Greetings fellow internet denizens! If you’re here, you’ve probably heard something about the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Comprehensive District Design (CDD). If you’re not, here’s the very short version: the District, plagued with many issues, is trying to reorganize. (Most) everyone agrees that there are problems which need fixing, but is the CDD itself a good thing, or a bad thing? That’s what I want to explore. It’s a daunting proposition, but to entice you to make it all the way to the end with me, I promise that it’ll be educational and (hopefully) insanely obsessive and detailed. That’s right folks, I’m an autistic Jewish person writing about education on the internet. You can’t get any more prone to obsession than that.
This post will be divided into several parts: The Problems, The Pitch, The Process, and The Future. I’ll try to balance clarity and detail. I may update this post as more information is released; if I do so, I’ll make sure to note the edits.
MPS’ problems can be broken down into a few categories, though of course they’re fairly intertwined. The first, and most important, is student achievement. Some of you reading this may have very strong reactions to even just the words “student achievement.” Maybe you, like me, believe that MPS’ student achievement record for students of color is a gross miscarriage of justice. Yes, I know that MPS is hardly unique in this area, but that doesn’t change the facts (one could say our nation specializes in gross miscarriages of justice). Maybe you believe that all “standardized tests” (a category I put in quotation marks because, from a data perspective, there’s a lot to unpack there – but that’s another post) are racist and classist. Maybe you believe that there is nothing the district can do about student achievement because you believe factors outside of school (whether you call that poverty, family structure, or mindsets) are too difficult to overcome. (If you do, I urge you to read this excellent piece from Teaching Tolerance about where that view [partly] came from, what’s wrong with it, and what we can do better).
Whatever you believe about the student achievement disparities, they are there. To see this data for yourself, go on over to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE)’s Report Card. I’ve already entered MPS for you, and if you play around with the data just from 2019 by ethnicity and race, you can see some disturbing patterns emerge. On all accountability assessments, 75.7% White students met or exceeded standards in Math, and 79% met or exceeded standards in Reading. Compare that with 18.9%/24.7% of Black students, 17.2%/25.1% of American Indian students, and 26.2%/30.3% of Latine students (why do I use Latine instead of Latino, Latina, or Latinx? See here).
These gaps have, in part, led to a massive exodus from MPS. It can be hard to see this, because the fall-off in recent years has been gradual overall (I’ll qualify this in a minute). This year according to their October 1st 2019 report to MDE, MPS had 33,380 students K-12. In 2015, MPS had 35,871 students. You may not think that this is a big drop, but in terms of per-pupil dollars it is quite large indeed. (See year-to-years here.) The problem is also actually much larger than this: what these numbers don’t capture is the fact that Minneapolis as a city is expanding in population, and some of these families are not choosing to send their children to MPS at all. So in recent years MPS’ enrollment numbers have not declined so much in absolute terms, but what they have lost is, for lack of a better term, market share.
Now here comes that qualification I mentioned earlier: the overall loss in recent years has been gradual, but the falloff over a longer term has been very large. This is most apparent when you disaggregate data by race and ethnicity. The phenomenon is laid out quite starkly in MPS’ own data: In 2000, there were 35,592 students of color in MPS, making up 73.10% of the district (which was then at 48,689 students). In 2010, that number dipped to 22,772, or 68.14% of MPS’ student population. Now that number sits even lower, at 20,836 students, or 62.28% of the population. Bottom line: MPS is losing students. Those students are mostly students of color. The district is getting whiter. It is getting smaller. It is strapped for cash. It has unequal academic outcomes, which only perpetuates this cycle.
Why are students and families leaving, and where are they going? Many open enroll into 1st ring suburbs like Robbinsdale and Richfield. Many opt for charter schools in and around the city. Some have picked up their whole lives and actually moved out of the city. I have been in many conversations where people discuss why. I’ve heard people say that it’s all based on a lie, that actually children are doing incredibly well and it’s the fault of test scores that make it look like our students are failing. In this world view, parents are dupes. They’ve left a system that is doing quite well because they’ve been lied to.
I don’t buy this for a number of reasons, but the main one, the most salient one, is that I try listen to the People of Color around me. I work in a school in North Minneapolis, and the families I work with are diverse and intelligent. They are not dupes. Many of them grew up going to schools in Minneapolis that failed them. They were discriminated against, pushed out, and not well served. They want better for their children. They are also not a monolith: they do this in multiple ways. Some become more involved in the MPS system, working to reform it, running for the school board, or becoming teachers at community schools. Some are actually quite happy with MPS and celebrate their schools. Some stay in their schools, but with reservations. Some are so unhappy with their schools that they move. Some put their children in charters.
Charter side-note: Are there some bad charter schools that should be shut down? Of course. But there are some excellent ones as well, ones that are very important to their communities, just like so many MPS schools. I’ve taught in a traditional district and in public charters, and I’ve seen good and bad in both. (This is probably why everyone I talk to in the Great Education Wars ends up hating me).
In any case, when a system is facing a crisis like MPS, it doesn’t do much good to throw around blame, or just admonish people who leave, or try to edu-splain their experiences to them. You have sit down, confront your problem, and say: “Some things might be outside our control. But we’ve got to do something. What will it be?”
To its credit, MPS decided to do something. That something is an (almost) total overhaul of the district’s structure. (Don’t worry, I’ll come back to that “almost”). It may surprise you, if you are new to the CDD brouhaha, that that this overhaul actually started in earnest back in April 2019. The timing and decision-making of the CDD has been revamped a lot. See original timeline here. See revision of the original timeline here. See revision of the revision of the original timeline here (last few pages). See the revision of the revision of the revision of the original here. In each unveiling, MPS has been met with quite a lot of pushback. What are people pushing back against, exactly? What is the CDD? In this section, I’ll answer that question as quickly as possible. I’ll save discussion on the reaction to and merits of the CDD for the next section: The Process.
For a 10-minute overview, check out MPS’ own CDD video. The three main claims here come at about the 1:48 mark: “The CDD has the potential to increase all students’ academic achievement by giving all students access to instruction at is more rigorous and culturally relevant. It also has the potential to eliminate historically inequitable policies and practices that affect disadvantaged students of color and students from low income neighborhoods. It also can ensure that MPS is structurally sustainable.” So we have our focuses: improved academics, fixing inequitable policies, and sustainability.
The district has pitched 5 possible CDD models. You can read about them at length here. I’ll present them quickly below:
Model 1 is basically the current district structure (which involves many different kinds of magnet schools, a school choice request system, and as a result students busing to various sites across the city). This option is expensive from a transportation standpoint, and is not retaining families of color (see data in previous section). To make this work, there would have to be massive, massive cuts, and probably many school closures.
Models 2-5 are actually variations on a theme. All models move magnet schools – which are currently mostly located in whiter South Minneapolis – to the center of the city. This, the district argues, would make magnet schools more equitable, since travel times would be more equal across the city. This would involve getting rid of magnet programs at some sites, and creating them at others. In all plans, the IB Primary Years Program magnets, Open magnets, and Urban Environmental magnet go away. Immersion, Montessori, and Arts programming stay (but get moved around) and are joined by STEM and STEAM magnets. In addition, all models have students attending their community schools (and the boundaries of these schools are redefined). This plan means that families would have fewer options for choice in the district. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how good those community schools end up being (which means the academic part of this plan will end up being vitally important, or people will just not enroll their children and go for other districts or charters). Lastly, all these models have a K-5 and 6-8 focus. K-8 schools would be eliminated. There are only a few exceptions: Models 4 and 5 have 2 K-8 schools (Sullivan and Seward). The differences between the models come down to which magnet schools have which designations, which is very important to families and communities, but which I am not going to go into depth on here because I’m aiming for more of an overview.
Across all models, the district makes some changes in SPED programming as well. Students in settings 1 and 2 (who spend most of their day in general education classrooms) would take part in the general lottery for magnet school spots, while students in setting 3 (mostly separate program in a general school, but who don’t need a separate building) could take part in a SPED magnet lottery. This is a great improvement over now, where SPED Setting III students have only limited access to magnet programming, and SPED programming is based on building space, not meeting students where they live. In addition, SPED students would be able to get programming at their local schools. You can see I’m skipping to the editorializing on this part, because I think it’s a generally good idea. I only hope the district is going to carefully plan the movements of adults and spaces that this shift will require.
Lastly, there are some changes in Career Technical Education (CTE), in one of the only areas of the CTE to affect high schools (except some boundary changes). The District proses 2 centers: North High in North, and Roosevelt in South. Roosevelt already has a robust CTE program (including health careers and an auto-shop program). Under this plan, North would get an infusion of CTE, while other schools like Henry and South would lose theirs.
Want all of this with pretty graphics? Go here.
The Academic Plan has been getting much less coverage than the move away from K-8 schools and the changing of school boundaries. Unlike the rest of the CDD, the Academic Plan gets very little attention on the website. It has a few paragraphs. The Board was presented with the plan back in 2019 (go here and click. The relevant slides start on page 38), and it appears that the plan is just for this year (it’s labeled 2019-2020) and isn’t conceived on quite the same large scale as the rest of the CDD. There are some laudable goals, like adopting a Math curriculum (the district doesn’t actually have one). There are a lot of goals listed, actually, including continuing to implement their new Benchmark Advance/Adelante literacy curriculum, focusing on culturally competent teaching, and focusing on multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS).
So, what to make of all this?
This is the most important thing the district needs to work on, and I have to say that I find this aspect of the plan – which is the least talked about aspect, possibly by design – to be lacking. Again, there are some laudable goals. Actually getting a math curriculum would be excellent, since right now I believe teachers use “Focused Instruction,” (a loose collection of frameworks and materials created by the district) and their own wits.
However, the Literacy curriculum – which was adopted only a few years ago – worries me. Benchmark Advance only partially meets the expectations of the Common Core Reading Standards in grades K-5. More importantly, the District is doubling down on Benchmark Advance despite the fact that, in my experience teaching it, it doesn’t align with which we know the science of reading to be. For information on the science of reading, see here and here. Basically, we need more attention paid to phonics, phonological awareness, and word study. Many popular ideas about how we teach reading are wrong. It is true – and great! – that some MPS schools are trying to actually address this science. Kudos to Jenny Lind for partnering with Groves Academy to do some of this important work. But I’m missing this in the CDD’s Academic Plan. Will this be done district-wide? How is having students attend their community schools going to result in better academics if we are using the same academics we have been using? Yes, Benchmark Advance was only fully adopted in the 2017-2018 school year, but Reading scores have been largely flat overall. More specifically, at many schools serving mostly Students of Color and low SES students, reading data has actually been very sporadic since adopting Benchmark. Jenny Lind, here, has seen a decline, while Bethune was flat but saw a bump last year. In any case, more drastic change is needed for MPS students. Will the work at Jenny Lind go further than that school? It’s unclear, based on the plans. In addition, very little information on the Math curriculum adoption has been offered. A few years ago, there was a bit of a fiasco around Reading Horizons and its (eventually cancelled) adoption, so one can only hope they intend to give more details down the road.
(Begin rant). Slight detour, since I am very passionate about literacy: did you know that a robust phonological awareness program is often left out of many early reading programs (like Benchmark! It has some, but really, really not enough, like almost all reading programs), and that many reading difficulties can be traced back to a lack in this area? Lots of people don’t, including many teachers and even reading specialists. A great technical manual for school psychologists, reading specialists, and teachers can be found here. If you’re looking for a less technical version, try this manual on phonological awareness by the same author. You can even download the PAST Test for free and give it to your child/student to assess their PA level. Then you can use the activities and plans from the manual to remediate any issues. You’d be surprised what some quick interventions can do! (End rant).
K-5 and 6-8 Schools
This is the area of the plan that a lot of the community engagement has centered around. The district is trying to make the case for eliminating K-8 schools, saying that it is difficult for them to provide a well-rounded middle school experience (said in so many words on page 6 here). The district says that course offerings are not as good for middle schoolers at K-8s as they are at 6-8s. They have listed sample course offerings from K-8 and 6-8 sites as evidence (same document). Some of MPS’ critics, like Sarah Lahm of Bright Lights Small City, have tried to refute the district’s claims. Some critics on the opposite end, like Beth Hawkins, have expressed a sense of weariness and worry that all of this will get subsumed in politics, stall, and go nowhere.
Honestly, I can’t tell who is right here. I can see the appeal of K-8s. The families I work with have often gravitated towards them because they represent convenience and community for families with multiple children (which can also mean safety for the younger children). Also, if you are working multiple jobs or shifts, having your children at one location can be a lifesaver. But I actually attended a middle school, and I liked the feeling of autonomy and choice that came with it. I also had more electives than I’ve seen offered at the K-8 schools I worked at, but that’s anecdotal data. There are several things that I’m reasonably sure of, though:
1. The District is proposing this shift because they believe it is the right thing to do for students.
2. Many families love K-8 schools, and many families are leaving MPS.
3. Having robust 6-8 programs may draw some families back. Conversely, losing some beloved K-8 program that feel safe for families may drive others away. The question is if this will be a net gain or loss. My gut says loss, since trust in the district is not high right now. I’d love to be wrong, though.
I think it’s long overdue that North get more programming that will make it attractive to its neighborhood and the rest of the city. This puts programs at South and Henry on the chopping block. I’m not sure how I feel about this, especially at Henry, and I’ve heard community voices both for and against this proposal. I also won’t pretend to know much about CTE, so I will defer to those who are experts and whose schools are directly affected (though Roosevelt is my community high school, [go Teddies!], we don’t stand to lose anything here).
The district is clearly trying to make the best of a tricky situation here. Minneapolis is very segregated. This is based off a history of racist policies, red-lining, housing covenants, and a system generally set up to disenfranchise people of color. (Recently, the city-wide Minneapolis 2040 plan has tried to do something about this. I don’t have time for a 2040 rundown, but click those links for more). Because our neighborhoods are segregated, any return to community schools – which serve students in the immediate area – means grappling with that issue. MPS has tried to acknowledge this, and has tinkered with modeled school boundaries to try and get maximum integration in a city that isn’t so integrated. They say that by doing this, they will decrease their number of racially identifiable schools from as many as 24 now to as few as 7 in model 3 (see page 5 here). A racially identifiable school is actually a very complicated thing! It means:
“a school where the percent of protected students in a school is more that 20 percentage points above the percent of protected students in the entire district for the grade levels served by that school” (source is here).
For MPS, that would seem to indicate a threshold of 82% (see data back in The Problem section [Edit: according to this listening session at around the 23:33 mark, that’s actually 86%), meaning a school with >82% students of color, or greater than 82% white students (MDE doesn’t actually track that last data point, but MPS is). By having all students attend their neighborhood community school and redrawing some boundaries, MPS is betting on decreasing segregation. This may be a good idea, but to my mind the data set is too incomplete to really say. Will schools hover just under that 82% mark – which is still really segregated – or will we see higher levels of integration? It’s unclear. It also seems in district documents that MPS is trying to make a direct connection between increased integration and increased student achievement (see slide 12 here). Others like former school board member Chris Stewart see the focus on integration as a distraction from strengthening actual academic programs for children of color.
What do I think? Integration is good for society, because it shows us who we are as a united community. But saying that children of color can only learn better when they are with white students has a problematic assumption: that students of color won’t learn if they’re not in proximity to whiteness. This equating of integration (in this case maybe only marginal, relative integration) and academic achievement, coupled with what I see as a weaker academic plan, makes me worried. There is also no guarantee that families will trust the district enough to go to their community school, especially if a family member had a negative experience in that school previously. Requesting trust from the children of the people you’ve failed is a tough ask. What about giving more money to programs specifically for children of color? Why is the Office of Black Male Student Achievement so underfunded and under used? (Go to the bottom of this page, click the link, and check out pages 12-13. The OBMSA is mostly relegated to giving workshops and mentoring Black teachers. That’s good, but not enough. They need more money. And what about other programs? What specific academic interventions are going to happen specifically for children of color? Lots of buzzwords around MTSS are used, but I don’t see much substance).
In addition, having all students attend their community schools means a reduction in choice. (Also some chaos: the District estimates 63% of students would move schools). Now it has been pointed out that there was never much choice in MPS to begin with; most of the families who fill out choice cards in MPS are white (here, slide 31). Racist policies also meant that special attendance pathways were created so white families would go to whiter schools. In a great win for the CDD, MPS is trying to address this by having schools in Southwest and Byrn Mawr that are close to North High…actually go to North High. That’s great! Some people made a pretty racist poster about going to North, too, so there’s that. In any case, attendance policies need reforming, and to MPS’ credit one of the best parts of the CDD is trying to do that by changing school boundaries.
However, there are also some issues with the placement reforms. Don’t take my word for it. The District created an Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment Committee (EDIA) to study the school placement and choice issues. Now, some have accused the District of being underhanded in presenting the CDD. (For example, note how all the links I’ve posted are from everywhere on MPS’ site, even though they have a CDD page. The information is not well presented). I don’t necessarily think that’s true – I think the truth lies more in bureaucratic systems and maybe some incompetence. However, the way the district presented the EDIA findings is a bit iffy. In the public document on the CDD documents page, the letter the EDIA committee wrote blasting the district for its policies is buried on page 30 (of 56, here). In the presentation to the Board Policy Committee, the District put the committee’s draft recommendations before the letter they used as prequel to their recommendations (the letter is on page 10 here. Check it out. They have the recommendations twice: first divorced from the letter, then after the letter. Letter is buried). I’m hoping it was buried out of incompetence and not a desire to hide what it says. But really, I haven’t seen anyone report on what the letter says, so it’s as good as hidden anyway.
What did the letter say? The Committee, composed of diverse stakeholders from across MPS communities, can speak for itself. Throughout, all emphasis in bold is mine. This is a bit long, but I will quote it in its entirety because it is so important.
“1.Families of color do not feel welcome in MPS.
2. The timeline for doing the EDIA work has felt rushed and disingenuous. Additionally, EDIA Committee members remain concerned about the school board’s intended follow through regarding our recommendations. The committee would like to assume positive intent, however with the magnitude of the overall comprehensive redesign, we are unsure if the recommended school placement changes will be implemented as urgently as needed to ensure equitable practices for MPS families.
3. “School choice” is not serving our families of color, but it is also not the sole issue. Inconsistency across the district in investment of resources, reflected in disparate outcomes for students based on race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, directly tied to the schools they are attending, is the problem.
4. The District is missing the mark on representation of different cultural backgrounds throughout the system and creating a model of service delivery that supports success for every child.
5. Accountability and systemic shifting of the blame: The District is rehashing the same problems over and over with no accountability solutions. By example, families are not choosing to leave the district because the “school choice” process is not working for them. They are leaving because the schools are not working for them.
6. We perceive a lack of place-based cultural competency that could be addressed by School Climate Committees.
7. Schools Closing: We are concerned that the feasibility studies being completed on Longfellow, FAIR, Wellstone and Heritage this fall are the beginning of a process that will impact school closings, which will disproportionately impact kids of color. We have concerns about transparency regarding the long-term status of schools closing/moving/merging.
Furthermore, the District needs to:
8. Apologize for past transgressions, decisions that have had an adverse impact on students of color and missteps.
9. Be more honest about the real problems, i.e., inequity in service delivery and outcomes for students across the district.”
Numbers 3 and 5 really say it all, don’t they? MPS is locating the issue in how students get to the schools (transportation) and what the choice pathways are (community or magnet), but the real issue isn’t the process, it’s that the schools themselves are not working. And fixing that will take more work, work even more difficult than what is going on now.
What happens now? Well, there’s another board meeting on March 10th with public comments. (There’s also a committee of the whole meeting on the 5th, but there’ll be no public comments there, though you can still watch it, find all meetings here). The big date is March 24th, when the final CDD proposal will be presented to the board (remember, technically we have 5 options, though 2-5 are mostly the same). The final vote is on April 14th, after which there will be a final budget vote on June 9th. 2020-2021 will be mostly a planning year, which most changes coming to schools in the 2021-2022 school year (except for some changes next year).
Board Member Kerry Jo Felder has said she doesn’t like any of the models and is working on coming up with “Model 6.” The MFT 59 Union also recently voted to take a position on the CDD, though last I heard they are still surveying members and haven’t come to a decision yet. So there may be some more ideas that get brought to the table, but whether they get voted on is a different matter.
How will the board vote? In my observations of board meetings and listening sessions, I’ve come up with some guesses
Likely to vote for any CDD plan, models 2-5: Arneson, Ellison, Inz, Caprini (65% confidence here)
Likely to vote against any CDD plan, models 2-5: Felder, Walser, Jourdain (very confident here, 90%)
I have no idea: Pauly, Ali (Pauly is new and isn’t giving too much away, which is also Ali’s pattern).
This is also unfolding against the backdrop of a proposed MN Constitutional Amendment that would guarantee students a right to a high-quality education (the current language states that education should be “uniform”). Everyone agrees that’s what all students in Minneapolis deserve, and many are in agreement that we’re not there yet. There are differing visions on how to get where we need to go, and I give credit to MPS for trying to correct the wrongs of the past. I sincerely hope that many of the CDD ideas come to pass; however, I’m concerned that some proposals actually address the wrong issues (like student placement), and that some (specifically academics) are not strong enough. We’ll see. I’ll be here, waiting, obsessing, and trying to think of a better closing line for this piece than the one I’ve got now.
<Edited for spelling> also edited to correct Racially Identifiable School threshold from 82% to 86%