Race gap persists for Minnesota students


“History tells us that Minnesotans are hesitant to acknowledge the racist nature of educational outcomes; rather the problem has been treated as a race neutral or personal responsibility issue,” said the annual report of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP).

MMEP recently held its State of Students of Color and American Indian Students Conference and released its latest report documenting the educational outcomes of Minnesota’s students. The report specifically highlights disparities between students of color, American Indian students, and their white counterparts. While communities of color comprise about 14 percent of the total population in Minnesota, students of color comprise 23.6 percent of all K-12 education enrollments in 2008.

The November 6 conference at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union welcomed teachers, counselors, educators, administrators, youth workers, policy leaders and community members who are interested in increasing the success of students of color in Minnesota’s educational system and to improve educational outcomes.

“We believe Minnesota has the knowledge and talent to re-design our education system and eliminate race disparities in educational outcomes. What we need is to build the will to do so. This Conference seeks to create the climate in our state where that will can flourish,” said Carlos Mariani Rosa, Executive Director of MMEP.

The MMEP study shows lower graduation rates for all students of color. Graduation rates are based on a 4-year cohort, tracking the 9th grade class all the way through.

The MMEP study asked students whether they want to go to college or graduate school. Students of color, in high numbers, want to go to college.

READINESS, College Readiness of MN ACT Test Takers, 2008 (percentage of students who met all four [English/Writing, Social Science, College Algebra, Biology] minimum ACT scores. “When it comes to following through on aspirations, Students of Color and American Indian Students participate at very low rates. When it comes to being ready for higher education, these students are assessed less ready than their White counterparts.”“

MMEP acknowledged that much has not changed since the organization began publishing its reports in 2001. The achievement gap still exists in Minnesota and educational disparities continue to define the progress, or lack thereof, of Minnesota’s students of color.

“There are improvements, but not at a rate to close gaps,” said Mariani. “More educational institutions are directly addressing racial disparities such as stronger efforts in demystifying college access and recruitment. The system is shifting by implementing new broad policies, but they are not targeting communities of color.” Such policies include raising expectations and curriculum rigor, especially with math and science standards.

“The report is intended to cause people to think and question why we have gaps in Minnesota…to question ourselves and what we can do to close these gaps,” said Elaine Salinas, President of MIGIZI Communications. The report examines several variables to illustrate the discrepancy in Minnesota’s educational system. It also offers critical questions and statements to be considered in each area upon improved outcomes.

Necessary but flawed and dangerous numbers

Mariani argues that although testing practices have been criticized, students still need to be prepared to score well because it is a major measuring tool.

“Some educators would argue that its only one measure of success,” said Mariani. “Regardless of these feelings, the system is based on testing results; therefore, approaches to teaching have to be based on these outcomes. The ultimate measurement is that test result, so you can’t avoid it.”

Superintendent of Rochester Public Schools, Dr. Romain Dellemand, suggests that low test scores are a reflection of the system. He says lower achievement of students of color is due to institutionalized racism. “Out of every 100 Black students taking a math test in 11th grade, eight were proficient in an era where jobs are in math, science, and technology. We’re failing to educate 92 percent of Black students,” he said.

Salinas suggests there is a danger that has to be undone when publishing these kinds of statistics. “Because of continued reports and statistics, [the students] begin to see them as less than. How do they internalize this? Data reflects reality, but how are we countering this reality? The data never reflects promise,” she explained.

Where do teachers fit in the picture?

The challenge of “changing who we are and how we teach” is the effort made in recruiting and retaining good teachers. Concordia University Dean of the College of Business and Organizational Leadership, Dr. Bruce Corrie, suggests that expectations and perspective needs to change to accomplish this.

“We need to change the paradigm from a deficit model to an asset model. We have to change the mindset [of instructors] and ask for all students to be at 100 percent,” he said. He also said educators need to build what he calls “relationship capital,” which focuses on the relationship between the teacher and the student. “We spend a lot of time on input and output and not the process to make the transformation permanent,” he said.

Carmen Coballes-Vega, a professor of Education at the Metropolitan State University, says “the number of teachers of color and teachers who are able to work with diverse students should be increased. They should all be highly qualified individuals,” she said. Vega also recommends financial support for new teachers of color and culturally appropriate preparation of new teachers. Salinas says, “We need to run schools and design curriculum as if culture mattered. All children need both windows and mirrors. It matters who they see in the school. They need to see their culture and race.” Salinas also suggests that teachers and instructors have to see themselves [in their students]. “If we see them as our kids, then we [will] invest in them, “she added.

The continuing challenge of poverty

“We can’t produce great academic learning until social issues are addressed,” said Mariani. He says issues like homelessness, isolation, moving around frequently, hunger, etc. stifle children’s learning. “If we wait to change these, it will take too long while kids continue to slip through the cracks,” he said.

There is division in policy and decision-making. But where is the line drawn? Does personal responsibility have its place? Mariani says, “We are primarily interested in systemic changes. We’re not as interested in changing the people.

“I don’t agree with the dominant stereotype that’s out there about [parents] not valuing education or raising expectations. There are phenomenal untapped reservoirs, but if you have a bad system, an individual’s best efforts can be trumped,” he said. Mariani believes the two concepts should be linked. “Why continue to separate the economic from educational equalities, or personal and systemic action? We should expect schools to be anti-poverty agents. How do we put together all intervention methods in a more proactive and integrative way?”

Armando Camacho, president of Neighborhood House, says community-based organizations are positioned to be the entry point for families. For example, the intake process could be through a local food shelf. If a community-based organization could address social needs such as hunger, housing or even English language services, the child is more likely to do better in school. Just like culturally appropriate instructor and curriculum, these social services should also take on a culturally sensitive approach.

Paying for change

When fresh ideas and suggestions are posed to any public system, there is always the question of funding. The report points to Minnesota’s Integration Revenue and the state’s Compensatory Aid Revenue as sources for funding, but it’s not an easy proposition. Mariani said there are “millions of dollars in both revenue streams and from Title One. These exist because kids are poor or because they’re being segregated along racial lines. Are we maximizing [the funds] for educational outcomes?”

He said the proposition is dangerous because it challenges the system and there are people who benefit from that pot of money. “Should those monies be increasingly targeted to [students of color] to address the gap? We think the question needs to be asked and an intelligent answer needs to be provided. We need to provoke the deeper question and not assume the current ways that resources are used are the best ways. The push-back will be big, but at least it gets the conversation going,” he said.

“Two policies need to come together: How does Minnesota get rid of differences in educational outcomes based on race and income and make it better for others? Those two need to feed each other. By addressing all students, we can address students of color,” he said.

“We have a 20th century education system and we want a 21st century result, “said Superintendent Dellemand. “ We need to change the way we do business instead of tweaking it incrementally.”

Lauretta Dawalo Towns 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 consultant with the Girls in Action program at Patrick Henry High School. Towns is a resident of the McKinley neighborhood in North Minneapolis where she lives with her husband and newborn son.