University of Minnesota takes on state's school achievement gap: Goals include more teachers of color, more 'partnering'

Last week, we spoke with the leadership of the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) initiative to reduce Minnesota’s achievement gap. However, we cannot discuss students and their families without focusing on schoolteachers.

Left: Jean Quam (Photo courtesy of U of M)

According to CEHD’s Dean Jean Quam, there are currently 31 percent students of color in the U of M teacher preparation programs. She is hopeful that a new partnership with Teach for America (TFA), which is currently being discussed, will change that number.

“They have 38 percent students of color in their teacher corps. We want to work with them to increase that number and improve their teacher preparation program,” she said. That plan includes lengthening and strengthening (TFA’s) five-week intensive training model.

Misty Sato, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, and her team are creating incubators for this work in partnership with the Bush Foundation through the TERI (Teacher Education Redesign Initiative) program. The main priority is to diversify teacher-candidate pools.

Left: Kim Nelson (Photo courtesy of General Mills)

“The kind of program that we are running is working well for a particular population. We need different kinds of programming to better fit [more people]. The intense one-year [option] is not for those we want to get into the classroom,” said Sato.

The TERI program is designed to match up the university’s resources with that of local institutions. “We want to see schools transform as better supportive learning places for kids and better places of learning for teachers with meaningful professional learning opportunities,” said Sato.

TERI is developing a network of schools in the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public School districts as well as communities like Brooklyn Center and White Bear Lake where teacher candidates can receive more teaching experience in schools. “We want a deeper relationship between the teacher candidate and the cooperating teacher,” said Sato. “We’re not trying to deliver the latest greatest thing, but [solutions] emerged from the schools’ needs.

“We’ve joined resources together to solve a problem that the school identified,” she said. In this way, educators — present and future — can work together in partnership to identify the needs of the community.

TERI is also planning to work with Northside schools like Nellie Stone Johnson and Elizabeth Hall Elementary Schools with a high population of new teaching staff. They will appoint a school liaison from their alumni network for early-career mentoring of teachers, stronger coaching, and teacher retention. Beyond individual schools, TERI is also joining resources with school districts around data sharing.

“What do we understand about the data, performance of our candidates, their strengths, and areas of improvement, so that when we look at teacher-evaluation data, we have a better sense of their needs to strengthen areas of weakness on the preparation side.” So with the right partnerships, research methods, and best practices, what else is needed?

Kim Nelson, senior vice president of external relations at General Mills and co-chair for the Generation Next Leadership Council, gives a nod toward community buy-in. “There are a lot of moving parts to the puzzle, and at a minimum we can connect the dots in a coherent way,” she said.

Right: Misty Sato (Photos courtesy of U of M)

Generation Next is a cross-sector community program to align common goals and elevate best practices on closing the achievement gap. Nelson co-chairs the leadership council along with U of M President Eric Kaler. According to U of M News Service, Dr. Katrice Albert “is in the process of engaging key community constituents, actively listening, and letting people know that she is ready to partner and dedicate U resources to address the achievement gap and other top concerns.” The council includes representatives from school districts, public officials, philanthropic organizations, the business community, and institutions of higher education all over the Twin Cities.

“The potential and promise of this impact effort is to bring together diverse parts of the community to figure out how…to represent the community. We need institutional alignment and clarity on what needs to be done to leverage resources to improve progress,” she said.

The idea for Generation Next was initiated by Robert Jones, formerly of the University of MN, with a proposal for a collective impact effort inspired by the Cincinnati Strive model highlighting innovative approaches that stimulate community-wide conversations on what needs to be done. He partnered with the African American Leadership Forum (AALF). Together the U of M and AALF have the capacity to identify best practices that have been successful in closing the achievement gap and drive momentum behind these practices for the sake of children.

“Partnership…we shouldn’t use that term lightly,” said Dean Quam. “We encourage faculty and leadership to get involved. People at the university need to be in the community so that we can fully understand what’s going on and listen when people find something that works. When we learn what works, we can share that information with schools and teachers to make it happen.”

Sato does acknowledge that “a person’s cultural background is significant in helping to frame issues.” Recognition is important, especially in communities that have been over-researched. The new measurement model gives more people a chance to be heard.

“To close the achievement gap is the long-term vision,” said Sato. “We can’t give up on that. To transform the way schools and universities work together, it will take time to bridge those differences.

“It is essential that we not work in isolation on this problem. We have to work together.”

Lauretta Dawolo Towns welcomes reader responses to laurettatowns [at] gmail [dot] com.

Related stories:

University of Minnesota takes on school achievement gap — Community organizations collaborate on Northside research (Lauretta Dawolo Towns, 2013)

Click for more coverage of Teach for America, and the proposed partnership between TFA and the University of Minnesota

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Lauretta Dawolo Towns's picture
Lauretta Dawolo Towns

Lauretta Dawolo Towns (email Lauretta [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a freelancer for several local community and ethnic news outlets. She is also a mentor in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and a con