Minnesota leaders tackle “state of emergency” in education

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Education is in a state of emergency, according to speakers at the Children and Youth Issues Briefing, held January 10 at the Crowne Plaza. (See here for the agenda and supplementary links). At the conference, sponsored by the United Front, education leaders from government and nonprofit sectors came together to share their expertise and plans for improving Minnesota’s dismal achievement gap statistics. Not all news is bad, however, as many emphasized new and deeper partnerships, a streamlined vision and evaluation as tools to get Minnesota back on track.

As with nearly any conversation that takes place these days about education, the key issue  was the Achievement Gap. Angelique Kedem, from St. Paul’s Promise Neighborhood called to mind Brown vs. Board of Education, which in 1954 ordered desegregation of American schools. What we have now, Kedem said, is integrated schools but unequal education. The issue is “ultimately about access to the pursuit of happiness,” she said. “Education is the great liberator.”

It Takes a Village

Kedem called for a new level of partnership to address what she called a state of emergency. A singular vision, she said, along with deeper partnerships and rigorous evaluation are in the process of coming together to solve the state’s education problems.

Part of that strategy is getting help from the Race to the Top grant, which will in part aid communication between different agencies. Karen Cadigan, the director of Minnesota’s Office of Early Learning, led a panel discussion with the Minnesota’s Children’s Cabinet, including Commissioner Brenda Cassellius from the Department of Education, Commissioner Lucinda Jesson from the Department of Human Services and Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger from the Department of Health.

Cadigan, who herself was a Headstart kid, said that it’s a new day for Minnesota. The recently-announced federal Race to the Top grant is a significant milestone, but it comes after many years and decades of activities and efforts.

Cadigan spoke of an “ecological model” for education. All systems impact children, she said, including health, human services and education. 

“The best predictor of a child’s education is good health,” said Dr. Edward Ehlinger, of the MN Department of Health. If there is abuse, depression, family disruption, drug use, etc. in the family, the child will have trouble in school. Ehlinger said Minnesota’s educational agenda needs to take into account children’s social and physical environments, and that the different aspects of a child’s life can’t be dealt with separately.  

Lucinda Jesson, of the Department of Human Services, said the collaborative approach of the Children’s Cabinet goes beyond just the agencies represented, and that those relationships can build other alliances with areas such as the justice system. Jesson said the collaboration needs to be a partnership between public and private entities.

From Cradle to Career

Jesson also spoke of the importance of focusing not just on young children, but also on young adults all the way up to 18 and beyond, especially children who are transitioning out of foster care. A number of the speakers reiterated the need to support children at every step of the way, from birth to adulthood.

Sondra Samuels, executive director of the Northside Achievement Zone, which recently was awarded a multimillion dollar Promise Neighborhood grant, spoke of her organization’s mission to end intergenerational poverty, and to guide families to be their children’s first teachers. She said that NAZ seeks to support children and families through an “integrated effort” with many partners to build strong communities to support children. 

Mary Neinow, from the Minnesota Futures Coalition, spoke alongside several other “youth issues” organizations such as Youthprise, the Children’s Defense Fund and MinnCan. Neinow said that while each of the different nonprofit organizations may focus on different stages in children’s lives, in many ways they are targeting the same families. “We need to give ourselves permission to have silos,” she said, in regard to the specialization of each organization. At the same time, organizations must not get trapped into beliefs that their particular issue is the most important policy.

Vertical and Horizontal Approaches

Kent Pekel, from the University of Minnesota, spoke of a “vertical approach” to education. Drawing from research by Nobel Prize winning researcher James Heckman, Pakel said early childhood education was the most important intervention piece, with each step in a child’s education being necessary for the steps down the road. “One point has to build upon the next point,” Pekel said. 

Pekel also spoke about a “horizontal” approach to education, used along with the “vertical” approach. In a telling demonstration, Pekel showed a calendar from a year when he used to be an educator. He blacked out the days for summer vacation, then for holidays, spring break, teacher conferences, testing days and weekends, and the result was a year that had a whole lot of blacked out days. The Twin Cities STRIVE initiative, he said, seeks to extend learning after school, in the evenings and in summer. STRIVE is still in the planning stages in Minneapolis.

Pekel emphasized the need to focus on what we can change rather than things we can’t (such as poverty). So much of our educational system is decentralized, he said, and what is needed is a broader strategy with key gateways, measurable goals, and assessment. 

The Time is Now 

With new federal funding, cross-agency cooperation and partnerships with nonprofits, it seems like we are in a great spot to work toward a cohesive plan of improving education for all Minnesota children. That is, except for the elephant in the room, which is the state budget. Christina Wessel, from the Minnesota Budget Project, said that it’s time to stop the “one time fixes,” such as borrowing from schools and from projected tobacco settlements, to solve our state’s budget problems. As baby boomers begin to retire, Minnesota is going to need new workers, and right now we aren’t projected to have enough qualified people to fit the state’s needs. We need to make critical investments in our state’s education and infrastructure, she said. “If not,” she said, “we are undermining the future.”