At Better-Ed.org, our mission is to engage the public by challenging assumptions and opening minds to fresh ideas for transforming education in Minnesota.
According to the most recent spending data from a 2009 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) entitled "Education at a Glance," only one other country in the world (Switzerland) spends more than the U.S. on educating each K-12 student:
If spending were the sole determiner of educational success, then it would be safe to expect that the United States ranks at the top, right? So why doesn't it? Why does the United States actually rank towards the middle of the pack when it comes to educational proficiency? Would that mean it's time to rethink how we spend the money and not just how much money is spent?
In spite of the United States being one of the top spenders on education, U.S. students rank behind many of their international peers in reading, math, and science.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, administered by the OECD, is the most respected means of evaluating students on an international level. In 2009, 165 schools and 5,233 U.S. students participated in the PISA. The results of this exam are as follows:
For some time now, the common narrative is that educational achievement in the United States is poor because we don't spend enough on education. Yet, we spend more than almost every country that is ahead of the United States in reading, math, and science. If it's not the spending, is it time to rethink the system?
According to the Census Bureau's "Public Education Finances: 2011" report, all education spending in Minnesota (including local, state, and federal expenditures) totaled more than $10.4 billion for the 2010-2011 school year. Total enrollment for that year, according to the Census Bureau, was 798,891. That means the average spending per student in Minnesota for 2010-2011 was over $13,000:
Shockingly, for the $13,000 per student spent in 2010-2011 you could send a child to some of the top private schools in the Twin Cities for the 2013-2014 school year:
Clearly, $13,000 can get different results depending on how it's spent. If you had $13,000 to spend per child, where would you send him or her? Would you stick with the current system or pick something else?
The most recent numbers from the Census Bureau reveal that the average spending per student in Minnesota's public schools is roughly $13,000 per year. So how are the kids doing after such investments?
Minnesota public school students take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment exam (the MCA) as part of the accountability measures called for by 2001's No Child Left Behind Act. Students in grades 3, 8, and 10 take the reading assessment; grades 3, 8, and 11 take the math assessment; and grades 5 and 8 take a science assessment. MN's goal is for 100% of students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, but it appears that the state still has a long way to go in a short amount of time.
Here are the results of the 2013 assessments in reading, math, and science:
Here's the chart:
Currently, the state invests just over 40% of its general fund budget, or $15.8 billion, in education to help supplement local spending on education:
Minnesotans are rightfully proud of the investment they're making in education, but are we getting the results our kids need if they're to succeed in a competitive, global economy? Rather than fighting over whether or not we spend enough, perhaps it's time to take a deeper look at the structure of the actual education system.
Under our state constitution (Art. XIII, Sect. 1) Minnesota must establish a "uniform system of public schools":
The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.
When nearly one quarter of the state's students aren't proficient in reading, are we really living up to the requirements of our state constitution?
For the 2013-2014 school year, Minneapolis Public Schools budgeted an average of $20,911 per student. This number is arrived at by dividing the school district's projected total expenditures ($719.3 million) by the total number of enrolled students (34,400):
Now, some will argue that Minneapolis Public Schools spending per student should only be judged using the "General Fund" expenditures ($524,944,868) and not the total expenditures ($719,345,107). Yet, the total expenditures include debt servicing, food service, community service, and capital projects. When you consider your personal or business budget, can you really exclude your debt servicing or mortgage from your total spending in a year? Here's something else to consider, if only the $524.9 million in the general fund goes to the students, why does the district need another $194.4 million? Keep in mind that's $5,692.87 more that could be spent on each child.
Finally, looking at total spending is the same way the Census Bureau looks at current spending in its calculations: "The Census Bureau introduced the concept 'current spending' in the 1987 Census of Governments. This concept, which is used only in the public school system finance reports, allows for the inclusion of all public elementary-secondary outlays regardless of the specific unit of government that actually makes the expenditure."
So, how does $21,000 per student stack up against overall spending in the state? The most recent numbers from the Census Bureau reveal that in the 2010-2011 school year, average spending per student was roughly $13,000 in the state of Minnesota:
As for how Minneapolis Public Schools stacks up against some of the leading private schools in the area, the district is actually spending substantially more on each student:
Imagine having almost $21,000 to spend on a child. What would you do with it? Would you stay in the current system or choose something else?
For more information about the Minneapolis Public Schools district's budget, please visit the district's Finance and Budget Department website.
Between 2008 and 2012 Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) had an average four-year graduation rate of only 46%. During that same time period the average four-year graduation rate for the rest of Minnesota was 75%.
What is a four-year graduation rate? According to the Minnesota Department of Education,
“The 4-Year Graduation Rate shows the percentage of students graduating from high school within four years after they enrolled in grade nine. To calculate this rate, we identify all students who entered ninth grade four years ago, add students who moved into the district, and subtract students who moved away. This adjusted number represents students who are eligible to graduate. The actual Graduation Rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who actually graduated by the number eligible to graduate and expressing the result as a percentage.” (MN Department of Education)
When we consider the resources invested in Minneapolis, we have to wonder if there is a better education system for these students.
The reality is that we do not have a spending problem in education, we have a system problem. Many countries spend less per student than the United States and get better results. The state of Minnesota spends roughly 40% of its budget on education and gets questionable results. In Minneapolis, the school district spends over $21,000 per student and less than half of its high school students graduate in four years. With all of the spending on education in the United States, Minnesota, and even Minneapolis, why don't we have one of the best educated populations in the world?
A common narrative is that one of the major challenges for Minneapolis Public Schools is its students' socio-economic backgrounds. Many argue that increased spending is the only way to overcome these disadvantages. But is that true? Are there examples of children with similar socio-economic disadvantages excelling in schools that spend far less?
As a case study, let's compare Nellie Stone Johnson Community School and Ascension Catholic School. Both schools are in the same neighborhood of Minneapolis, have similar demographics, and serve the same grade levels.
Here are the locations of the two schools:
Here's a quick overview of how the two schools compare by the numbers:
Ascension and Nellie Stone's demographics are virtually identical, and yet there is a wide disparity in their proficiency scores*. Why is that?
In terms of special populations, there are only minor differences between the schools:
In summary, the children at both schools live in the same neighborhoods, are demographically identical, and face the same socio-economic disadvantages. Yet, Ascension educates its students for far less and achieves exceptional results in comparison to Nellie Stone.
Ascension significantly outperforms Nellie Stone in both reading and math, and by large margins. Its MCA-II reading scores are about two times higher, and MCA-II Math scores are over three times higher than those of Nellie Stone.
All the while, Ascension spends roughly $7,000 per student, whereas Nellie Stone spends between $10,278 and $21,544 per student, depending on the district's allotment to the school in any given year (see chart above). Why is there such a difference between the two schools? And why is it that the school that spends substantially less is able to get the substantially better results? Clearly, spending is not the silver bullet for helping disadvantaged students fulfill their true potential.
Over and over again we're presented with undeniable evidence that high spending is not a guarantee of success. If it were, then the United States would be ranked as one of the top in the world for education and Minneapolis Public Schools would be one of Minnesota's crown jewels. Perhaps it's time we leave behind the idea that spending is the key to educational success. If that concept is proven false, as it has been, then what is left for us to consider but the actual system of education?
* We used 2008-09 demographics, because this was the last year Ascension broke their numbers down by ethnicity. During the 2010-11 school year, per our phone conversation with Ascension, 92% of the school's students were children of color, compared with 94% at Nellie Stone.
Do you share our desire to see all children offered the opportunity to have a bright future through better education? We know we have the resources to do it; in fact, we're probably already spending them. Now is the time to give parents, teachers, principals, and other educators the freedom to provide that bright future.
While some might urge patience and say that progress is being made in changing public education to meet the demands of the 21st Century, we believe it is not happening fast enough. Every year that ticks by means that more and more children fall behind. Indeed, when only 50% of students graduate on time in Minneapolis while the district's average spending per child is more than $20,000 per year, the time to be patient has long since passed.
The first simple step you can take towards providing a brighter future for our children is to share this website with your friends and family. Transforming education is a grassroots effort and we need the community on board since the education system affects all of us. Please consider sharing Better-Ed.org with friends through Facebook, Twitter, or even e-mail.
If you have other ideas about how to get involved, please feel free to share them with us by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
It's amazing how much the world has changed in just a decade! Yet, our education system is stuck in a model devised not in the last century, but the one before it.
If you would like to help Better-Ed.org spread the facts about education in both Minneapolis and Minnesota, as well as promote various ideas on how to develop a better education system, what better way to do it than through social media? Please join the conversation on Facebook by clicking here.
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Let's face it: most of us love to watch TV and movies. A wonderful way to spread ideas about how to transform the education system is to embrace our love of the cinema by hosting a movie night with friends and family.
There are numerous documentaries that do a fantastic job of sharing the problems facing education. You can pull a small group of friends together at your house, or even consider asking a local restaurant or tavern to let you show a movie there. All you need to do is pick a movie (some are on Netflix), pick a date, and invite your friends over. Don't forget the popcorn!
Waiting for Superman - (available on Netflix) "Dynamic documentarian Davis Guggenheim weaves together stories about students, families, educators, and reformers to shed light on the failing public school system and its consequences for the future of the United States."
Kids Aren't Cars - (watch through YouTube) "'Kids Aren't Cars' is a 9-part short film series on the state of public education in America. It highlights examples from Midwestern states. It shows the impact organized labor and the assembly-line system has had on educating children."
A Right Denied - "Most Americans have long known that our public schools aren't getting the job done, but as our country increasingly falls behind our economic competitors and a wide academic gap within our country persists between low-income, minority students and their more affluent peers, these twin achievement gaps have reached crisis proportions. Simply put, the failure of our public schools is the most pressing domestic issue our nation faces."
THE EXPERIMENT - "For many who wanted to change the failing school system in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina provided a blank slate from which to create opportunity out of tragedy. Now the city is at the forefront of what educators nationwide have dubbed 'the great experiment.' Following five children as they navigate a shifting educational landscape, and filmed principally on location, 'THE EXPERIMENT' places the current transformation of the city’s public schools at the forefront of a broader national debate."
The Cartel - "Teachers punished for speaking out. Principals fired for trying to do the right thing. Union leaders defending the indefensible. Bureaucrats blocking new charter schools. These are just some of the people we meet in The Cartel. The film also introduces us to teens who can't read, parents desperate for change, and teachers struggling to launch stable alternative schools for inner city kids who want to learn. We witness the tears of a little girl denied a coveted charter school spot, and we share the triumph of a Camden homeschool's first graduating class."
The Lottery - "In a country where 58% of African American 4th graders are functionally illiterate, 'The Lottery' uncovers the failures of the traditional public school system and reveals that hundreds of thousands of parents attempt to flee the system every year.
'The Lottery' follows four of these families from Harlem and the Bronx who have entered their children in a charter school lottery. Out of thousands of hopefuls, only a small minority will win the chance of a better future.
Directed by Madeleine Sackler and shot by award-winning cinematographer Wolfgang Held, 'The Lottery' uncovers a ferocious debate surrounding the education reform movement. Interviews with politicians and educators explain not only the crisis in public education, but also why it is fixable. A call to action to avert a catastrophe in the education of American children, 'The Lottery' makes the case that any child can succeed."
In Minnesota, education and the name Harriet Bishop are often closely linked. Harriet's own education began quite normally in a Vermont Common School. As a little girl, her adventuresome spirit delighted in learning about other courageous women, such as Burmese missionary Adoniram Judson's wife Ann.
As she grew older, Harriet pursued further education, including high school and teacher's training, which until that point had been a career path chosen largely by men rather than women. Paying her own way through school, Harriet learned the basics of teaching, health care, character training, and diplomacy tactics. These skills served her well when she answered the call to move west and became Saint Paul, Minnesota's first school teacher in 1847.
"Why should I pine for halls of science and literature, when such glorious privileges were mine--when to my weak hand was accorded the work of rearing the fabric of educational interests in the unorganized territory--of establishing the first citizen-school within its undefined limits!” – Harriet Bishop, 1857
If you're like most people, you probably had sticker shock when you first went to buy a textbook for college. Especially if the book is for a 2 credit class… and costs about half of the tuition for the course… and will be outdated in a year or two. (This may or may not have happened to the author. *Ahem.*)
Minnesota Senator Al Franken recognizes this problem and is seeking to change it. Franken recently co-authored a bill named the "Affordable College Textbook Act" which seeks to "create a grant program for colleges and universities to 'create and expand the use of textbooks that can be made available online' and offered with free access to the public."
According to the Huffington Post, this would allow "[s]tudents -- and anyone else for that matter – [to] have access to digital textbooks and not be bound to buying the latest edition stocked in a campus bookstore."
What do you think of such a move? Is it a kind and charitable effort to help poor college kids? Or is it another cost that our already strapped government simply can't afford? Who should we look to help us solve educational problems like these?
Better Ed ruffled some feathers last week with our sixth postcard. Here is the front and back of it:
The point of the postcard was to highlight the reality that we have heard from too many parents and community leaders about how some parents in Minneapolis choose schools based not on academic excellence, but rather on safety. Violence in the community is a problem and a failing education system plays a major part in it.
While we received good feedback, we also received a few e-mails and Facebook messages from people who were shocked and offended by it. Even Mayor Rybak took the time to message us publicly on Facebook, stating:
"I believe very strongly that we have an education crisis that needs immediate action. However I did not agree with the direction of the postcard I received from you."
Are we surprised that a postcard with an image of a gun would be shocking or disagreeable to some folks? Not at all.
Are we surprised that some folks wouldn't like a postcard pointing out that there are correlations between crime and poor educations? Of course not.
But what is surprising, and sad, is that it took an image of a gun to get more people talking about Minneapolis Public Schools after more than a decade of neglect.
Mayor Rybak is absolutely right that "we have an education crisis that needs immediate action." But the sad truth is that the education crisis needed immediate action 10 years ago when the graduation rate was 38% for Minneapolis Public Schools!
Just as shocking as the abysmal graduation history for the district is the fact that over the last few years Minneapolis has annually spent over $20,000 per student. Last year, the district spent roughly $23,000! That's nearly the equivalent of tuition at top private schools such as Breck School. Without a doubt, not a few parents in the Minneapolis Public Schools district wish they had the resources, connections, or both, to send their children to a school like Breck.
Public opinion finally seems to be coming around to recognizing the serious education crisis and the need for immediate change. We just wish it happened a lot sooner and before Better Ed – and before we used a few shocking postcards.
Of course, for those trapped in the failed system of Minneapolis Public Schools, they're commonly told (just like the suburbs) that more money will solve the education problem. But is that really so?
Back in February of this year, Better Ed published an apples-to-apples comparison between Minneapolis and St. Paul using the most current data we could get back then. Here it is:
This chart alone casts serious doubt on the argument that "more money means better education." More money clearly didn't mean a better education for the kids in Minneapolis. More money was spent by Minneapolis than St. Paul, yet roughly the same proficiency levels were achieved and Minneapolis had a far worse graduation rate.
Legislators, education activists (from a variety of sides), and others have let us know how much they appreciated this chart as it helped change some of the current debate. We were pleased to help.
We were even more pleased to find the Star Tribune joining us in the comparison! On Sunday, December 1, 2013, the paper published the following chart:
(Source: Star Tribune)
Now, there are some differences between the charts due to the time of publishing and some things being left off of either chart, but overall the fact that finally one of the major papers in town is pointing out the shocking difference, too, is fantastic.
Of course, it's understandable why there's been a reluctance to really dig deep into the education crisis in Minnesota. The discussion about education isn't easy to have.
Education is very much the center of communities today. What happens to our sense of community if the idea of one system of education, as we largely have now, simply no longer works? Furthermore, questions about what works often get quite personal, including raising questions about family, faith, wealth, cultural environments, teaching styles, and educational philosophies.
Nonetheless, if we are to help the children and families stuck in failing and low-performing districts, we're going to have to discuss and form a consensus around many of the tough questions. Either that or we're going to have to find ways to give parents, teachers, and others more latitude to tailor the answers to their neighborhoods and communities.
But before we can get to the solutions, we need to have the tough discussions. Let's start doing more of them. Better Ed will certainly continue to do its part.
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