COMMUNITY VOICES | Achievement Gap Forum: Modernize schools, implement policies on the books, build community support


Over the years, Minnesota has had many reformers propose ways to close the state’s persistent achievement gap. One key approach is to assertively follow through on the ideas already in law.

“We don’t lack for ideas,” said Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United. “We suffer from lack of implementation.”

Cecconi was one of the panelists discussing the achievement gap and possible areas of consensus on solutions among the many players in the reform area. The other speaking were: Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change, Maureen Ramirez, Policy and Research Director for Growth and Justice, and Chris Stewart, executive director of theAfrican American Leadership Forum.

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:

While issues such as teacher evaluation can get divisive, there was some agreement that current school structures are antiquated. There also was some agreement on the need for strong follow up to existing law. Examples cited included implementing the expansion of early childhood scholarships, better promotion of dual credit courses (letting high school students attend college), and the need to support school districts in implementing the new “World’s Best Workforce” legislation. Among other things, the law requires districts to make a plan to reduce the achievement gap, publicly present that plan and report on its results.

This was the first of three such forums sponsored by the Minnesota Achievement Gap Committee. The panelists are asked to address three questions: 1) How do you understand the achievement gap? 2. How do you propose to solve the problem? 3) What are the barriers to solving the problem?

Here is a quick summary of their comments. See the video for more details.

Parents United

Mary Cecconi argued that the school system isn’t failing so much as doing exactly what it was designed to do: Sort kids by ability. The school system was created when many unskilled labor jobs existed and not all kids needed a college education. With low-skill jobs disappearing, schools are now expected to make sure 100 percent of the students are educated and college and career ready.

Despite popular belief, the state is not throwing money at the problem, Cecconi said, citing statistics showing that between 2003-2011, overall state funding and per pupil spending has declined. With funding declining, the state focused instead on greater accountability through more student testing, principal and teacher evaluations, and parent trigger laws.

Parents United solution: In broad terms: 1) student centered schools (authentic learning and rigorous academics), 2) excellent educators (better preparation and support for teachers and principals), 3) engaged communities (research based family engagement models), and 4) more Investment, both in early education and predictable K-12 funding.

Center for School Change

Joe Nathan talked about the importance of early childhood education, particularly for students from low-income families. He focused most of his presentation on expanding dual-credit options for students: Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), Concurrent Enrollment, and Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO). He cited research saying students who take dual credit courses are twice as likely to graduate from high school as those who don’t, and that these options are particularly important for students of color and low-income students.

He made several recommendations for expanding dual credit courses, such as eliminating restrictive eligibility requirements and expanding outreach to underserved populations. He also argued for better implementation and promotion of a new law that allows 10thgraders to take college career and technical course.

(Nathan also has written a column titled: Seeking common ground may help improve schools, which summarizes the first forum.)

Growth & Justice

In 2007, Growth & Justice issued its foundational report for closing the achievement gap, called Smart Investments in Minnesota’s Students: A Research Based Investment Proposal. Ramirez said the report outlines research-based educational interventions from early childhood to college. The organization converted the ideas to proposed legislation and has been working to get it passed.

Ramirez put the educational achievement gap in context. The gap does not exist in isolation, but is one of many racial disparities in areas such as health, housing, access to credit, employment and incarceration.

“What needs to be done?” she asked. “The answer is everything. There is not one single solution.” Growth & Justice supports the newGeneration Next) initiative in the Twin Cities, which models itself on Cincinnati’s STRIVE program. It is a comprehensive and collaborative framework, she said, getting people together to set some high goals for students—and to get school district, the business community, philanthropists and parents and families to come together and agree on what to measure.

Other Minnesota communities are developing similar collaborative cradle-to-career approaches. The Itasca Area Initiative for Student Successis ahead of Generation Next. Other communities with such systematic approaches include Northfield, St. Cloud, Austin, and Red Wing. Growth & Justice is studying and supporting such efforts.

Ramirez spoke of the importance of implementing existing legislation, including the expanded early childhood education scholarships and the World’s Best Workforce initiative.

African American Leadership Forum (AALF)

Like Ramirez, Stewart framed the education achievement gap in the larger context of other racial disparities in income, home ownership, and other areas. These gaps have a very material consequence. “The black white wealth gap is something that we are obsessed with,” he said. “It decides so much for the rest of your life—how you are positioned in society.”

In general, black families have 5 percent of the wealth of white families, he said. There are many drivers that affect that gap, but the three drivers AALF focuses on are: education, income and home ownership, because that’s how wealth is expressed through families. “Number one in those drivers is education,” he said.

AALF has issued a report with recommendations on the achievement gap called: A Crisis in our Community: Closing the Five Education Gaps. AALF’s education work team looked across a wide number of schools to see where African American children were doing well. When they looked at success stories, they found they should focus not a single gap but five key gaps: Preparation, Belief, Time, Teaching and Leadership.

The baby experience for African American children is unequal across the board, he said. It ranges from maternal health care to how rich their environment is. Addressing the preparation gap includes providing access to quality early childhood education, bringing community support and social services into the schools, and education and training for parents. And families need to be economically secure.

Addressing the belief gap—the belief that African American children can learn—includes a laser like focus on student achievement, offering African American students more rigorous curriculum options, and wide publicity of success stories of African American students. Black children get pathologized. “What you believe about children carries out in how you treat them,” he said. “For us, this is one of the biggest gaps we have had to talk about.”

Addressing the time gap includes providing adequate time for teaching and learning such as longer school day and school years, and enhanced summer learning opportunities.

Addressing the teaching gap includes putting the best teachers in the schools with the greatest need, having culturally competent teachers and giving teachers effective coaching and monitoring. It also includes transformation of traditional teacher preparation.

Addressing the leadership gap includes allowing principals to choose their own teachers, and professional development and evaluation of school leaders to be sure they are aware of best practices.

For the Q&A and more details on the presentations, watch the video.