Will new reporting & school support systems help students?

The following column appeared in several APG of Eastern Minnesota newspapers during September, 2018

                    Will new reporting and support systems help students?


As Minnesota students return to school, for most families, the key questions involve their own youngsters. Will they be encouraged and challenged? Will they be safe? Will their individual needs be identified and met?

For those who monitor and promote higher achievement in schools, districts and statewide, there are other issues: Will families and community members find new reporting systems more helpful or confusing? What impact will state supported assistance have in schools?

As MDE Commissioner Brenda Cassellius wrote via email, “We’ve built the new North Star accountability system in collaboration with stakeholders to help us better understand where schools are excelling and where they need more help.”

Statewide reading and math scores show virtually no change in the last three years. About 60 percent of Minnesota students are meeting state reading and math standards; about 40 percent are not. So changes are needed.

I have concerns about the new systems. But the Minnesota Department of Education deserves credit for meeting with, listening to and learning from more than 100 groups throughout the state representing families, community groups, educators and business people. The new reporting and assistance systems reflect many suggestions that Minnesotans made.

Here are four of many changes that are being made with the Minnesota Education Report Card. The Report Card, available online at https://rc.education.state.mn.us, provides information about each Minnesota public school as well as statewide and district results. By the end of 2018, new information will be provided about discipline, per-pupil spending, and the percentage of students who attend a school at least 90 percent of the time. In addition, each school will have the opportunity to share information about what makes it distinctive.

These changes respond to thoughtful suggestions. Most families want more information about a school than just its test scores. They want to know about school safety and how the school attempts to meet individual needs of students. Second, educators wanted families to have a broader range of information about schools — not just its test scores. A broader array of information can be helpful if it’s easily available and clearly displayed.

Those two conditions are part of my concern about the new report card. Some important information is not immediately presented.

MDE has a new system of providing support and assistance to schools that have among the lowest test scores or have four-year graduation rates of less than 67 percent. Ideally, the fact that a school is receiving assistance, and in what areas, would be available immediately on opening the report card.

Unfortunately, an extra step is necessary, one that’s not immediately obvious. You have to click on the “North Star” tab, which is on the left side of the report card. Then, if a school is receiving assistance, the following note appears: “Summary information is only available for schools and districts prioritized for support.”

So, the report card doesn’t show if the school is receiving assistance because of issues with progress in reading or math, or in its work with students who don’t speak English at home.

Then there’s the issue of who is helping schools that need to improve. I asked MDE officials if they are using any of the “Blue Ribbon Schools” that have been recognized nationally for outstanding student achievement or significant gains and “gap closing.” Emily Bisek, MDE’s assistant director of communications, told me that “there have been no conversations about the involvement of Blue Ribbon Schools in the assistance process.” Instead, MDE is relying on six technical assistance centers around the state.

I wish we would make greater use of Minnesota’s most effective educators.

MDE is recognizing more than 500 schools for significant achievement in one or more of several areas. You have to click on the North Star Tab, and then click again to see the list of “schools recognized for success.”

More information is going to be available about Minnesota’s public schools. That’s good news, whether your focus is on youngsters in your family, local schools or the statewide system. Over the next year, I hope Minnesotans will tell legislators and MDE what they like and what they’d like revised in the new reporting and assistance programs. — Joe Nathan (Editor’s note: Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org or @JoeNathan9249.)