Tag Archives: isd 709

Of Congressmen and Mockingbirds

17 Feb

Time to make a rare foray back into political commentary on two Duluth area stories that have made national attention this past week.

A Congressional Free-For-All

Well, everyone else is doing it, so I’d like to declare my candidacy for—nah. Not a chance in hell.

Rick Nolan threw the race for Minnesota’s 8th congressional seat for a loop with his abrupt decision not to seek re-election last week. (For much more timely and thorough coverage than mine, visit Aaron Brown’s blog.) I pointed to Nolan as a survivor after his 2016 win despite the Trump tide in his district, but the center he held to pull together the MN-8 DFL—economic and social populism to satisfy the base, and unabashed support for mining projects to preserve the Iron Range votes—began to fray this term. He faced a spirited primary fight from Leah Phifer, a 30-something former intelligence analyst who argued it was time for a fresh voice in Washington. Gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Otto’s win in the MN-8 DFL caucuses was a sign that Nolan was going to face an real battle, though my own suspicions about his candidacy began to creep in a few weeks earlier when he called off a Duluth fundraiser.

I found it fascinating that Phifer became the rallying point for environmental causes when her public stance on non-ferrous mining is actually a fairly muted endorsement of existing processes. It goes to show just how jaded the DFL’s environmental base was with Nolan’s attempt to defund a U.S. Forest Service study that that came along with a late Obama-era moratorium that it flocked to a moderately more acceptable candidate. This is the wedge issue in the MN-8 DFL, and Nolan’s rock-solid liberal credentials neither assuaged the environmental left nor drove away Iron Range blue collar social conservatives. To her credit, Phifer also scored authenticity points with her early entry and trailblazing around the district, and a young, female political newcomer was a better fit for the DFL base’s current mood than some of the male longtime politicians like Nolan, and some of those who could now oppose her. Time will tell if she is a serious contender or merely playing Eugene McCarthy to Nolan’s LBJ, but she’s certainly made a splash.

There is room on several sides of Pfeiffer within the DFL for competition to emerge. If the pro-non-ferrous mining camp wants a champion of its own, its foremost options are Jeff Anderson, a native Ranger and Duluth city councilor in the 00s, and Jason Metsa, the state representative in the Virginia area. North Branch mayor Kirsten Hagen Kennedy, the first announced new entrant to the race, has loosely come out in favor of non-ferrous mining, and if no one from the Range chooses to enter, she could be the beneficiary, though she has a fairly large name recognition gap on the rest of the field. Meanwhile, we have an entrant to Phifer’s left, and it’s an intriguing one: longtime Duluth TV anchor Michelle Lee. She has the media savvy and the positive general perception that she could perform well, especially in a crowded primary where turning out a base will be key. Her announcement also made it clear she isn’t going to try to “thread the needle” on the big wedge issue, as she will oppose non-ferrous mining. Candidates who leave no room to one side of themselves on this issue, for or against, are going to get some vocal supporters.

On the list of people who will probably try to thread that needle, one candidate has already declared for the race: Joe Radinovich, a former one-term state congressman who had just taken a job as chief of staff to new Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey. Like Mayor GentriFrey, he comes off as a polished young candidate groomed for politics who will take some principled stands here and there—his support for gay marriage probably cost him his House seat—but otherwise speaks in sweeping, optimistic generalities. I could see his candidacy finding the middle ground, or crashing and burning in a crowded field. Duluth area senator Erik Simonson has opposed non-ferrous mining, but does have some union bona fides that might not totally doom him on the Range if he were to enter the race. If there’s a safe pick to bridge divides, it’s probably state senator Tony Lourey, who has a long track record in the legislature, has consistently won in a very rural district, and carries a valuable family name in liberal circles. But we’ll see if he has any real interest, and if his style can succeed in a political environment that would seem to reward turning out core supporters.

No one has an easy path. Skip Sandman still looms there to drain votes away from any Democrat who supports non-ferrous mining, but any DFLer who doesn’t support it is going to take some blows on the Iron Range. A Michelle Lee-type figure would need to limit the damage there, turn out the base in Duluth, and try to make inroads in the Twin Cities exurban portions of the district that don’t much care about mining debates. Lourey and maybe Radinovich might have the best odds in a general election, but 2016 reminds us that candidates need to inspire enthusiasm in addition to seeming electability, and they’ll have to get through a crowded primary. If the DFL has a saving grace, it is probably its ground game in the Eighth; if the primary winner comes through without too many burned bridges, he or she will have the backing of a very strong infrastructure.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have a much cleaner field right now. Pete Stauber, who has a lot of potential, remains the only declared candidate. Stewart Mills is apparently pondering a third run now; while he has the money for it, he feels like an also-ran at this point. That leaves Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt lurking in the shadows as the only likely person who could both win the nomination and the general. Conventional wisdom says Nolan’s withdrawal ups Republican odds of a win, since Nolan has proven resilient in past election cycles, but Nolan’s left flank on mining (and mining alone!) was exposed enough that I’m not sure that will be the case until we know who the Democratic nominee is. At this point, all Stauber can do is try to build familiarity as the Democrats squabble with one another, and we’ll revisit this if someone else jumps in.

To Kill a Reading Assignment

The other newsmaker in Duluth recently was a decision by the Duluth school district to strike two classic texts, To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, from the curriculum due to their use of racial slurs. I’ll concede that my initial reaction was visceral: I cringe at any seeming attempt to wash away unpleasant histories, and I’m a graduate of this district who read and was moved by both. The world of Mockingbird may be an idealized version of the South, but the standard it sets for childhood recognition of injustice and moral conduct in the face of it deserves the credit it has earned. I struggle to think of a book that inspired a more emotional reception from the classroom in my high school years.  Huck Finn, while probably less beloved, is still perhaps the most complex work of one of America’s most delightful authors, and is the rare novel with literary merit that unabashedly captures the voice of an adolescent boy. And while I acknowledge that there was a fair amount of discomfort among some (white) classmates of mine in reading a certain word over and over again, I would like to think that a high school classroom should aspire to be exactly the sort of safe space where students can come to recognize the full extent of racist sentiment in American history, and hold a productive discussion about what it means, and how far we have (or haven’t) come. If not here, then where?

Of course, I know nothing of what it is like to read these books as a black kid. (For that matter, there wasn’t a single African-American in either of my Duluth East English classes in which we read these books.) And while I will defend the concept of a historical literary canon that captures the best of literature, I also don’t think that these things have to be static, with certain books taught in perpetuity. Canons grow and evolve, and there are a lot of good books that can touch on similar themes without losing literary merit. Books in English classes shouldn’t just be “relatable,” as good writing needs more than that, but there are points at which books become so inaccessible that there are better alternatives. I’ve seen plenty of suggestions bandied about already, and would have a couple of my own, too, if there were space for a productive community conversation here. The district could have that very debate internally, perhaps while including community stakeholders such as the NAACP at the table, but instead decided to make the decision first and then respond later.

What irks me most about this was how it was handled. No teachers, nor even the school board, had any say in the matter. It was an edict handed down from on high, as has become the norm in this district. (I’ve usually heard good things about curriculum director Mike Cary, but how naïve did he have to be not to realize this would happen, as he seems to suggest in his claim that this “took on a life of its own before having a chance to talk about it,” when the very first talk anyone outside of a district office heard on this was the announcement that the books were gone?) All too predictably, this drew some fairly negative coverage, and now the district gets itself splattered across national headlines, and occasionally used as a punchline. I sometimes think that ISD 709 could find some way to turn getting the best test scores in the state into a PR nightmare. This is the direct result of its manner of engagement with its most important stakeholders, its students and its teachers. Some things never change.


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:


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:


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.)


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.


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.