Yecke: More Fuzzy Math

Cheri Pierson Yecke's scholarly methodology earns a failing grade
Courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Education

Cheri Pierson Yecke is running for U.S. Congress. Though it was not official until last Sunday, there was no other way to explain the timing of the "scholarly" report she released last week lambasting Minneapolis and St. Paul schools for failing to make efficient, effective use of tax dollars.

For the report, issued under the auspices of the right-wing Center of the American Experiment, Yecke concocted a ratio that purported to rank school districts according to how much extra funding they got to educate poor kids, and by graduation rates. The measurements are tailor-made for shaming city schools and bigger districts; the only real surprise is that Minneapolis, which gets a relatively large amount of state "compensatory" aid and has abysmal graduation rates, didn't actually score lowest in the state. (That distinction went to Red Lake.) Top honors went to a number of small rural districts with lily-white student bodies that are smaller in number than the average urban elementary school.

Education policy watchers quickly spotted some truck-sized holes in Yecke's methodology, notwithstanding the three pages given over in the report to defending the formula. While Yecke did claim to have come up with a way to compare wealthy schools to poor ones, she forgot a whole host of other factors with huge impact on how districts are forced to spend their money and how likely students are to succeed: the percentage of students learning English as a second language, the number of special ed students, student mobility, the higher cost of doing business in a large city vs. a small town, and the size and scale of the district.

Predictably enough, the methodology made several very good Twin Cities school districts look wasteful, including Hopkins, Edina, Minnetonka, and several other districts that graduate all or virtually all of their students and have chosen to spend more on each student.

"My first reaction was that to call this 'research' is at best shoddy and at worst a direct misrepresentation of what's going on in our schools," says Hopkins DFL Sen. Steve Kelley. "To put Minneapolis in the same category as New York Mills? I mean, what would the superintendents in either [St. Paul or Minneapolis] have to gain from calling the superintendent in New York Mills and asking, 'What is it that you do right in your little all-white district?'" (Minneapolis scored a 50 on Yecke's index, while New York Mills, a district of 742 located between Wadena and Detroit Lakes, scored a 140.)

Kelley, who was instrumental in derailing Yecke's confirmation as the Pawlenty administration's education commissioner, criticizes the report for one more alleged mischaracterization: In her introduction, Yecke singled out Hopkins as an example of a district that has overlooked efficiencies, citing a consultant's analysis that criticized the district for seemingly spending more on administration than its peers. Turns out the memo is actually an excerpt from a letter from a man who is so enamored with Hopkins's storied public school system he moved his family into the district three years ago.

He also happens to be the president of a business research library and, while doing some research at work, began to wonder whether there were savings to be had in consolidating certain kinds of paperwork. Sam Richter, the parent in question, typed up some notes about his hypothesis and showed them to a number of people, including Kelley and Yecke. (Kelley is sponsoring a bill that would fund a study to determine whether Richter is onto something.) Yecke, Richter laments, managed to excerpt only those words that made Hopkins look wasteful. (Pierson Yecke did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)

You don't need a reference librarian's nose for factoids to conjure some interesting speculation why Yecke might want to skewer Hopkins: In 2002, the district's superintendent, Mike Kremer, published a column that termed President Bush's No Child Left Behind fundamentally flawed, and predicted that nine out of ten of his schools would eventually end up on the "failing" list. In response, Yecke dubbed Kremer "Chicken Little," which he couldn't resist pointing out in a Star Tribune commentary last fall. Hopkins teachers don't seem to like the commissioner much, either. Last spring they organized the Alliance to Block the Confirmation of the Commissioner, and gathered 4,500 signatures in support of their efforts.

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