University of Minnesota takes on school achievement gap — Community organizations collaborate on Northside research


Last spring’s edition of Connect, a quarterly newsletter of the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), announced a major initiative to reduce the Black-White achievement gap in Minnesota. Since it was not apparent in the story what role African Americans were playing in this effort, we decided to inquire further. Our question: Given that African American children are least proficient in reading and math (grades 3-12), where are African Americans involved in the U of M’s efforts to close one of the worst achievement gaps between Blacks and Whites in the United States?

This is the first of a two-part story.

We began our look into the U of M’s response to the achievement gap with a leadership profile. Professors Michael Rodriguez, associate professor of educational psychology, Campbell Leadership Chair in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) and Misty Sato, associate professor of curriculum and instruction and Carmen Starkson Campbell Endowed Chair for Innovation in Teacher Development, were featured prominently in the Connect story as initiative leaders.

We found African Americans involved indirectly in partnership rather than in the leadership of the initiative. Perhaps the job of the newly appointed vice president for equity and diversity, Dr. Katrice Albert, will change the landscape a bit. Part of her job is to foster collaboration with diverse communities in Minnesota to promote educational equity.

Meanwhile, the CEHD has begun adopting new strategies to help increase the number of teacher candidates of color. Recently they’ve partnered with Teach for America officials despite push-back from graduate students.

Right: Michael Rodriguez

In sifting through the politics of it all, we’ve found that there is work being done and the U of M is positioning itself to provide leadership and resources for school districts, organizations and programs that are implementing best practices in five main areas: early childhood intervention, brain research on executive function, kindergarten readiness, reading proficiency by grade three, and college readiness.

“We have to do a better job of identifying the context in which the achievement gap exists,” says Rodriguez. He specializes in education measurement, a sought-after area of expertise (psychometrics) little known in the field of education.

The university’s strategy of collaboration is intentional. There are many partners engaged in this work, assessing and documenting this context that Rodriguez speaks about. The Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), now a Promise Neighborhood, has welcomed U of M researchers into their work.

NAZ has a formal partnership with the U of M’s Center for Early Education & Development (CEED) at the Urban Research Outreach/Engagement Center (UROC) in North Minneapolis. They have been integral in the curriculum development for NAZ’s Family Academy, an early childhood parent education program.

According to the NAZ strategic plan, the idea is to use best practices cited from the research in addition to information from the community and tailor it to the community. The results are then tested out for a year to ensure high-quality programming.

Dr. Lauren Martin is the director of research at UROC and the lead researcher for Family Academy. Her work is supported by a three-year grant to implement community-based participatory evaluation and validation study of the program. Dr. Martin has a background in anthropology and has led the charge in helping the NAZ team hone their research and assessment practices.

Martin is aware of the peculiar history of research on the North Side relative to the U of M and other research institutions. This time, she says, the premise is different.

Right: Dr. Lauren Martin

“We begin with the [principle] that all parents want the best for their kids,” said Martin. The work is based on this mantra instead of making assumptions about the family dynamics. “We learn from parents’ strengths, skills, unique contributions, and even the gaps. This is connected with other information and research to address those self-identified gaps. Parents are driving the close of the opportunity gap,” she said.

Traditional research asks inflexible research questions of its subjects. UROC’s model requires that parents and researchers co-create the questions, forming relationships in the process.

“We’re not treating people like research subjects; we’re talking to people about their hopes, and then we bring helpful research literature. We’re starting with families in the community context versus starting with research,” said Martin. “We learn more through connection versus a false sense of objectivity, because nothing is really objective. If you don’t connect with people the same as you’d like to be, it can be uncomfortable. Doing this work in this way has been of great mutual benefit,” she said.

“NAZ made a commitment to work in partnership with the community,” said Andre Dukes, Family Academy director. “This is the commitment required of all partners,” he said. Dukes manages the engagement team that forms those special relationships. Families receive one-on-one support from a team of family coaches called NAZ Connectors who are Northside residents themselves. The Connectors are part of the research teams that help to surface knowledge from multiple sources.

Left: Andre Dukes (Photo courtesy of Northside Achievement Zone)

“We asked the questions ‘What more don’t we know? Does the curriculum meet the needs of the community? Will it be effective in enhancing behavior and child development?’” he explained. Dukes described the NAZ engagement team’s thorough review of the best practices to be included in the new curriculum for Family Academy.

“We went line by line…Does this make sense? Is the language effective? We wanted it to be intentionally reflective of the community,” Dukes said.

In the end, the research is used to benefit the people. With the aid of the university, NAZ is building programming that tracks the progress of the individual at major academic benchmarks, making adjustments for families along the way with support from the Connectors who have relationships with the families.

The best part, say the providers, is that families do benefit from this work. “They are empowered,” said Martin. “They say, ‘I did not know I could do this,’ or ‘There are things I can do now.’ There are ramifications for parents in lots of arenas,” she said.

Their messages are sifted through the research, and the measurements are used to build quality programming. “And we stay in the community,” said Dukes. “We don’t just do ‘a study’ for a period of time and leave.”

Next week: We take a look at how teachers and community connect with the U of M’s achievement gap initiative.

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