That stubborn and scary reading achievement gap


I am a white person of Scots-English and Southern U.S. heritage who is grateful to have ended up in this progressive Northern state, the best and coolest state in the nation, I earnestly believe.

I like to needle my Texas kinfolk by bragging that Minnesota was the first state to offer troops to President Abraham Lincoln for the Civil War in the 1860s. And we were out front of most others in producing national civil rights leadership from all our major political parties, from the 1940s through the present day. 

I tend to be smug or at least oblivious about my own good luck and educational advantage, as well as Minnesota’s reputation for tolerance and human rights progress. As my state and my country have become more healthily diverse, I have moved through various stages of ignorance, denial and defensiveness about the historic and continuing disadvantage for people who don’t look like me. One belief I stubbornly clung to was that the racial achievement gap in our Minnesota schools was not as serious as it appeared. 

I would nod my head in agreement when well-intentioned white folks like me would argue that Minnesota really still is better, significantly more helpful and hospitable to immigrants and minorities than other states, despite the evidence that there was a large gap between white and non-white educational achievement. 

The statistical argument we’d hide behind was that our kids of color weren’t doing so much worse than kids of color in other states, but rather the gap was mostly a function of our white kids doing so much better than white kids in other states. 

I was wrong. That argument is simply not true, according to the latest evidence. The most recent “Nation’s Report Card” on reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides compelling evidence that Minnesota kids of color really are doing a lot worse than those in other states, while Minnesota white students’ advantage over others is minimal. 

Our policy and research director at Growth & Justice, Matt Kane, culled these numbers from the NAEP report, showing average fourth-grade reading test scores for various groups: 

White MN – 230 | White US – 229

Black MN – 195 | Black US – 204

Hispanic MN – 194 | Hispanic US – 204

Asian MN – 219 | Asian US – 234

American Indian MN – 200 | American Indian US – 206 

In other words, Minnesota white fourth-graders scored just one point higher than their national counterparts. Not so far above-average, after all, out here in Lake Wobegon. 

And Minnesota kids of color, in every single subgroup, were behind their national counterparts by 6 to 15 points. This all translates to one of the largest gaps in the nation; we are tied with several other states for the largest black-white gap for reading scores among fourth-graders.

Scores from other evaluating entities and on measures other than reading in recent years have revealed similar gaps, if not as stark as the latest data. As the Star Tribune’s Emily Johns reported last week, “The state’s vexing achievement gap has become a long-term blemish on an otherwise good reputation for educational performance.” 

Let’s get real — “blemish” is an understatement. This is getting to be a genuine embarrassment, no longer an interesting idiosyncrasy, in a state that has always prided itself on fairness. Moreover, it’s a recipe for economic disaster. Our non-white population will swell from somewhere around 5 percent in 1980 to 25 percent by 2035, according to the MinnesotaState Demographic Center, and the school-age population typically is even higher. 

This is the face of our new Minnesota: We will be more colorful. And common decency compels us toward greater equality of outcomes for all our children, lifting those on the lower end. 

If that isn’t enough, consider the dollars-and-sense perspective: Our economy will not thrive as it has unless minority education attainment, specifically the successful completion of some higher-education credential, matches the historically high level achieved by our German and Scandinavian and European immigrants over the last century. 

So we know what to do, or at least where to start. Our own Smart Investments in Minnesota’s Students framework calls for investing in proven interventions for those kids in the low-income and minority categories who’ll most need the help (obviously, not all will) — and the help needs to start even before birth and definitely in early childhood, if we want to close this gap. 

Groups such as the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership are working on research and advocacy that shines light on what works to close the achievement gap, proposing broad public policy improvements, including a renewed emphasis on cultural competency and better education for teachers and school officials themselves. 

The group’s associate director, Jennifer Godinez, suggests that Minnesota take a fresh look at exactly why other states are doing better and view the problem as an “innovation challenge” rather than a disappointment. Business leaders through groups such as the Itasca Project have produced plenty of strong policy formulas under a Close the Gap project. And Education Department Commissioner Alice Seagren has to be commended for challenging the conservative dogma that money doesn’t matter. 

Seagren said at a Growth & Justice conference more than two years ago that “money does matter,” and in the Star Tribune she was quoted: “We are really going to devote some significant additional money to trying to focus on our minority students and the achievement gap,” adding that the effort has to be on the whole age continuum, from early grades through high school. 

Without a doubt, new money has to be spent in smarter and different ways. More and better investment toward this purpose must be a top priority for the next governor of Minnesota, and the payoff for our jobs and our economy will be even sweeter than the restored bragging rights. 

A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, April 1, 2010. 

Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a progressive research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues. He also spent 30 years as a writer for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, where he delved into state, local and federal governments and politics.