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The Year Ahead in Ed

January 07, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

As we look ahead to 2014, I see three major education policy areas that will attract attention.

Discipline and Anti-Bullying Policy Reform

For too long, too many schools and districts have treated discipline as a junior version of law enforcement rather than part of the learning process. While other approaches exist and have been tried in part or on small scales, wholesale adoption of, say, a restorative justice mindset as the default position for school discipline is still a long way off. In the mean time, excessive suspensions and expulsions drive students to drop out. They’re often racially disproportionate and feed the image of a school system that can be hostile to students of color and their families.

The ideal school is safe and welcoming for all students. Finding ways to head off misbehavior before it happens should be a priority, which means ensuring schools have enough staff capacity in the form of counselors, social workers, and others. Engagement with families should happen before problems develop, and staff need to be culturally aware and responsive. Maintaining schools’ sense of safety and inclusion needs to extend to students after they misbehave as well as beforehand. It is wrong to pre-create the inequities of our law enforcement and prison system while students are still children.

At the same time, we need to ensure that students do not engage in the sort of bullying that had led to depression and suicide, among other effects, in districts across the state and country. Ensuring that our state laws and district policies protect all students from bullying will be a priority.

We can expect issues of discipline and bullying to continue to rack up headlines in 2014. The systems we have in place right now too often actively hurt vulnerable students or stand by while others cause pain. That needs to change.

Continued Debates Over Testing, Competition, and Closures

The big fights over standardized tests, school competition, and school closure aren’t going anywhere, either. While we’re seeing more nuance slowly develop in the policy debates on these topics, there is still a lot of emotion tied up in these fights. Closing Minnesota’s educational equity gaps must remain on our agenda, and we will certainly see some advocates continue to push for these particular policies as a way of addressing those gaps.

This may be the year that a critical mass of advocates and policymakers differentiate between attempting to close equity gaps and doubling down on this particular basket of policies. Testing has a place in statewide policy, and classroom-level assessment data is a critical tool for teachers and students. Finding ways to encourage schools to experiment and innovate is a worthy endeavor. Pursuing these goals and addressing other causes of equity gaps should be achievable without the overly algorithmic reliance on test scores or cutthroat approach to school closures that unnecessarily increase the risk of removing effective teachers and schools.

Schools That Fight Today’s Poverty Today

To the extent schools have been seen as a means of fighting poverty, they’ve been treated as a way of fighting tomorrow’s poverty today. However, many of the current educational equity gaps we see are in part the result of broader equity gaps running through our state and society. Helpful changes to our schools will receive a bigger boost if we can also fight the effects of today’s poverty.

There are many different approaches being tried in different parts of our state, and it will be both important and interesting to observe them to see how well they achieve their goals. We can start by boosting schools’ capacity by increasing their ability to provide high-quality early childhood programs and meet students’ mental health needs. Tackling the outside issues can be more challenging. One approach is to more aggressively support programs that proactively connect teachers and families. Another is to coordinate many different outside service providers and wrap schools into the bundle, a la the Promise Neighborhood or STRIVE approach. Yet another is for schools to step up as community leaders, actively seeking out community partners and centralizing service delivery for community needs on site, also known as the community schools approach.

All three of these areas -- discipline and bullying policy reform; challenging testing and competition policies; and mitigating the effects of poverty -- are ripe for action in 2014. They each offer some insight into the sources and solutions of our educational equity gap. Making sure Minnesota schools work for all Minnesota students should be the overriding priority for all of this work.

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  • John Landgraf says:

    January 13, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    The effects of slavery on black students is still evident in education some 150 years after the civil war and more resources must be applied to overcome the differences in graduation rates that these students encounter.  Especially the economic outlay between education in the wealthier suburbs and areas of lower income must at least be equalized or increased until educational goals for all, white, black and our new imigrants, is equalized.

  • Nilgun Tuna says:

    January 17, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    It is unfortunate that so called “high stakes” testing, school competition, and punitive school closures have become inextricably entwined in the public mind and the teaching profession due to the policies of the No Child Left Behind Act. First of all, competition is not a panacea for all areas of human endeavor. Public services such as education and medical care should strive for a uniform level of excellence rather than waste precious resources trying to market their services, with perception sometimes winning out over reality. Underperforming schools should be helped and brought up to speed, rather than punished or closed, unless they have a toxic environment that change will not cure.

    Testing is a very useful tool, the only fairly objective one we have, for assessing what students are learning and comparing educational practices over time and location. Are they perfect? No. But they are useful. The most useful thing the NCLB did was to identify an underclass of students who were not being adequately served by the education system. It did this through testing. Many countries have far more stringent and high stake testing programs than the U. S. The future of a student and their career path is often decided fairly early in life by these tests. We are hardly in this league.

    The mistake we have made is in how these tests are used. They are used to evaluate schools. They fail in this function as schools are often not responsible for the life circumstances of their students, from constant relocation to limited language proficiency to learning disabilities.  As currently employed, the tests also do not effectively evaluate teachers, once again holding them responsible for their students regardless if they were in the classroom a month or just moved from Kuala Lumpur. The tests are also not useful to individual students because they are not really used to evaluate individual progress and weaknesses.

    The solution to all these problems ids to have the tests follow the student, and for the tests to be used to evaluate individual levels of progress.This in turn can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers and of schools, and also pinpoint areas that need work. A student would be tested at the beginning and end of the school year to see how much individual progress had occurred.

    for example: It is a given that middle class students not only start out with a advantage in terms of learning, but add to that advantage through summer activities. However, when classroom learning was researched, it was shown that a good teacher could teach a disadvantaged student as much as an advantaged one during the course of a school year. It would not be evident that this had occurred from testing because the starting point of the students would not have been taken into account. Further, a really great teacher could teach both students more than the equivalent of an average year’s worth of knowledge, while the poor teacher would impart less to both. The effectiveness of the school could be judged by what percentage of teachers managed to impart a year’s worth of knowledge or more to each student, no matter their starting point. Individual student tests, and classroom average learning gains could be used to analyze areas that needed improvement and come up with a plan for doing so based on evidence. In this manner, testing could be useful for everyone in a school, rather than making everyone mad and in the end improving nothing.