Minneapolis kindergarten teachers closing achievement gap

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Though the achievement gap persists as an ongoing problem in Minnesota schools, some kindergarten teachers are beating the odds.  Minneapolis Public Schools’ (MPS) “Beat the Odds” teachers were singled out for their results with minority students.  The teachers were identified using a value-added analysis by MPS’s research, evaluation and assessment department. The department has a number of videos available that show the successful teachers at work.

“We try to find the teachers that impacted students test scores the most,” said David Heistad, director of research, evaluation and assessment for MPS.  In the case of kindergarteners, this means pre-reading skills- being able to identify letters, sounds, and ends of words, and being able to comprehend a story when it is told to them. 

Heistad said that some of the methods that seem to work include Peer Assisted Learning (PAL), which involves students teaching each other in a non judgmental environment, or direct instruction with specific feedback in small groups.  He also said successful teachers incorporated cooperative groups, journaling, and phonics instruction. 

“There isn’t any magic curriculum that will make every child succeed,” said Marie Olson, a kindergarten teacher at Lyndale Community School, one of the teachers identified as achieving impressive outcomes with minority students. 

She said it was important to differentiate the needs of each student, and zone in on what will work.  Olson conducts mini-assessments throughout the year to gauge what needs to be met in her classroom.  “The standardized [tests] give good info,” she said, “but the smaller in-between assessments can be useful throughout the year.” 

Olson said the most important thing is “when kids know you care about them.”  She gave an example of an Ethiopian student in her classroom that just moved to Minnesota and was struggling with adjusting and with language.  Because Olson was able to develop a bond with the student, the girl was able to make leaps and bounds in just a few months.  “She really has shot for the stars,” Olson said. 

Olson has been teaching in Minneapolis since 1989, and says that there is no one “method” that she uses, but rather has learned by thinking on her feet, and teaching beyond the curriculum.  She often teaches above and beyond what kindergarteners are required to learn, and says that she focuses on instilling in the students a love of learning. 

Olson said that while her teaching is intuitive, the school district can benefit from a supportive environment where teachers who have success can teach others.  “You don’t want to have to re-invent the wheel,” she said.