COMMUNITY VOICES | Achievement Gap Forum: Student motivation, high expectations, and strong school leaders and teachers are among the keys to closing the gap, panelists say

Any successful effort to close or narrow the achievement gap has to begin with a focus on student motivation, said Curt Johnson, senior fellow of Education Evolving. If the students want to learn, you probably can’t stop them, he said. If they don’t want to, you can’t make them. They need a motivating school environment and it is up to the education community to provide it.

Johnson spoke at the third of a series of four forums sponsored by the Minnesota Achievement Gap Committee. The first three forums presented viewpoints from 12 reform organizations working to close the achievement gap. The panelists presented their understanding of the gap and their solutions. The fourth forum will summarize the proposals from the first three forums and explore possible areas of agreement. Panelists for the fourth forum will be John Millerhagen, executive director, Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association, and Katherine Page and Grant Abbott from the Minnesota Achievement Gap Committee.

During the third forum, Daniel Seller, executive director of MinnCAN, and Max Korn of the Minneapolis Foundation offered similar five-point plans for improving education and closing the achievement gap. Both frameworks included having strong school leaders and teachers and setting high expectations for students. (MInnCAN’s plan also emphasized expanding high-quality early childhood education and choices of high-quality public schools. The Foundation’s plan had an added emphasis on real time use of data to adjust instruction and more student time on task.)

The four Achievement Gap forums are sponsored by the Achievement Gap Committee. Want to jump to a particular segment in the video? Here are the links:

Presenters critiqued the current school system, echoing speakers from previous forums. Sellers said our school system isn’t set up to help children succeed; it is designed to sort kids. Some students will excel and go onto to a four-year college. Some will go to a two-year technical program. Some will fall through the cracks. The system has been doing that for decades. “That is an issue that is worth confronting.”

Hector Garcia, executive director, Chicano Latino Affairs Council (CLAC), said the state needed a paradigm shift: “We need to perceive Latinos, other minorities, and Native Americans as contributors to the state of Minnesota rather than exceptional problems to be solved,” he said. That change would not come about because of compassion or generosity. Minnesota already tried that. It will come about because of the increased value students of color will bring to a global economy—the value that is assigned to diverse cultural perspectives for innovation and marketing, and languages for improved international communication.

Presenters offered alternative ways to look at the achievement gap. For instance, Ted Kolderie of Education Evolving said defining literacy achievement as being bilingual or multi-lingual would change the rankings significantly. Sellers said rather than looking at Minnesota specific data comparing white students to children of color, he focused on comparisons of Minnesota’s children of color to children of color in other states. By that measure, we are failing, he said.

For more details and a Q&A, watch the video. Here is a summary of panelists’ comments.

Ted Kolderie and Curt Johnson

Senior Associates, Education Evolving

Kolderie proposed several options for understanding the gap. The implicit community understanding is that the gap in median test scores (math and English) between white students and students of color. Under that definition, closing the gap means making the median scores identical. There are other options to look at the achievement gap.

  1. Define achievement in literacy as being bilingual or multi lingual. If that was the measure, the rankings would change significantly.
  2. Focus on proficiency. For the moment, don’t worry that some students are farther beyond proficient than others. It might be an easier gap to attack.
  3. Follow Finland in defining achievement in individual rather than group terms. The gap is the difference between the performance and the potential of the individual student.

Kolderie said most achievement gap discussions focus on the primary years, yet high school is a big problem. Achievement and engagement tails off significantly. We have to talk about that more than we are. For high school, we need a broader definition of achievement than English and math skills. Excellence requires specialization. We need to get comfortable with the fact that not all students will be equally good at all things in all fields. We need students to develop skills beyond academic. They will need the 4 “C” skills: Creative thinking, Critical thinking, Collaborative Skills and Communication skills.

Curt Johnson answered the question of how to close the gap? He made three assertions.

  1. Any successful effort to close or narrow gaps has to begin with a focus on student motivation. A friend said: If the students want to learn, you probably can’t stop them. IF they don’t want to, you can’t make them. Students don’t learn from standards or school structure. They need a motivating school environment and it is up to the education community to provide it.
  2. The gap won’t close until we are willing to personalize the education experience for every student. We talk about personalization but go back to practices that assume all kids learn the same thing in the same way at the same pace. It has never been true. There is a Minnesota third grade teacher who uses video games to teach his kids. In spite of the unorthodox strategy, he keeps his job because he is successful and closes gaps.
  3. We need to learn to trust teachers. They are the only ones who really know the students as individuals. Some people say we have too many average teachers. Average people can do extraordinary things. The deal we have offered teachers for a long time is they have no authority and no accountability. Under the politics of blaming, we offer them a new deal they should reject: We will hold you accountable but we still won’t give you authority. The solution is to give teachers all the authority they ever wanted if they will be fully accountable. When they have real authority, they figure out the right way to personalize the education.

Hector Garcia

Executive Director, Chicano Latino Affairs Council (CLAC)

Garcia agreed with Kolderie’s analysis defining the achievement gap, adding that the gap is the result of both historical marginalization of students of color and an extremely competitive system.

In the big picture, he said we can’t solve the problem with the same way of thinking that created it. We need a paradigm shift. We need to perceive Latinos, other minorities, and Native Americans as contributors to the state of Minnesota rather than exceptional problems to be solved.

That change in perspective would not come about because of compassion or generosity. Minnesota has tried that already, he said. Globalization has provided the logic to bring about that paradigm shift. The shift will come about because it represents one of the biggest economic and social opportunities that Minnesota is facing. It will come about because of the increased value students of color will bring to a global economy, the value that is assigned to diverse cultural perspectives for innovation and marketing and languages for improved international communication. Still, jumping from pursuit of supremacy to interdependence is not easy.

I believe changes will happen on the basis of what has been demonstrated to work through a systemic and full community-backed program—where the leadership in all sectors of the community get behind the program and develop the consensus to pursue it on a long-term basis. Finland showed the way. CLAC has been structuring such a program in Rochester, where we have the backing of the mayor, the legislators, the community, and other key stakeholders. Hopefully, we will be able to succeed with that example.

What do I believe are the barriers to ending the achievement gap? I believe our minds are shackled by systems and classifications of the past and we don’t want to let go. Instead of innovating, we are trying to squeeze solutions into the existing system. We continue to use the terminology and the classification that were the tools of marginalization and attempting to make them the tools of liberation. It will not work.

Max Korn

Minneapolis Foundation Education staff

The Minneapolis Foundation’s ReSet initiative ran from March to June of 2013. Its goals included building a sense of urgency around closing the opportunity gaps in Minnesota and promote proven solutions. It was an opportunity to do research, a public awareness campaign, build relationship and more. The Foundation wanted to lift up some of the great work and partnerships in education, Korn said. They found five strategies successful schools used to keep students on track—strategies that need to be used in combination. The strategies make up the acronym for ReSet:

  • R (Real-time Use of Data)
  • E (Expectations, Not Excuses)
  • S (Strong Leadership)
  • E (Effective Teaching) and
  • T (Time on Task)

As one example of the impact of real time use of data, Korn cited the work of Relay Graduate School of Education in New York City. Eighty percent of students in the program are first and second year teachers. It is an extremely experiential mentorship model. Most of the learning happens in the teachers’ classrooms. Teachers learn how to collect data and use it in real time. They assess every lesson every day and adjust instruction as needed. The outcomes are incredible, Korn said.

Having high expectations is about having a college bound culture in your school. It’s about holding staff and students accountable to this by building great relationships and learning what student’s aspirations are. Korn cited a statistic saying teacher perceptions of classroom effort and behavior account for up to 42 percent of the gap in academic achievement between black and white students.

In discussing effective teaching, Korn focused on teacher turnover. He said about 50 percent of U.S. teachers have less than two years’ classroom experience. We have about 300,000 new teachers entering the classroom every year, and within five years about half will not be teaching anymore. We know there is a larger systemic problem, and it disproportionately affects low-income students of color.

At successful schools, students also spend more time at school daily and have a longer school year. But the key is to have them spend more time on task, something that will result from having strong leaders and teachers.

Daniel Sellers

Executive Director, MinnCAN

Sellers said when he was a teacher in North Carolina, he didn’t wait for permission to be granted autonomy to try new, different and creative things. He launched an afterschool program, started a Saturday basketball program to draw boys in to work on math, took students on college visits and brought parents into the class so they could learn to add and subtract fractions, too.

He took two lessons from his experience:

  1. There is nothing inherent about kids that prevent them from being successful.
  2. Our school system isn’t set up to help children succeed. It shouldn’t take super human effort to get success. It is not a realistic expectation. The school system is good at what it is designed to do—to siphon kids off. Some kids will excel and go onto to a four-year college, some will go to a two-year technical program and some will fall through the cracks. The school system has been doing that for 70 or 80 years. That is an issue that is worth confronting.

For the first time ever, Minnesota’s gradation rate is below the national average, he said. When you hear people talk about how great we are, we are actually falling behind. Our white kids are still above the national average, but for every other subgroup of color, we are not just trailing the country in terms of our graduation rates, we are embarrassing ourselves.

Sellers took a different approach to defining the achievement gap. Rather than looking at Minnesota specific data comparing white students to children of color, he focused on comparisons of Minnesota’s children of color to children of color in other states. He gave the following data:

  • For American Indian, Latino, and African American kids, we have the second lowest graduation rates in the country. While nationwide Asian students are the top performing subgroup, our Asian students are below the national average.
  • Looking at NAEP scores, if you are an African American fourth grader, you have a better chance of reading on grade level if you live in Texas or Florida than in Minnesota. If you are a Latino fourth grader, you have a better chance of reading on grade level if you live in Georgia or Arkansas than if you live in Minnesota.

It is not just that Minnesota’s white kids are doing great and that is why our gap exists. The reality is, if you are a family with a student of color, there are many states where you would be better off.

MinnCAN’s research includes the newly released a report on Native American student achievement. It also has developed five Pillars for student success. They are:

  1. Start early with high-quality pre-K, with an emphasis on high quality. Increase state investment and continue with the ParentAware program.
  2. Expand high quality public school options. This does not mean grow charter schools, but they could be a component. It means empowering families to find a school that meets their student’s needs.
  3. Elevate great teaching and leadership. Implement teacher and principal evaluations that give meaningful feedback. Recognize and reward effective teachers and school leaders. Give teacher tenure based on effectiveness; it should not be automatic. Strengthen teacher preparation programs to make sure we have talented and diverse people.
  4. Meet student needs by increasing access to rigorous coursework (AP, IB, and PSEO), advancing anti-bullying efforts, aligning coursework with workforce needs, increasing school flexibility, and having a culturally responsive and relevant curriculum.
  5. Set high expectations for students by improving standardized testing (test less but better), having tests account for student growth and proficiency, and making results available more quickly and easy to understand.

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