Tag Archives: education

Gopher Ties

17 Aug

I’ve been out of graduate school for two years now, and a wedding of a former classmate this past weekend gave me a moment to look back on those two years of my life. My time at the University of Minnesota has misfortune of living in the shadow of a very different academic and institutional environment from my undergrad days—one that is hard to compare on many levels. But it was still a formative experience, and if readers of this blog know anything, they know I have a fondness for reflecting on formative experiences, so it’s time to give my time as a Gopher the same treatment I’ve given to my other alma maters.

I earned a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The fact that the U of M’s planning program is located in a policy school, and not an architecture school or somewhere else, is unique in and of itself. It gave planning a valuable social context that I think it deserves, as opposed to a more technical engineering-focused education. That said, the MURP program was also Humphrey’s red-headed stepchild; the dean would make good-natured but all-too-true jokes about how he didn’t know any of us. Our program was a forgotten little corner of a sprawling research university, and as a result many of us in it developed some chips on our shoulders. It could be a lonely world, but also one that built its own fierce tribe that stuck together through grad school and beyond.

Perhaps the biggest difference between my undergraduate life at Georgetown and Humphrey was the level of institutional support for students. While there are good and bad professors everywhere, the range of teaching quality at Humphrey was much wider than it was at Georgetown, where duds were few and far between. Some, including the current MURP program director, met a fantastic ideal of intellectual heft, ability to teach, and care for students. Others were so weak or so transparently more interested in their own careers than their students that it was hard not to check out in their presence, especially for those of us who preferred not to BS our way through things. I also had several unfortunate encounters with incompetent middle-level bureaucracy, from Humphrey human resources to the broader university’s health insurance system, which left a very sour taste in my final semester. The contrasts between the Georgetown financial aid office professional who went the extra mile to make sure I had everything I needed and the U of M’s automated and soulless systems, or between the Georgetown advisory dean who oversaw a four-person seminar for my major and one poor, overworked guy for a whole Humphrey, was striking. Funding for educational support staff is necessary at all levels, period: the difference in students’ mental health and career readiness is night and day.

The size of the U of M wasn’t all bad. I enjoyed the trappings of life at a Big Ten school; even though most of the major sports teams sucked during my time there, it made for excellent atmosphere on game days, and I will always feel a certain sense of home amid the frenetic energy of undergrads. The U of M is also so large that it’s hard for a single culture to dominate, as Georgetown’s East Coast preppiness sometimes could, and everyone could find their own little communities somewhere on campus. The urban campus gave access to an intriguing city, especially on the West Bank, where Humphrey sat a stone’s throw from the Somali-populated towers of Cedar-Riverside. We grad students mostly lived a bit further afield, clustering in neighborhoods that gave us access to plenty of good living beyond our schoolwork. In a phase of life where I had no pressing need to own a vehicle, it was a great place to be, and a large urban area is an excellent laboratory for aspiring planners.

Unlike Georgetown, which was caught up in a much larger mystique and set of life goals, I chose Humphrey for largely instrumental reasons. It is comparatively cheap, and its name and location provided access to networks and a ticket to a job in my field in the city where I wanted to be. It is reasonably well-regarded, though prestige means relatively little for a planning master’s program unless one is going on to a PhD. I find it somewhat ironic that this is the degree that gets me jobs when I think my undergraduate experience was more rigorous, more formative, and did more to prepare me to navigate through the adult world. But that, I suppose, is the world I live in. Higher education is a remarkably valuable thing, but not for the letters on the pieces of paper that students get at the end.

Even as a staunch defender of higher education, I could see how falsely this race to acquire credentials rang for so many of my peers, and had some sympathies when they rolled their eyes at the university system for leeching off of it. But if this was the price I had to pay, it was modest and reasonable, and more often than not was worth the cost. I was dismissive when classmates said they weren’t getting enough real world skills such as interpretation of zoning code, and nothing since then has altered that outlook. That’s not what grad school is for. Instead, it’s an immersive step outside the humdrum routine of working life, and a theater for students to negotiate crucial questions of what the actual outcome of their work will be. The debates we had in the MURP lab over beers at bars down the street or at Liquor Lyle’s set the table for everything that came after. Take it from Frank Bruni’s college admissions friend in this timely, excellent overview on how to get the most out of college: “The more you regard college as a credentialing exercise, the less likely you are to get the benefits.”

One of the real advantages of planning is the diversity of backgrounds of people who come into it, and for that matter in what they do coming out of it. A laundry list that includes architects, policy wonks, philosophers, map enthusiasts, and recovering bankers go in, some straight out of undergrad and some with varying degrees of working world experience. Developers, hardcore activists, academics, consultants, and traditional government employees all come out. We all tested each other, learned from each other, and became more complete people thanks to one another.

I made the decision to go to urban planning school at a point where my career ambitions were at a nadir, and am not sure if I would make the same choice today if not for the community that Humphrey built. We had good debates in classrooms, yes, but what Humphrey truly cultivated was a group of people with whom I can continue to make sure I’m doing what I want to do. The cozy MURP program gives its graduates a ready community of practice who, in the event that I have some sort of question on effective policy programs for particular issues or the value of adopting some technological tool, will give me an immediate, comprehensive response if I share it with my network. And for deeper dilemmas of where exactly we’re going with our work, they’re there, too.

This isn’t to say the network was without some frustrations. There was a general political groupthink to both the MURP program and the broader Humphrey, with only rare deviance. Within the MURP program itself, the lack of diversity was a frequent source of frustration for administration and students alike. And, as with any small group of people, it’s not hard to fall too deep into the weeds and lose track of other things, a fact of life that is mostly harmless but sometimes limiting. (During the wedding, I overheard one person declaiming loudly on bar graphs; over the course of the day, I had at least five people ask me if I’d heard of the latest incident of Minneapolis political outrage in which some low-grade elected official made a hash of trying to silence a bothersome hyper-local journalist.) Small communities will always have their internal little incidents that can disturb the peace. That’s life with other people.

In our best moments, my grad school cohort built exactly the sort of little community that we planners are supposed to uphold in the world. And now, out in that working world, we are spreading that seed. I struggle to define the emotion I feel upon seeing a rush of babies born to the married members of my class in the two years since graduation: it puts on hold a life so often driven by calculation and ambition, and I am left only with a sense of humility, a moment of rightness before the power of creation. While I don’t begrudge those who choose different arrangements (or are unable to choose it), child-rearing is central to my vision for a sustainable, healthy community: if we truly believe in leaving the world better than we found it, how can we not bring life into it ourselves? How can that not be the ultimate task, the ultimate test of our ability to stand up for what we claim to believe in? No matter where I may wander from here, that desire to live in community and contribute to it will be central, and I have my time at Humphrey to forever fuel it.

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Good Journalism, 4/19/18

19 Apr

Here is week two in my attempt to collect a smattering of semi-related pieces of good journalism on topics that I think deserve more attention than anything in the regular news cycle.

From Franklin Foer, one of the Atlantic’s most fascinating writers, comes a discussion on the end of reality. It should leave you quite concerned about our virtual future, and the past couple of years show just how much it can threaten a traditional understanding of truth and, yes, reality itself. As a defender of reality, it’s a timely call to arms.

From something called The Educators’ Room, which is dedicated to teachers’ empowerment, here is a list of ten things that teachers today have to deal with that they didn’t ten years ago. The timing here is apt, as I close in on my own 10-year reunion. Sure enough, few to none of these things existed when I walked out of Duluth East ten years ago, and just about all of them leave me saddened or frustrated with the state of education. Some of them key off the concern over virtual lives that comes out of the Foer piece, but others deal with safety, a decline in authority conferred to teachers, and broader social forces that affect home lives. My own profession is often complicit in #10, and while I do think there is very good work being done in better aligning curriculum with realities of a changing economy, whenever I get caught up in these discussions I just want to yell at people to stop and make sure we’re not thinking about education or childhood in a strictly utilitarian way. The journey should be just as important as the destination, both here and in the testing culture the author rightfully decries.

Spinning out of our theme of losing touch with the world around us, here is David Brooks on loneliness. From my own travels and observations, I would wholeheartedly concur that this epidemic is as dangerous as any afflicting contemporary American life. One line sums it up well: “the clans have polarized, the villages have been decimated and the tribes have become weaponized.” We will either find some way to heal these wounds or we will continue to crumble away from reality.

Next, some notes on the political journey of a man who, while facing long odds, had as good a chance as anyone to heal the wounds of a fractured nation: RFK goes to Pine Ridge. There have been some timely RFK reflections of late, including a number on the 50th anniversary of his Indianapolis speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and I expect they will continue as we close in on the anniversary of his death. I’m not sure there’s a more haunting figure in American history.

Following up on last week’s theme, but closer to home: Jana Hollingsworth and Brooks Johnson at the Duluth News Tribune delve into a sexual abuse case in Itasca County. One can certainly throw some stones at local papers like the News Tribune, but something I’ve noticed in recent travels to smaller communities is the hole left by the decline of newspapers as a communal source of knowledge. Once upon a time, these places had a common source of information; nowadays, ask a resident where to catch up on local happenings and many of them will shrug, or admit they’re relying on Facebook gossip (which many hate but can’t escape) or just the good old rumor mill at the coffee shop or bar. Institutions like newspapers play a vital role. And I’m pleased to say that the DNT reporters who I’ve interacted with in recent years, which include Jana and Brooks, along with Peter Passi on local government and Louie St. George on hockey, are all in it for the right reasons, and do great work. May they continue to have the resources to do more of this.

And, staying local for my final piece, here’s an obituary that caught my eye this week. Mary C. Van Evera is a name I’ve heard around Duluth from time to time, usually as a donor somewhere in the background. I often wonder who these people are, and how they amassed their wealth, and what spurred them to grace certain causes with their patronage. With Mrs. Van Evera, it’s obvious enough: her maiden name was Congdon, and she was a granddaughter of Chester and Clara Congdon, the builders of Glensheen and the exemplars of Duluth’s golden age a century ago. Obviously few to zero people reading this blog will have Congdon-level wealth, and I can’t claim to have known her or how she operated. But when it came to civic involvement, and to commitment to a place while maintaining a global perspective, Mrs. Van Evera was exemplary.

I’m building some steam here. Let’s do this again next week.

How Good Is That School, Anyway?

29 Nov

How do we measure the quality of a high school? Some schools have high test scores or send lots of kids to good colleges, but family and friends and general atmosphere probably matter far more for students’ odds at success. There are basic metrics such as the standardized tests du jour, which are very good at measuring how well students take standardized tests. The caliber of the hockey program is, of course, also an important consideration. (I jest…mostly.) Accurate measures are hard to find, though I’d still find more value in things like graduation rates and ACT or SAT scores, which, for all their flaws, are remarkably good predictors of college success. But  assumes these schools are all starting from the same place, which they simply are not. A better question asks how schools work with the students they have, rather than wishing they had.

There’s no elegant way to control for income and parents’ education and all those things, but free/reduced lunch rates are one option. What happens, for example, if we graph average ACT scores from 2012-2015 in comparison to the free/reduced lunch rates at all traditional public high schools in northeast Minnesota? Well, this happens:

act1215

Click all images to enlarge.

Three schools stand out here: Duluth East, Esko, and Hermantown sit off by themselves at the upper left end of the graph. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising, as basically all of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the region feed into these three schools. Those demographics are friendly to strong test scores, but don’t necessarily mean a school is doing an especially good job in and of itself. Take Hermantown, for example: it’s a growing town, and invariably, young people who consider moving there talk about “the schools” as one of the reasons. Yet this graph suggests that Hermantown’s schools do a decidedly average job—even a slightly below average job—for the population they serve. People may think they’re moving for the schools, but whether they realize it or not, they’re moving for a demographic makeup that makes it easy to have a good-looking school by traditional metrics with far less effort. This is not to pick on Hermantown, which still does a reasonably good job of things, and there’s plenty to be said for wanting one’s children surrounded by other like-minded achievers. But it does show what a disservice we do when we rate schools by the most basic metrics.

At the risk of sounding a bit smug about my alma mater, East’s over-performance is actually pretty impressive given that it is already toward the high end; that said, it’s probably worth noting that East’s attendance area, while holding more poverty than Esko or Hermantown, also contains some uniquely wealthy and highly educated neighborhoods that may pull scores up. Its large student body also probably insulates it from dramatic year-to-year swings. The larger Range schools, meanwhile, perform quite well, as does Cloquet.

Denfeld, which is too often the source of less-than-happy stories about local education, modestly overachieves compared to the region. The school’s struggles when compared to its east side counterpart are entirely predictable based on who goes there, and this data suggests that’s not really the fault of the school. There may still be reasons to be leery of a place like Denfeld if it’s failing to offer the same advanced courses or difficult for students to build a schedule that incorporates those classes, but the school itself and its instructors seem to be doing fine. Places like Proctor and Wrenshall, though, where a number of kids in the Denfeld attendance area go to open enroll, actually underachieve. Floodwood, Carlton, and Bigfork all raise big red flags. High-poverty Deer River, meanwhile, exceeds expectations by a solid margin.

But wait, this may or may not be the most accurate way to do this: not everyone took the ACT until 2016, when the state of Minnesota required all students to sit for it. This is what happens when all students take the test, not just those who want to:

act16

It’s one year of data, so the smaller sample is somewhat limiting, but the shift after the new requirement was predictable. Scores dropped across the board, since a lot of students who are not college-bound sat for a college aptitude test. Generally, this change makes well-off schools look better, and poorer schools look worse, as the steeper trendline shows. The wealthiest schools all hover around the lowest score drops, which probably reflects the fact that the bottom end in these schools is a lot higher than it is elsewhere. Meanwhile, we see big drops on the Range and in some of the poorer schools, including some schools that looked pretty good in the data from previous years, like Virginia and Cloquet. (To Cloquet’s credit, it still does pretty well.)

schoolactchg

Drop in ACT scores when all students required to take test. The statewide average drop was 1.6.

There are two very contradictory ways to interpret this: one, these schools’ great scores from before tear down the curtains and suggest they’re not really that great, but instead serve their top students well while the rest shuffle along. Two, the ACT is not a great measure of what a high school is supposed to do: not every kid is destined for college, and maybe these schools are also educating the less academically-inclined kids well, and just channeling their talents in different directions. Most likely they are both true to some extent.  (Worth noting: this region has an exceptionally high number of people with associate’s degrees or other degrees that are “less” than a bachelor’s degree, but can be tickets to good, steady employment in certain trades. At the same time, the region’s average ACT score is somewhat lower than the statewide average, whereas its graduation rate outpaces the state.)

One way to plausibly better judge a school’s performance is to measure graduation rates against free-reduced lunch rates. Even if kids aren’t going on to college, they’re still equipping kids with the basic skills and credentials for whatever they do next. Of course, one could also argue that these schools are just funneling under-qualified students through the system.

gradrate

And, sure enough, if we correlate graduation rates and free/reduce lunch rates, we get a more complicated picture than with the test score graph, and see that some poor schools do an excellent job of getting students diplomas, while others do not. Here, the three affluent schools all under-perform the trendline mildly—though maybe the trendline should flatten out somewhat at higher levels—places like Greenway, Carlton, and Bigfork do a good job of graduating their students despite weak test scores.

The fundamental point here: just because a school has lower poverty rates does not necessarily mean it is good; just because it has higher rates does not mean it is bad. And yet educational reforms that supposedly aim to improve outcomes somewhere along the line, such as making all students take college aptitude tests whether or not they’re going to college or efforts to block teachers from teaching courses for college credit—a pitiful example of credential obsession at its worst—only tend to make the rich look richer and the poor look poorer. The rest becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as students drain out of the weaker-seeming schools and flock to the ones that appear strong, whether or not they really are actually better. Few things make my blood boil quite like educational bureaucracy and the underwhelming efforts to get around it.

The idea of rating schools is always fraught with difficulty, and I wouldn’t want to try to reduce the complicated things that go into an education to a single number. College rankings are trashy enough, and I say that even as someone who probably puts more stock in the value of educational prestige than most. If I had to pick out a few things I’d like to see to judge a school’s performance, though, I’d look for a high school’s college graduation rate (separated out for both bachelor’s and associate’s degrees). I’d also want a raw percentage of students earning the very highest test scores (say, ACTs over 30). And I’d control it by free/reduced lunch rate, because not all success is as it seems. It’s not a perfect way to gauge schools, but it’s at least an improvement over the poverty of current methods.

Data source: Minnesota Department of Education. Northeast Range High School (Babbitt) excluded due to lack of data.

Duluth News Roundup: March 2015

15 Mar

Over the past couple months, this blog has neglected any mention of Duluth affairs unrelated to the exploits of one particular hockey team. Time to fix that. I just spent a weekend back home, and Duluth is basking in sunny repose in mid-March, a rare feat that had everyone out enjoying the brownness of it all. (Why do these nice springs only happen when I’m elsewhere?) So, let’s see what’s been in the headlines over the past couple weeks, shall we?

Surprise! Art Johnston Is Suing ISD 709

Okay, maybe nothing much has changed. I saw this coming from a thousand miles away back when the School Board launched its shortsighted inquest into its most stubborn member, and everything has, depressingly, played out according to plan.

I go back and forth on what I think will happen if this does play its way through the courts. Harry Welty, who is the only person providing any insight beyond the most basic talking points, thinks Art has a very strong case in that his freedom of speech has been violated. That said, it’s not hard to see Harry’s biases here, and as the tone of his blog has shown recently, he can’t be trusted to be objective when he has an obvious stake in the outcome. From my very limited perspective, I’m not sure the Johnston camp has a good counterargument to the most salient point against him—that he used his influence as a school board member gave him undue power and a conflict of interest in representing his partner, Ms. Jane Bushey, in discussions with district administration. (Johnston supporters are quick to point out that no police report was ever filed against Johnston’s alleged “assault” of Supt. Gronseth, and I agree that it sounds like a fishy and trumped-up charge, but the “bullying” of Ms. Bushey is just as unsubstantiated at this point.)

I’ll agree with Art and Harry that the state’s law allowing school boards to remove members seems way too loose. I’d support the effort to change that, and bring it in line with the standards used for other elected bodies. But unless his lawyers can prove unconstitutionality, a fight that would involve some very high-level courts, the School Board was within its right to exercise its power of removal so long as it found “proper cause.” The Rice Report as written gave them proper cause, and while Art and Harry have questioned Atty. Rice’s character, they’re going to have a hell of a time proving that. This leaves them with the possibility of questioning some of the testimony she relied on to develop that proper cause. Harry enjoys making dark allusions to the actions of one school administrator, but this would tip the case into a number of accusations in the shadows and he-said, she-saids. Is that really a winning case, especially when the other side actually gets to tell its story? I’m not very convinced. And frankly, if the accused party needs character witnesses, she’ll have some good ones. I could be one of them.

I still think it was dumb of the School Board to go down this road against a mostly powerless Member, as Art will only drag this out in the courts forever and make it an even greater PR nightmare. I don’t know why any sentient voter would support any of the seven incumbents based on their conduct at the moment. But I also don’t think this debacle will prove the vindication that the anti-Red Plan camp seems to hope it will become, either. The whole affair is a pox on everyone’s house.

I should’ve gone into education law. Seems like an awfully lucrative field.

Howie Backs Out

As you might guess, I am crushed, simply crushed, to learn that Howie Hanson has withdrawn from the mayoral race.

It’s actually a pretty shrewd move on Howie’s part, and one that lets him get out of the race with dignity before it gets too heated. His odds were low, and this was not the stage for him. This allows him to dedicate himself to his seat on the City Council. Not having watched much lately I don’t know if he’s getting better or if it’s Same Old Howie, but he means well, cares for his residents, and, as one voice among nine, cannot do too much damage.

This leaves Emily Larson alone in the race at the moment, though we still have eight months before the election. Names like Yvonne Prettner-Solon and Chris Dahlberg continue to drift about, but they’ll need to decide fairly soon if they want to have the resources necessary to mount a successful campaign. In the end, Larson may be the biggest winner from Howie’s very early entry into the race, as her quick answer allowed her to really get ahead of the pack and get her name out there. I still think this election is hers to lose.

Let’s Sell Some Weed…Or Not.

There was some controversy this past week over the creation of marijuana dispensaries in Duluth; the Planning Commission is going full speed ahead here. The City Council, on the other hand, hasn’t been such a big fan in the past. There were a number of proposed sites—near the airpark, Garfield Avenue, Lincoln Park, somewhere in or around Morgan Park. Not coincidentally, these are all on the west side. For the sake of the west side’s image, I hope it ends up in the airpark or on Garfield Avenue.

The defenders of these sites say they’re all heavy-industrial areas anyway, which is true to an extent, but complexities of land use tend not to come into people’s minds when house-shopping. Saying “there is a pot dispensary in Lincoln Park” is probably enough. Granted, that might not be a turn-off for some people…but, let’s be real. Any rehabilitation of Duluth’s west side isn’t going to be led by a rush of people chasing a marijuana dispensary (unless Duluth goes all rogue and tries to become the Boulder of the North, but I don’t think that’s on the table right now). It’s going to need stable families to set down roots and repopulate the schools. Stick it by the airport or on Garfield.

Chartering a School

I’ve talked about this some before, too, but it’s coming to fruition: Duluth’s Edison charter schools are building a high school on the Snowflake Nordic Center site.

My objection isn’t to educational alternatives (which I support in principle, from private and parochial schools to homeschooling), nor necessarily to the idea of charter schools (though there is growing evidence that, in time, they tend to just become destinations for white flight). It’s to the scale of the project. In a metropolitan area the size of Duluth, subtracting 600 students from local high schools is going to cause a fundamental disruption. Of course, the school will draw from numerous districts; ISD 709 Superintendent Bill Gronseth claims most Edison students nowadays go to Marshall, and now seems unconcerned, but I have a sneaking suspicion over who will be the real loser in this new setup: you guessed it, the school that draws from the area of Duluth right by the new school. Denfeld. The poor get poorer.

Time will tell, of course. But the supporters of the Edison project are, in my mind, far too blithe and/or naïve over the likely effects of their new high school. This area is too small, and we are all interconnected. You do not live in a vacuum.

St. Louis River Corridor

Lest this post get too down on the west side, here’s cause for some potential excitement: we have some nice plans for the St. Louis River corridor redevelopment, most of them involving trails. In fact, if there’s a criticism, it’s pretty much all trails; the question becomes one of how to integrate all of these trails with the existing built environment, and how to capitalize on the new attractions. Still, there’s lots of encouraging stuff here, from skiing to rock climbing to horses to river access. There is plenty of ongoing investment in west side amenities. The question is, will genuine economic opportunity follow? Or is this just a cosmetic repair on the surface, one that ignores a collapsed economic base and a declining housing stock? I don’t have the answer there. Time will tell.

For all my grumbling, it was good to be back. Nothing quite matches a Minnesotan’s delight as the coming of spring after the long, cold tunnel of winter. Enjoy your spring, Duluth. I hope to be back again before long.

A Follow-Up on a Charter High School in Duluth

18 Oct

My piece on the possibility of a Duluth Edison charter high school was unusually punchy for this blog, and in turn, it provoked some good reactions. I spend a lot of time in detached analysis; part of this is just who I am, and part of this is because I do try to transcend normal political categories so that I’m not pigeonholed as some tradition-loving conservative or government-loving commie. But when the guard does come down (and when it does, it always seems to involve Duluth East High School), taking a hard stand on something often does generate a good response. So here are some of the responses, and please, if you have any thoughts, send them along in a comment or through other means. I love the dialogue.

First, I want to clear something up that I didn’t mean to suggest, especially with my overly vague title: I certainly wasn’t trying to throw all charter schools in one big pot. In large urban areas, I can certainly see how charter schools can be and have already been helpful, though I also don’t pretend to understand the education debate in those cities well enough to come to a good conclusion. For my friends out there in Teach for America who are employed in charter schools, keep doing what you’re doing. I just hope you can see the nuance in this debate, which I think reveals the dangers of abstraction in education. Whenever someone says a certain type of school—public, private, charter, whatever—is the problem or the solution, you should be suspicious. This is a complicated debate, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and little reason to believe that what works in New York is the same thing that works in Memphis or Muncie or a small town in Kansas.

My intent was to address Duluth, Minnesota in 2013, and nothing else. Perspective is in order, and an understanding of the diversity of experiences is in order. That’s what set me off about the original “Dish with Trish” piece (since removed from the Reader website, I now see) more than anything: her own perspective was the only one that mattered, and she declared that ISD 709 “sucked” for her, and therefore must suck for everyone else, even though this is (a) patently untrue and (b) is of absolutely no constructive use for figuring out the future of education in Duluth.

With that in mind, I got three good responses from people with unique insights into the situation here.

My first correspondent was a fellow Duluth East alumnus who went to Edison schools through 8th grade. He had a very fair beef with my insinuation that Edison would hurt diversity (broadly defined) in Duluth schools. I did know that Edison has a fairly high percentage of students on free/reduced lunch, but at such a small school, I wasn’t sure that this was necessarily a good proxy for diverse family backgrounds: after all, there are plenty of engaged and well-educated parents who just don’t make a lot of money. (Maybe they’re single-income families, maybe they’ve chosen fulfilling jobs that don’t pay much, maybe they were English majors, etc. I’m a living example here: I got a Pell Grant, but my parents both have advanced degrees, and it would be laughable to call my childhood “working class” or something along those lines.) My correspondent, however, assured me that the kids at Edison during his days there ran the gamut of possible backgrounds; most went on to Duluth Central, he said, and he could name plenty of former classmates who went on to become teenage parents or even went to prison.

My friend had plenty good things to say about Edison, and thought the school did pretty well for what it had to work with. He didn’t particularly want to be at Edison and was happy to head to East for high school, though as a hockey player, he already had friends at East who helped make his transition easy. He said he wouldn’t send his own kids there unless there was a substantial gulf between it and the public schools, and didn’t appear to think the schools are at that point right now. He also agreed that an Edison High was not in the best interests of Duluth as a whole.

He also raised a good point that seems to have been forgotten in all of this: Duluth already has a charter high school! Harbor City has been up and running for a while now. I guess my question to the Edison people is, what would an Edison High offer that Harbor City doesn’t? Is there simply not enough room at Harbor City, or is there something deeper at work here?

It’s also worth noting the time he was at Edison: the early 00s, long before the Red Plan debates began. When I mentioned that, he said he did think there has, perhaps, been a change in Edison’s mission in recent years, whether the people who are running the school realize it or not. On a similar note, Harry Welty noted that the situation currently confronting Duluth schools was “unimaginable” when Edison was first set up. My friend’s comments invite a lot of questions over the Edison mission, and I’m genuinely curious to know the answers. The school may have been diverse in 2003, but how have things changed since the Red Plan flights began, and how will it look in 2023? Perhaps Edison may not want to think of itself as being in direct competition with ISD 709, but in a city of this size, it’s inevitable. How does Edison choose which applicants get in, and does it just shrug its shoulders at the kids who don’t end up there? If more families try to “flee” the “issues” in ISD 709, who gets let in? Considering that one of these two districts gets public funding without needing to endure levies or contentious school board meetings or Keith Dixon or Art Johnston, how does the endgame possibly look good for ISD 709? I can imagine a few answers to that question, but I want to hear them from other people, too.

While it obviously isn’t Edison’s fault that ISD 709 has some issues, it does share a community with that District, and it has some responsibility to work with the District, not against it. I think school choice is great when it meets needs that public schools do not, and I’m glad people are happy at the K-8 Edison schools. (See an older post of mine on publics versus privates here.) Edison can be great for this city if it is a complement; the troubles will begin if it comes to be seen as a substitute. As I said at the end of the last post, we’re all in this together.

Harry Welty followed up on the Dish with Trish on his blog, and adds some kind words about me on the end. His perspective on white flight into charter schools is an interesting addition to the conversation, and it will be interesting to see if Edison—which is fairly racially diverse (by Duluth standards) right now—remains that way. And while the racial element is important, I also think Duluth’s racial homogeneity can hide other divisions within the community.

Finally, I heard from someone who has more knowledge of the financial details of a possible sale of the old Duluth Central to Edison than I do. Here are my informant’s thoughts, with this person’s permission:

[T]he idea that Edison will get a high school may be an inevitability, but who is to say that they will get off the ground in the near future?  As far as I can tell, there is no building around here suitable for a high school outside of the property that our district owns. It would take Edison at least 4 years, maybe up to 6, to build a building from the ground up. They need to find land, purchase it, develop plans, get bids, get permits, etc, etc, etc. We currently send 1.4 million of public school funding to Edison every year. In the event they purchase Central, it’s conceivable that they could be off and running by September 2015. If they have to do it on their own, it’s likely they won’t have a school till at least 2018, maybe 2019. Assuming they have around the same number of students, that’s an additional 1.4 million for 4 years that would be sent to Edison that otherwise would have stayed in our schools. That 12 million we get from them for Central won’t look nearly as good if you have to subtract 5.6 million of lost revenue over that span of time when they otherwise wouldn’t have had a high school. 

Of course, that isn’t going to satisfy the people who are upset that they’re being taxed to maintain Central and just want that off the books as soon as possible, but if these people take the long view, selling for minimal profit now will only exacerbate financial problems later on, and we’ll be having a war just like this one a few years down the line. From the District’s financial standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to wait for another buyer; the question is, how quickly do they think that buyer can come along, and how much longer will this process drag on?

It’s hard for the District to win here, but this city has to come up with a coherent vision for the future of its public schools. Sorry, Marcia Stromgren: public education isn’t going away anytime soon, and even with an Edison High, the public schools will be inextricably bound up in the city’s fate. We can fund them with the levies, vote for dedicated candidates who will dialogue with us citizens, and watch the Board to make sure the money ends up in the right places. Or we can vote them down and somehow pretend that 50 kids in a classroom is “justice,” or that this will teach a school board full of people who were not around when the Red Plan was implemented a lesson about having implemented the Red Plan. It’s your choice, Duluth.

Charter Schools and the Ones Left Behind

12 Oct

My dad and I are in southern Wisconsin this weekend, visiting my grandmother for her 87th birthday. The impromptu family reunion has been a rewarding one, as I’ve been reunited with a cousin I hadn’t seen in about 15 years. My dad was the only one of my grandmother’s children to go to college, and without belaboring the details, let’s just say I grew up in an entirely different world from my cousin. It wasn’t the smoothest of meetings, especially since neither of us is all that extroverted, but we shared some laughs and found some common ground. I’m damn proud of that, and I wish I’d found a way to say more.

What on earth does this have to do with education? It’s simple. It made me wonder about her education, and even more importantly, about her 13-year-old son, whom she had while she was still in high school. I’ve never met the kid; he lives in Colorado, and my cousin doesn’t have custody over him. But I care about him. Who’s looking out for kids like him?

On the drive down, I found myself reading a Duluth Reader Weekly column under the tagline “Dish with Trish” advocating the selling of Duluth Central to the Edison charter school system for a new high school. Her experience in Duluth public schools was the polar opposite of mine, and she refuses to acknowledge them as a contributor to her education. She rushed her children out of ISD 709 and into Edison. Her argument is a sloppy one that relies on silly cherry-picked examples about kids holding open doors for her; it lacks anything resembling nuance. But that doesn’t take away from the sincerity of her perceptions. She clearly thinks Edison offers a better future for her kids, and for her, that is all that matters.

The argument in favor of charter schools is a pretty sound one. “Charter schools create competition, and competition is good.” That makes complete sense. Institutions that never face any competition can easily become stagnant or mediocre. But here’s the thing: charter school populations are entirely self-selected. Everyone there is there because they want to be there. No wonder people gush about the community and engaged families at charter schools: describing them that way is practically tautological. If you are an engaged parent, it also makes complete sense that you’d want your child in an environment entirely surrounded by other children of such parents. Add in the ugly class sizes in ISD 709, and it’s a slam dunk. What’s not to like?

However, this nation has made a commitment to universal public education. Unless you want to go and throw that out, you’re going to have to contend with the fact that there are quite a few people out there for whom education is not a priority. Perhaps their parents are unwilling or unable to support kids to the extent they need; perhaps it’s a conscious rejection, and most likely it’s a complex web of socioeconomic and family and psychological factors. It’s unfortunate in many ways, but that fact can’t be wished away. These kids are still going to go to school, and it’s going to fall upon the public schools to educate them. Because of that, public school test scores will always face some burdens, teachers will always be frustrated by certain kids, and while these kids are certainly not doomed to be disruptive or “bad,” they have an unfortunate tendency to become the face of public schools. Public schools will never be able to compete with charter schools on a level playing field. Ever.

If you pull the engaged families and students out of the public schools, it leaves the public schools in a downward spiral that’s hard to escape. If parents never think their kids are going to public schools, they don’t bother to support school levies, and the funding dries up. Parent volunteers disappear, and booster clubs that give private support to public school programs go the way of the dodo. Class sizes get even bigger, even more kids are pulled out, forcing even more cuts, leaving behind those kids who are all too often left behind by society. I’m not saying this is destiny; there are some exceptional individuals who come out of even the worst schools, and committed leadership can turn around struggling schools. But this is the exception, not the norm. Throwing up one’s hands and praying some good leaders will come along isn’t a winning strategy.

You would think that most liberal-leaning people respect the need to support the entire community, and to fight for public schools. (I won’t pretend to know Trish’s political allegiances, but aside from a few stray anarchists, social libertarians, and Harry Welty, I don’t think the Reader has ever run anything by anyone who isn’t somewhere on the leftward end of the political spectrum.) Duluth’s liberalism isn’t without its downsides (as with any political ideology), but it has allowed for relatively generous support for public institutions over the years. And yet, with our public schools going through a troubled time, the reaction of so many community-oriented people has not been to fight for that community, but to flee in search of something else.

I don’t say this in spite or judgment. It’s only human nature to care deeply about our children before anyone else, and I’m not among the cosmopolitan idealists who think we can or should get rid of that. When I try to weigh the moral implications of something, I often use my hypothetical future children as my test: would I let my children go here or do that? I certainly wouldn’t send them to one of the miserable inner-city schools I saw in Washington DC just to make a political point. (For new readers, I went to college in DC before coming home to the city I love most.) Duluth, however, isn’t there yet. Some perspective is in order: Duluth can still be rescued, if enough people pitch in and resist the atomizing tendencies that drive us all to pursue our own short-term personal interests at the expense of the communal good.

The problem with Duluth is that it’s small. Build a charter school and take 500 kids out of the Washington DC school district, and DCPS will keep on running (to the extent that it runs…) with fairly stable funding; there might be some ripple effects, but it isn’t going to reorder the entire situation. Take 500 kids out of a district that only has maybe 2800 high school students, and you have a potentially huge disruption. Duluth is small enough that the old cliché used by everyone from Marxists to Buddhists to Rand Paul (in very different contexts)—“we are all interconnected”—really is true. Charter school parents may not like to hear this, but in Duluth, it’s true: your choices affect everyone else. The good news is that, in a smaller community, a movement to change the course doesn’t take a whole lot of people. We can make this happen.

In a community of this size, it’s impossible to imagine a sustainable social fabric without public schools. To their credit, Duluth public schools have programs for the kids who aren’t on the fast track on college that teach them skills that will get them employed after their school days are over. I don’t know how well these programs work, but at least the effort is there, and that is essential. Students who aren’t going to college need to know that they aren’t failures, and that there is a group of people who care about their futures. By keeping everyone in the same building, we recognize that interconnectedness, even if they’re tracked into very different sorts of classes. Tracking can make sure that the highest achievers can get the courses they need to go to the best colleges (it worked for me), and the kids in the middle can find a happy medium, too. Money and support flows in to everyone, and not just the select few who already have strong support networks. If you get enough stakeholders on hand to fight the good fight, the class sizes will fall to normal levels, and these schools can reach their very real potential.

You might call that an idealistic stance, but it’s an ideal rooted in acceptance of reality. The people in public schools are going to be our neighbors. Some of them might even be our relatives. If you’re a liberal, the need here should be obvious, Red Plan rancor be damned: there is no other way forward if you really do support an equitable society. If you’re a conservative, giving these kids a chance can keep them off the welfare rolls, and creates at least an avenue to welcome their families into a community that will allow them to escape the pathologies of the past. Of course it won’t work out for everyone. Human nature is what it is, and people will make mistakes or not listen or face obstacles that simply cannot be overcome. But it is not destiny. And public education, for all its faults, is, from a societal standpoint, the only cost-effective way to keep it from being destiny.

Yes, this requires some active parenting. It requires a bit more engagement, perhaps, as people band together to fight for their kids and confront the bloated bureaucracy and inane love-and-happy-thinking education-speak that plague many school systems. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it for everyone that you share this community with, and for your own kids, too. Putting one’s children in a school that offers the whole gamut of students also broadens their horizons in ways that no self-selected charter school ever could. There is more to “diversity” than race or faith, after all. This is the world we live in. The empathy I feel for people from different backgrounds from mine does not come from the various service projects I’ve done among people from disadvantaged communities. It comes from living among them.

All of that said, I support the sale of the old Central High School to Edison. I can wish that all of the Edison parents are going to read my piece and change their minds, but I’m not delusional. Edison High is going to happen. I don’t like it one bit, but holding up some ideal in a desperate attempt to keep one’s hands off the inevitable is only going to hurt the district in the long run. Selling Central to Edison gives ISD 709 some chance to control the terms of the sale and cap enrollment, and I doubt it’s going to get a better offer for that financial black hole atop the hill. At the very least, Harry Welty’s lease idea could offer some sort of compromise. (Full disclosure: Harry and I did lunch after he read my last column on ISD 709.)

Antagonizing the charter school people even more certainly isn’t going to win them back, either. This is our future we’re talking about. We’re all in this together, even if we have some disagreements about methods. I hope Duluthians can come together and work some of these things out, perhaps over a drink or three. (I’d be happy to foot the bill, even on my underemployed recent college grad’s salary.) This town is unique because it has such a distinct communal identity; with enough effort, it has the potential to be exceptional. Getting there is going to require that people get out of their comfort zones, though. We’ll see if Duluth can pull it off.

The Duluth School Board Levy: A Manifesto

30 Sep

Disclaimer: when I launched this blog, I used its first post to say it wasn’t my intent to make this thing a call to arms for any particular cause. Today, I’m going to violate that principle for a cause that is, I believe, worthwhile. I’m going to do what little I can do to get the voters of ISD 709 to pass the operating levy that will be on the ballot this November.

Two of the biggest levy proponents out there are ISD 709 Superintendent Bill Gronseth and at-large school board candidate Harry Welty. I don’t really know either of them personally, though I sometimes read Welty’s blog and had a mini-dialogue with him last week, and Gronseth was the assistant principal at my high school once upon a time. But while both men have the same goal and seem to respect one another on some level, they are coming from radically different places.

Gronseth’s PR campaign for the levy has been relentlessly positive. A gaudy handout touting all the successes of ISD 709 came out in a recent Duluth News Tribune, and if you read it, you’d think there wasn’t much of anything wrong with the District. At Board meetings, Gronseth will acknowledge challenges, but will quickly try to turn them into opportunities for improvement, insisting the District is on the right path. I don’t think this is some cynical spin operation: Gronseth genuinely believes he can help guide this District to a better place, and that sort of positive message can be a real asset to a District trying to move past a divisive era. His pitch attempts to show the voters of Duluth that the District is moving past the Red Plan rancor, and that voters can have confidence in its administrators to keep the momentum going.

Welty, on the other hand, sees a rather different picture when he looks at ISD 709. His blog collects plenty of horror stories of troubles that afflict the District: a paltry general fund, sagging graduation and enrollment rates, a glaring achievement gap, classes with over 40 students, and anarchic west side schools. His campaign theme is “honesty,” which for him involves acknowledging everything that is wrong with the District, and then confronting it head-on. Without the levy, he argues, it will be near-impossible to do so. There is no scenario in which “starving the beast” leads to more sensible financial policy, and should the levy fail, the task of trying to build a decent District will take a herculean effort.

Both of them are part right and part wrong. Gronseth is right to see some real positives: for all of the turmoil, the test scores and post-secondary success of kids from the east side schools remain strong, and the recent turnaround at Laura Macarthur Elementary proves that demography need not be destiny, and that west side schools can succeed with strong leadership and innovative teaching. Having seen some truly dysfunctional public schools during my time in Washington DC, I can assure Duluth that its schools still have a long way to fall before they’re a total train wreck. But at the same time, Welty’s worries can’t just be swept under the rug; his concerns don’t come from nowhere, and as I argued last week, a longtime critic like him might be able to reach out to voters who are otherwise jaded with the District.

There are drawbacks to each man’s approach. Gronseth’s shiny packaging could easily come across as untrustworthy spin tactics, especially for voters who think the District took them for a ride with the Red Plan.  His unqualified optimism can appear naïve, and perhaps ignorant of the unfortunate but very real divisions that have sprung up over the past few years. Welty’s use of the sinking ship metaphor runs some risk of making the whole thing sound like a lost cause, especially as he repeats stories of struggling classrooms and announces his sympathies for voters who won’t support the levy under any circumstances. Both Gronseth and Welty are on to something, but neither one quite paints a complete picture.

You know what I would love to see? These two men go door-knocking together in support of the levy. It’s a naïve wish, perhaps, but these two men really do need each other. It will be hard to put a positive spin on Gronseth’s stint as Superintendent if the levy fails, and Welty has said quite clearly that his job will be a miserable one if he’s on a Board that has to make deep cuts.

There are risks for each of them. Gronseth has to admit that not everything is quite right, and while he’s done a good job of inviting citizens to learn about the levy and made himself available to speak to groups, this is a rather self-selecting approach; he’d have to go out there and meet face-to-face with people who do not like what he stands for. Welty might alienate his old Let Duluth Vote base, which includes (though is necessarily not limited to) a bunch of people who hate the notion of working with the Board so recently after the Red Plan was rammed through.

Still, if we take both men at their word (and I do), the risks are worth the potential rewards. Gronseth could prove he believes in community engagement in the fullest sense of the term, not just inside a pro-education echo chamber. Welty would show just how much he believes the good of the schools transcends any past divisions, even if it comes at some risk for his political career.

It would have been a real coup for ISD 709 if Art Johnston would have been willing to join this sort of effort. I had my criticisms of Johnston before he came out against the levy, but they had more to do with style than substance: I think he is a legitimate representative of a portion of the community that is understandably upset with the Board, and there is something to be said for holding true to one’s convictions. In the moments when Board debate ranges away from Red Plan affairs, he has come across as a well-informed, thoughtful man who raises some real questions. His stint on the School Board had real potential, and for a moment at the August meeting, when he found it within himself to praise Gronseth for putting the levy to a vote and noted how significant it was that the two of them had found common ground, I thought he might yet fulfill that promise. He could have transcended the pettiness of some of his critics, and such an act of humility might have bought him some good will in the eyes of other Board members, leading him to perhaps actually pass a thing or two. He could have even upped his odds for re-election, as he would’ve had an answer to the biggest criticism thrown at him: that he is too intractable, too zealous in his pursuit of purity, too willing to alienate people who were willing to work with him if only he’d concede a tiny bit of ground. (And I’m not just talking about Gronseth here; I’m talking about people like Welty and Loren Martell, with whom he has plenty of views in common.) Alas, Johnston has allowed his distaste for some small tax increases to overpower any desire to work with others, even though (according to Tom Kasper) he once thought those taxes might be necessary evils in order to stabilize the district’s general fund. Looking at the likely composition of the next School Board, he is doomed to remain a voice in the wilderness, even if he is re-elected and the levy fails. He will have been proven correct, but is that really any consolation to a man who truly does care about the fate of the schools?

So, there is my plea to the individuals most able to sway voters to the ‘yes’ side of the levy, if they so choose. Let’s see some real leadership here. I’ll try to do my part. I’m going to write a letter to the News Tribune that will make my pitch for the levy the only way I know how, with a story of my love for the schools that gave me a world-class education, and my sincere wish that, should I someday raise a family here, my children can have as good a time in Duluth public schools as I did, if not a better one. I’m going to email this post to Gronseth and Welty, and even Johnston. (What do I have to lose?) I want to believe in Duluth’s future. Is anyone with me?