NEWS DAY | Tornado touchdown in Minneapolis / UCB up / All the children are above average / Whole Foods, meet Jess Durant and Will Allen

Tornado touchdown in Minneapolis “I heard a loud noise, it got louder and louder, I heard the roof coming up, it was the most weirdest sound I ever heard in my life. My heart was beating so fast, I realized it was a tornado, I dived as fast as I could into my bathtub,” Shane Gillespie told MPR, after Wednesday afternoon’s brief tornado touchdowns in south Minneapolis and downtown. The tornadoes triggered sirens (but not until after the touchdowns), emergency plan activation (“We are locking the doors to the store now. Everyone go to the dress section – that’s the safe zone.”), a mayoral press conference, and frenzied media coverage.

Unemployment claims up-again For a second week, the U.S. Department of Labor reported, “unexpected” increases in unemployment claims, with seasonally adjusted initial claims rising to 576,000 from last week’s 561,000. These are new claims: the total number of workers receiving unemployment benefits and emergency extended benefits is 9.18 million, according to the Star Tribune. Millions more do not qualify for unemployment benefits, or remain out of work even after exhausting the extended benefit period.

Where all the children are above average Or at least our Minnesota children are above average on the ACT tests. Or at least above average (best performance in the nation!) on the ACT tests taken by students in states where more than half the students take ACT tests. Our kids score 1.3 percent higher than second-place Iowa students and 1.8 percent higher than third-place Wisconsin students and a whopping 2.7 percent higher than the national average.

So what does it all mean? Perhaps that the ACT PR folks know how to time news releases for maximum ink and column inches in a slow news month. They got a nice headline in the PiPress, Minnesota retains top spot in ACT scores; Wisconsin ranks third, a more skeptical and nuanced read from Bob Collins at MPR, and a lengthier analysis at the Star Tribune, which pointed out that overall numbers of ACT test-takers are up this year because Illinois, Colorado, Michigan, Kentucky and Wyoming require 100% of their grads to take the test.

The ACT has pages and pages of data that can be sliced and diced six ways from Sunday. (So does the SAT, though it does not have 2009 information posted yet.)

Two items stand out as real news:

• According to ACT, more students–by a slight margin–seem prepared to succeed in college in the crucial areas of English, math, reading and science than in previous years, but more than 75% nationally and 68% in Minnesota are unprepared in at least one of these areas. (Of course, a skeptic might ask whether ACT can really judge, for example, college preparedness in science with a 35-minute, 40-question test.) The report that scores continue to rise even as more students take the test indicates that educational outcomes are improving.

• The ACT and SAT tests are locked in a neck-and-neck battle for the lucrative testing market. According to the Strib, “The number of ACT test-takers is on par with the number reported by the rival SAT exam last year, and the exam appears on track to surpass the SAT in popularity.”

SAT scores come out next week, and it’s a safe bet that they also will show Minnesota’s children above average. But above average overall is not good enough when a serious achievement gap leaves students of color struggling below the average. We know how to fix that. Geoffrey Canada described the practices and investments needed for success to a Minneapolis Foundation’s Minnesota Meeting earlier this year — practices and investments that have proven effective in the Harlem Children’s Zone that he founded. As Wilder Foundation Executive Director of Research Paul Mattesich observed in his blog:

Through our Twin Cities Compass initiative, we have documented the poor mathematics proficiency of our region’s high school students and the gap in skills that begins early in elementary school for our fastest growing group of students – students of color. If we want to preserve jobs and preserve our quality of life, we need to make some changes.

Harlem Children’s Zone demonstrates that low achievement, even for children from the poorest economic and community circumstances, does not have to occur; also, it can be reversed with sustained effort.

Whole Foods, meet Jess Durant and Will Allen Jess Durant tells her personal story in MinnPost to show why and how Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s rejection of health care reform is just plain wrong. Her thoughtful, persuasive analysis of why we need health care reform should be broadcast far and wide, and it’s going in my files, so I can send it to the naysayers among my family and email friends.

Will Allen also brought a message about health to the Twin Cities this week, advocating urban farms and vermiculture. Allen came to town to kick off the Urban Farm Project at Little Earth, reports the Daily Planet, with a message that combines work for healthy food and against racism. MPR also has a report on Allen’s visit and message.

World/National News

UnitedHealth organizes Astroturf The Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo that UnitedHealth sent a letter to employees urging them to get active in opposing health care reform:

[A] source who’s insured by UHG–and who also obtained the letter–called the hotline on Tuesday and says the company directed him to an events list hosted by the right wing America’s Independent Party, and suggested he attend an anti-health care reform tea party sponsored by religious fundamentalist Dave Daubenmire, scheduled for today outside the office of Blue Dog Rep. Zack Space (D-OH).

Daily Kos says, “A representative of UnitedHealth Group’s Corporate Communications office said they would call back with a reaction to the story. They didn’t.”

MinnPost reports that UnitedHealth officials are denying that they told people to get involved in tea parties.

War Reports

Iraq A wave of bombings and explosions in Baghdad killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 400 others. NPR reported:

It was the deadliest day in the capital since U.S. troops largely withdrew from cities on June 30 and a major challenge to Iraqi control of Baghdad. A steady escalation of attacks this month has sparked fears of a resurgence of violence ahead of next year’s national elections.

The deadliest of the attacks hit near the Foreign Ministry, killing at least 59 people and wounding 250. Officials said the toll may climb as rescue workers dig through rubble and debris.

Hiring mercenary assassins? The New York Times reports on connections between the CIA and Blackwater (which has now changed its name to Xe Services):

The Central Intelligence Agency in 2004 hired outside contractors from the private security contractor Blackwater USA as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda, according to current and former government officials.

Current CIA director Leon Panetta insisted on briefing Congress on the program, which has since been canceled – or so we are told.

Afghanistan Today is the day for Afghan elections. The Taliban threatens violence, the Afghan government tells the media not to report violence … and President Hamid Kharzai is expected to win an easy victory over the 41 opposition candidates.

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