It's Time to Tackle Minnesota's Achievement Gap
We know the achievement gap exists. We know the gap in reading and math test scores between white students and students of color exists across the nation. But it is especially pronounced in Minnesota.
But when we're talking about numbers, it's also important to remember those numbers represent children. Longtime Minneapolis educator Eleanor Coleman put it bluntly: "We've got to remember we're talking about children, all children," when we talk about the achievement gap, she said.
The numbers are indisputable. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress white Minnesota fourth-graders scored 230 out of a possible 500 points in their 2009 reading test, one point above the national average, while African-American Minnesotans scored 195 and Latinos scored 194. In a different test, the statewide MCA II, 63 percent of white eighth-graders were deemed proficient or above in math, while only 24 percent of African Americans and 34 percent of Latinos were proficient.
The state Demographer's Office predicts that Minnesota's white population is projected to increase about 4 percent between 2005 and 2015 and show little growth thereafter. The Latino population is projected to grow from an estimated 196,300 in 2005 to 551,600 in 2035. The African-American population is projected to grow from 218,400 in 2005 to 454,400 in 2035.
Coleman, speaking to the Parents United Leadership Summit Monday in St. Paul, told parents and educators that there are ways to tackle the achievement gap, citing legitimacy, sustainability, expanded resources and willpower.
She said Minneapolis Public Schools has had success by creating a bond between the schools and the community through meetings that were culturally inclusive and language-specific so everyone's opinion could be heard. She said schools have to gain legitimacy with community members and parents by helping parents talk to school officials. Schools help to sustain a community, and in return, community members and parents must stay engaged to help sustain the school. She said they need to use the resources from these meetings to create a stronger school community.
Coleman pointed to racial tensions at Minneapolis Roosevelt High 10 years ago. Using these meetings, "Parents told us they saw some (ethnically relatable material) in the curriculum, but that we weren't going far enough. We had the skills (to help the students), we just didn't have the will to mobilize ourselves to come together as a community.
"This is not just about what happens to children in school, but in the community," she said.
There have been some successes in closing the achievement gap. The Harlem Children's Zone has two fundamental principles: Help kids in a sustained way, starting as early in their lives as possible, and create a critical mass of college-oriented peers and supportive adults around them who understand what it takes to help children succeed.
The Harlem Children's Zone begins with a series of workshops for parents of children ages 0-3 and includes in-school, after-school, social-service, health and community-building programs. The program promotes small class sizes as well as supporting students in public schools both during the school day with in-class assistants and with after-school programs.
The results are positive. Of 161 four-year-olds at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year, 17 percent had a school readiness classification of delayed or very delayed. By the end of the year, none were classified as "very delayed" and the percentage of "advanced" had gone from 33.5 percent to 65.2 percent.
Several organizations, including The Education Trust, an advocacy group in Washington D.C., and Education Minnesota, the Minnesota teacher's union, have examined the achievement gap and have firm ideas on what needs to be done to fix it:
- Assess students every four to eight weeks to measure progress and act immediately on the results;
- Reduce class sizes to a maximum of 18;
- Increase rigor by putting all students in a demanding high school core curriculum and preparing all students for college and careers;
- Attract and hold good teachers with solid recruiting, loan repayments, high-quality college education, mentoring during the first five years of teaching, and increased collaboration between teachers;
- Establish longer school days or years.
The achievement gap is not new and Minnesota's reaction to fixing it has never been more than tepid. Let's assume that the answer for that response isn't racial in nature. That means the lack of response is due to financial considerations. In other words, our leaders tell us the solutions to the achievement gap cost too much money.
This cannot continue. As Coleman said, this is about all our children.