS students will have to attend a new school when it takes effect. This means many families who previously chose MPS will be forced to begin the choice process anew. There are a lot of school options in and around Minneapolis. There is no reason to expect that all, or even most, families will opt for whatever "take-it-or-leave-it" default they are presented with under CDD. Charter schools must be practically salivating waiting for 2022.
- Accelerated declining enrollment will cause a financial crisis unlike anything in recent memory. MPS is already in lousy financial shape, still stinging from recent mass layoffs (which preceded the end of my teaching career) and budget austerity measures. The loss of per-pupil revenue under the state funding formula will lead to accelerated school closures, increasingly intractable labor disputes, difficulty recruiting and retaining faculty and staff (especially non-licensed staff like special ed assistants and associate educators, who are often the first to be dismissed, and who are disproportionately comprised of the very underrepresented minorities MPS claims to be trying to recruit), shrinking extracurriculur programming, larger class sizes, etc., etc. This raises the very real specter of a fiscal death spiral, in which contracting opportunities spurs even more families to opt out of the district, until the only kids who remain are those without any options. This is not equity.
- CDD will increase the breach of trust between MPS top administration and parents, teachers, and building administrators. This plan was concocted and passed by a small handful of ideologically-motivated Davis Center functionaries and well-organized externally-funded activists. Parents didn't ask for this. (The district didn't conduct any scientifically valid polls, but it appears that 85 to 95% of parents oppose the plan.) Many Latino families in particular are upset about the drastic reduction and realignment of dual language immersion programs, and now the school district has given them one more government agency they can't trust. Teachers didn't ask for this. Principals weren't even consulted. Parents were surveyed leading up to the plan, but their opinions were recast and misrepresented.
- Teachers will be blamed. Actually, I'm surprised someone hasn't already tried to blame teachers for COVID-19.
I hope none of this comes to pass--nobody wants to see their own city fail--but sadly I think we have a lot of reasons to expect it.