Re-engineering Minnesota Education

Equity coverage is supported by underwriting from African American Leadership Forum
Lynnell Mikkelsen lives in Minneapolis and writes about education. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Minnesota has one of the most significant academic achievement gaps between races in the nation. For the 2017-18 school year, 69 percent of white students statewide are proficient in reading, compared to 34 percent for Black and 38 percent for Latino children.It’s been this way forever. Traditional public schools in Minnesota don’t work for children of color. Under our current model, they probably never will. 

We’re told this is due to poverty and/or alleged bad parenting. Make no mistake: poverty is real, and toxic. There also is bad parenting across all sectors. We must work at both. 

We’re also told our schools need more money. They do. 

But the problems with our schools go even deeper, and involve confronting issues that are uncomfortable for white people — especially for white women and especially for progressive white women like me. 

I’ve spent more than 20 years as a mother with three kids in the Minneapolis Public Schools, plus another 10 as an activist pushing for change. It has taken me literally decades to wrap my progressive, privileged white brain around these uneasy truths about public schools in my city.

Who Gets Laid Off?

Like most school districts in the state, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) were historically designed by white people for white people. For example, under the current contract, teachers can choose the schools where they want to work. Lay-offs are based on seniority. In theory, this should be race-blind. In practice, it all but guarantees that the least experienced teachers are put in front of Black and Brown children, and that young teachers of color — welcome additions to the district — are among the first to be laid off. 

According to a Star Tribune article, based on Minneapolis school district records, 13 of 14 schools with the largest concentrations of below-average teachers had primarily students whose families qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. On the other hand, 80 percent of the schools with the largest concentration of high-performing teachers were located in wealthier neighborhoods.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging the personal goodness and competence of teachers and staff in general. There are thousands of amazing people doing amazing work in MPS every day. But they cannot overcome a system that by its very structure is engineering the racial results we’re getting. 

This structure has always been wrong. But in a school district where children of color make up 67 percent of the enrollment, it’s super-duper wrong. 

This is not an isolated issue with Minneapolis. According to 2017 statistics, 15 percent of teachers in St. Paul are not white, compared to 76 percent of students. In southwestern Minnesota, students of color have risen from 38 to 67 percent in 15 years — teachers of color are not rising with them.

Who Is Taking Flight?

Nearly half of Black families in the city are sending their kids outside MPS, mostly to public charter schools. The same thing is happening in St. Paul. One report indicated the 9,000 departing Black students in Minneapolis make up more than half of the districtwide total — many believing they can get a better education elsewhere. Latino and other immigrant families are also leaving. Unless the status quo changes, they’re not coming back. 

Who can blame them? Several high-poverty schools in the Anoka-Hennepin and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale districts, for example, have significantly higher proficiency scores — including factoring in the percentage of kids who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Several metro area charter schools also achieve similar success.

Since the majority of children born in Minneapolis and St. Paul are not white, this enrollment loss is a long-term financial disaster for traditional districts. 

Who Has Power?

The group with the most power over how our traditional district schools are run is the teacher’s union. Because most teachers are white and women, my view is that the organization often behaves like the police union on estrogen.

Yes, there are differences. Cops are mostly men and generally support Republicans, while the teachers’ union is the biggest supporter of Democratic candidates and causes in the state. But in both cases, the union leaders tend to: 

• Defend and protect ineffective members
• Protect a system that provides starkly different outcomes for white people as opposed to people of color
• Resist changes that provide more accountability and transparency
• Use their power to intimidate political leaders and community members who propose change

I get it. We love education. Progressives are inclined to downplay and normalize this power play because the teachers union is a huge political ally. We agree with them on so many other issues. We love the teachers in our lives. But those of us who have always benefitted from the system of white-focused education rarely see our privilege in the formula. 

To most white people, the status quo feels normal and good, and we don’t understand why it doesn’t work for all children — if we even consider that question at all.

The usual solutions are all worthy goals: fighting poverty and segregation, bringing wrap-around social services directly to schools, better preschools. But they are unlikely to make a difference without also addressing what is fundamental — having highly effective teachers and principals who are able create a curriculum and culture where children thrive. 

My Vision

Which is why my vision for changing our schools includes giving traditional district schools the flexibility to:

• Hire the best principals and teachers for their students, and dismiss ineffective ones. 
• Pay teachers more to work at hard-to-staff schools, and in subjects like math and science.
• Protect teachers of color from lay-offs. This means changing last-in-first-out seniority rules. 
• Increase the school day and/or replace the 12-week summer break with three four-week seasonal breaks to reduce the huge summer backslide that hit students of color especially hard. (Most European countries already do this.) 
• Dramatically increase the percentage of Black and Latino teachers. A 2017 study of 100,000 Black students in North Carolina showed that having one Black teacher in third, fourth, or fifth grade reduced low-income Black boys’ probability of dropping out of high school by 39 percent. 

Yet Minnesota schools of education produce mostly white teachers. In order to hire more teachers of color, we have to hire from out-of-state. Experienced doctors and lawyers can pass a Minnesota board exam to be licensed here, but teachers from other states are often required to repeat education courses or re-do their student teaching. That takes time and thousands of dollars, and makes it prohibitive to recruit teachers from out of state.

Changes like this would allow traditional district schools the same kind of flexibility that charter schools have and would mean a commitment to massive re-engineering. Yet if a small percentage of white kids were able to read or do math at their grade level, it would be considered academic genocide. We’d find the political will to make change. 

The fact that it is happening to Black kids? 


Women, we’ve got work to do.