COMMUNITY VOICES | Achievement Gap Forum: We need a culture that embraces the belief that “All kids can learn,” but how do we get there?


There is general agreement that to close Minnesota’s achievement gap we need to create a school culture that embraces the idea that all children can learn—that achievement is not based on race, culture or income. But there are different ideas on how to get there.

Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, emphasized solutions that focused on school personnel and accountability—including setting high expectations for all students, making sure schools have great leaders and great teachers, and providing more information to parents that measures school performance.

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:

Nelima Sitati of the Organizing Apprenticeship Project (OAP) and Jennifer Godinez of theMinnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP), emphasized involving communities of color in developing any solution. OAP “believes communities of color are the experts in what their experiences are, and the experts in knowing what they require,” Sitati said. “People of color need to be at the forefront of coming up with the solutions that are going to make their children more successful.”

Bartholomew, Sitati, and Godinez spoke at the second of four forums sponsored by the Minnesota Achievement Gap Committee. The first three forums in the series will present viewpoints from 12 reform organizations working to close the achievement gap. 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? The fourth forum will summarize the proposals from the first three forums and explore possible areas of agreement. Panelists will be John Millerhagen, executive director, Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association, and Katherine Page and Grant Abbott from the Minnesota Achievement Gap Committee.

Ideas put forward during the second forum include both technical fixes, such improving school leadership, and process fixes, such as greater involvement by parents of color. These proposals are not mutually exclusive but have a different focus and frame. Sitati and Godinez, both women of color, were explicit in naming institutional racism as central to the problem, so a big part of the solution is giving people of color more voice and power in decisions. The other two panelists, both white men, did not mention racism in their analysis.

All panelists spoke of the importance of collaboration. Several cited the importance of Cradle-To-Career initiatives such as Generation Next that create a continuum of supports to help students succeed. MMEP also is working to develop similar initiatives in Greater Minnesota through itsRace Equity and Excellence Network.

The fourth panelist, Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, tied the achievement gap to deeper societal problems. The gap is connected to poverty and socio-economic status, he said. People want schools to fix the gap, but the challenges go beyond the traditional education system. Both Amoroso and Bartholomew emphasized the importance of addressing the achievement gap early, and spoke highly of recent state efforts to provide early learning scholarships for children ages 3 to 5. Amoroso recommended expanding the work to low-income children birth to 3.

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

Gary Amoroso

Executive Director, Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MnASA)

MnASA is an association of 600 superintendents, curriculum directors, special education directors and other district administrators. It advocates for policies and funding at the legislature and Congress. It also does professional development.

Amoroso said that education policy has become polarized in the country and stressed to bring people together for a common agenda for children. MnASA started its own effort to bring many constituencies together, called Minnevate!, which, according to the website, is a “dialogue process to build an action agenda for Minnesota educational leadership.”

The issues associated with the achievement gap are much broader than a child’s K-12 educational experience, he said. They are connected to poverty and socio-economic status. People want schools to fix the gap, but the challenges go beyond the traditional education system. He cited an article in the Journal of Human Resources that says the gap starts at birth. According to a MinnPost story on the research, it, “predicts that providing full-time, high-quality preschool to impoverished children under the age of 3 could entirely eliminate the achievement gap,”

That said, Amoroso said there were no magic bullets to solve the problem. He made the following observations and recommendations:

  • Full-time, high-quality preschool to impoverished children under 3. The cost was $29,000 to $48,000 per child, he said, questioning whether society will pick up the challenge.
  • He praised the state’s recent expansion ofearly childhood scholarships, which serve children ages 3-5, and statewide funding for All-day kindergarten.
  • For children in the early primary ages, recent legislation called Read Well by 3rd grade requires every school system to create a literacy plan for children. It has had positive results.
  • Where we have not seen enough progress is where our children continue to go through the system to the middle school and high school years. That is a challenge.
  • State funding for schools must be fair, sustainable and adequate.

Jim Bartholomew

Education Policy Director, Minnesota Business Partnership

The partnership is comprised of the leaders of the 114 largest Minnesota employers, including Target, General Mills and Cargill, have to compete in a global marketplace, and Bartholomew said what kept members up at night is that the educational achievement gaps translate directly into economic opportunity gaps. At the state level, the Business Partnership follows four guiding principles to address the problem:

  1. Set world class academic standards and expectations for all students.
  2. Measure and report student progress, both at student and school level
  3. Give educators the flexibility to design educational programs that they think will work best for the students they serve.
  4. Give families the choice of the schools that they think will best meet their kid’s needs. We need to customize as best we can. A one size fits all doesn’t work.

The Partnership has found that schools that are most effective in eliminating achievement gaps and improving overall performance had five common characteristics.

  1. Effective schools have a leader who cannot only build a team but create a culture of success;
  2. They have teachers and staff who are committed to the school’s mission and strategies, and they have ongoing professional development opportunities;
  3. Teacher’s instruction is carefully aligned with standards, and they frequently assessment student progress. If someone is falling behind and not getting it, they can intervene right away and not continue to drift behind.
  4. They have strategies for engaging parents and families in building support for student success; and
  5. They try to create as much instructional time as possible.

He suggested several areas of consensus on closing the achievement gap: a common belief that all kids can succeed, the need for attract and retain great school leaders and great teachers, and the need for public information on how students and schools are performing. His recommendations included continued support for the early education scholarships—including lifting the current $5,000 cap. He also spoke about aligning and coordinating community resources, citing Generation Next andEducation Transformation Initiative as examples.

Jennifer Godinez

Associate Director, Minnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP)

MMEP is a membership based organization working collectively with educators, community members, students, families and others to increase the success of students of color. Among its research, it produced the 2012 State of Students of Color and American Indian Students report.

Godinez said what keeps her up at night is thinking of the lost opportunities for children of color who don’t get the opportunities they need to succeed. The economic cost of the achievement gap is huge, but the cultural and moral ramifications are even larger for a democratic society that is as multi-cultural as ours, she said.

Godinez said the achievement gap is a systemic issue, a structural issue and an issue of racism. The solution is changing cultural norms. There is a need to move beyond blaming, such as saying it is Superintendent X’s fault. But in such a race-based society, the blame for the achievement gap falls most heavily on communities of color and their families. “Look at the news. Look at how we are portrayed our young men of color,” she said. She recommended reading the New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in an age of color blindness.

MMEP’s efforts at change include:

  • College Access Network, a statewide network with 500 members providing students in information in culturally specific ways about college, then working with higher education institutions to make sure those students succeed.
  • The Solutions not Suspensions Campaign, which is trying to build awareness that black boys are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled. It is an issue that hits a deep nerve in communities of color, and MMEP is encouraging districts to modernize their policies, and even stop suspensions for the youngest children. Godinez gave some credit to both the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts for the changes they have been making.
  • The Race Equity and Excellence Network, which is a cradle-to-career initiative similar to Generation Next but in rural Minnesota. A key part of the work is asking communities of color how they envision success in the educational system and what they would like to see for their children.

MMEP uses an “inside out” strategy, involved with small groups at the community level as well as the state policy level. She encourage other systems to think that way—asking young black men or young Latinos what they think about a college pathway and other issues. These voices do not get heard.

Nelima Sitati

Education Equity Rubric Pilot Project Coordinator,Organizing Apprenticeship Project

OAP is a social justice organization. It believes there is a problem with how the achievement gap is framed. A big part of it is who is crafting the narrative? Is it the people who are most affected by the issue, or is it being crafted externally?

The current education system is not working for children of color, Sitati said. OAP prefers to call the achievement gap the opportunity gap. “We feel there is an opportunity that is being missed. It is not so much that the students are not achieving, but we believe that they are not accessing the same opportunities that would enable to achieve,” Sitati said.

OAP’s approach is a community-led and driven. It believes communities of color are the experts in what their experiences are, and the experts in knowing what they require. People of color need to be at the forefront of coming up with the solutions that are going to make their children more successful. There also is a need for education environments that speak to the children in them – with history, culture, and language relevant to their lives. This is moving from a deficit narrative to an opportunity narrative.

OAP’s solution centers on intentionally addressing institutional racism. It seeks to integrate all stakeholders owning both the problems and solutions. What is critical is that communities of color are included in the solution making process. Every institution needs to examine itself and realize that there must be a cultural change. For example, OAP believes all students can achieve. Now as a society we have to create cultures in our schools and institutions where this is a belief, and that everyone is acting that way.

OAP convenes the Education Equity Organizing Collaborative, and one of it initiatives is theEducation Equity Rubric Project. It takes a holistic approach to the issue of the opportunity gap. Through Equity Goals, the rubric asks key questions that assess equity progress and allow stakeholder to address barriers.

(Sitati did not address the rubric in detail, but here is a quick summary from the website. The rubric is deliberate process to transform district and school environments. It includes creating an Equity Inquiry Team of school leaders, parents, students, and community members that get training and support for an equity assessment process. The rubric guides the teams to identify existing disparities, developing solutions, and assess equity practices – all with the goal of transformative school change. The equity goals look at such things as access and inclusion, student climate, community engagement and resource allocation and distribution.)

Sitati said the Education Equity Organizing Collaborative’s first pilot project involves four school districts using the rubric.