Achievement gap: Time for a metrowide approach


A long-overdue campaign to promote the Twin Cities as one of the nation’s premier places for doing business and living well was launched last week by a new group of business and civic movers and shakers under the label Greater MSP (

This worthy endeavor was accompanied by much statistical fanfare over our excellence in innovation and productivity, and Minnesota’s enduring reputation for educational superiority was a particular boast.

Now comes an equally overdue and inspiring proposal to make sure we can back up that brag far into the future, all across the Twin Cities, and to erase our one glaring blemish: the grossly unequal educational achievement we are delivering to our fast-growing communities of color.

Some of the best thinkers in our corporate, education and minority advocacy communities are in the early stages of proposing a coordinated, results-driven, Twin Cities community partnership to improve overall student success and reduce racial equity gaps, from early childhood all the way through to post-secondary credentialing and early career launch.

The shapers of this inspiring concept are the African American Leadership Forum, a volunteer coalition of more than 500 experienced and emerging leaders, and the University of Minnesota. The point person for both organizations has been Dr. Robert Jones, the U’s senior vice president for system academic administration. The effort has been coordinated by the University of Minnesota’s College Readiness Consortium, led by one of the state’s most knowledgeable education experts, Kent Pekel. A working group representing leading corporate, philanthropic, nonprofit and advocacy groups has helped develop a set of conclusions and recommendations to proceed (see the report at

The nickname for this framework is the “Strive model,” and it’s inspired by the Strive Partnership, which has blossomed in the metropolitan area of Cincinnati and northern Kentucky since 2006. Strive’s 2010 Report Card cites improvement on 40 of 54 statistical indicators of student success, from kindergarten readiness to fourth-grade math scores to retention rates at local community colleges.

This model is being picked up by other metropolitan regions, including Boston and Seattle, which are peers and rivals for our claim to being a brainpower economy. The model also is being replicated in Houston and the East Bay (San Francisco) area in California. Already out front on this effort in Minnesota is Grand Rapids and the Itasca County area, which joined the Strive national network last month.

The Strive strategy is sophisticated, comprehensive and complex, but so are the challenges facing students. Here are perhaps the four outstanding features of a potential Twin Cities Strive partnership.

  • All sectors on board. Strive partners in Cincinnati include parents’ groups, minority community advocates, large private-sector employers from U.S. Bank to Procter & Gamble, school districts in Ohio and Kentucky, key philanthropic foundations and the United Way, universities and workforce training entities, the local archdiocese and Roman Catholic schools, and smaller businesses through regional chambers of commerce. Participants at the Strive Twin Cities working group included a similarly broad range, including the United Way and corporate citizens such as Target Corp. and General Mills.
  • Metropolitan collaboration. Wonderfully promising efforts to improve student success where poverty is most concentrated, such as Minneapolis’ Northside Achievement Zone and St. Paul’s Promise Neighborhood, already are up and running and need strong reinforcement from a Strive effort. But all of the Twin Cities’ schools (and all of Minnesota, for that matter) are rather quickly becoming more diverse. Strategic collaboration and a permanent structure for more sharing of best practices is preferable to a continuing hodgepodge of disconnected efforts and accidental networking.
  • Road maps and rigorous measurement. Rigorous measuring and road mapping, setting out a specific and meaningful set of benchmarks and a data system for school success from birth to career preparation, lies at the heart of the Strive process. As the working group recommendations emphasize in several places: “Data runs throughout the Strive process.”
  • Improvement networks. The crucial getting-it-done part of the Strive enterprise involves “improvement networks” that implement programs and policies that deliver the goods, from ensuring that our community’s youngest children are read to 20 minutes a day, to removing financial barriers to post-high school enrollment and retention. The road map and the networks in Cincinnati are focused on five cradle-to-career strategic goals: every child prepared for school; every child supported “in and out of school”; every child succeeding academically; every child enrolled in college or career training; and every child graduating with post-secondary credentials.

A significant improvement in post-secondary attainment stands out as the single most important policy goal for Minnesota’s long-term business growth and socioeconomic health, and we simply won’t get there without dramatically improving outcomes for our children of color. (More than one quarter of our 5-year-olds in the latest census were not Caucasians.) The facts are clear, and consensus on this score is overwhelming. And the Strive model represents the best and most comprehensive and workable way to get there.

David Brooks, author of the recent best-seller “The Social Animal” and one of the most influential pundits on the national scene, paid high tribute to Minnesota at a speech to the Minnesota Business Partnership’s annual dinner this week. Brooks, whose wife is from Detroit Lakes, said our outstanding asset was social capital — our capacity to muster civic engagement and to form large networks in a common cause.

Let’s prove him right, and do it again.

A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, October 20, 2011.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.