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Minnesota’s 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.

Belief vs. evidence
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.

One of the largest gaps in U.S.
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 recently, “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 Minnesota State Demographic Center, and the school-age population typically is even higher.

A more colorful state coming
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.

Looking for what works
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.

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. A version of this article originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/12/2010 - 09:21 am.

    Two comments 1) The NAEP report is faulty on its face because it compares apples to oranges. States are able to set their own standards regarding reading and math assessments under NCLB. If I’m not mistaken, Minnesota’s standards are considerably higher than many other states, even whole regions of the nation.

    2) It is a major blind spot on the part of some of my conservative friends (or a major psychological dysfunction) that they seem unable to comprehend the fact that areas of the state with the highest number of disadvantaged students coupled with the highest cost of living for teaching staff are likely to need far more money to educate those districts’ average student that those districts whose families are largely intact and abject poverty, parental drug abuse, and homelessness are not major issues for a substantial number of their students each day.

    Also, if I’m not mistaken, Minnesota is one of the most highly segregated states in the nation when it comes to the areas where people of color and people living in poverty are located. This, unquestionably, makes the resolution of our “achievement gap” far more challenging than it is in some other locales.

    Of course, resources will be required to address this problem. Who, in their right mind, could imagine it can be addressed without additional resources?

  2. Submitted by Alicia DeMatteo on 04/12/2010 - 12:18 pm.

    “Seagren said at a Growth & Justice conference more than two years ago that “money does matter,””

    Couldn’t agree more. But what also matters is where you put that money.

    Focusing on closing the achievement gap is important, but it’s merely a band-aid until we get at the root causes of that gap. Until then, we’re merely curing one symptom of a disease.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/12/2010 - 12:52 pm.

    I started to write a lengthy response to this post, but in all honesty, the effort to restrain my comments was upsetting my stomach…it is just not worth the trouble.

    Instaed, allow me to say that I sincerely wonder if leftist shills for the National Education Association and their affiliates ever, ever feel a twinge of shame while they ply their trade.

    Being a charitable person at heart, I choose to believe they do; all appearances to the contrary.

  4. Submitted by dan buechler on 04/12/2010 - 04:51 pm.

    Greg I find your comment on the high cost of living to be specious at best. Two thoughts from today 1) I have befriended a young coworker (Hmong) as we tend to be older guys. He completed two years of college quite good considering that he notes there were “family troubles” that kept him home one year taking online classes. He attended three high schools. We need journalists to actually listen to the kids and share their stories, of course the right wing will call the STRIB a socialist rag.
    2) Driving past a jr. high baseball field there was one coach for 44 players. The same day the Twins opened in their multi million digs. I’ve coached and 1:15 is a better ratio.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/13/2010 - 09:45 am.

    Credit where credit is due. Today’s Strib contains a story of a courageous Democrat, Rep. Marsha Swails, of Woodbury.

    Reigning in the teachers union is not the complete answer, but it is a vital starting point.

    Kudos to Rep. Swails. If she didn’t earn my vote, she’s certainly earned my respect.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/13/2010 - 10:27 am.

    I’ve just written to Rep. Swails, and I thought I’d share my message.

    Dear, Rep. Swails,

    I write to you today as a staunch conservative that has agonized over the failure of the public education system for more than twenty years.

    When our three boys were young, my wife and I were strong allies of our public school system. We volunteered our time to grade papers, we attended PTA meetings, and yes, we fought for increased funding.

    But about the time our eldest reached the 4th grade, we started to realize that there were many in the public system that saw it not as a vital piece of our democracy, but as a path to a cushy, life long career from which they could never be rooted.

    We met with teachers and staff that seemed, at times, to be fighting mightily to maintain a status quo that was benefiting no one so much as themselves; and all too often at the expense of the kids that struggle the hardest, yet make the smallest gains.

    We saw the growing apathy in the faces of some very dedicated educational professionals that were just getting tired of bucking the system and we saw the money we worked so hard to convince our neighbors was absolutely vital disappear into the system without any sign of its having done any good.

    In 2000, we gave up and reluctantly moved our kids to a private school.

    But in my heart, I continued to grieve for the thousands of kids for whom our system continues to utterly fail to provide even the minimal academically rigorous education.

    Not surprisingly, I have been at odds with the teachers union and many Democratic elected officials.

    Rep. Swails, I do not believe for a minute that reigning in the abusive, self-serving protectionism the teachers union continues to champion will change our public system over night; there are many, many problems that the students and their families bring with them to school…but it is a vital and necessary starting place.

    As I said, I’ve become quite conservative (in no small part due to my struggles with the public school system). I’m not familiar with the broader picture of your legislative career, and I don’t live in your district, so I’m not in a position to promise you my support at the ballot box.

    But I can, and do extend my genuine admiration and respect to you for your courageous stand in the issue before us. I can now say, with complete knowledge that there is at least one Democratic legislator that really is “doing it for the children”.

    Very best regards and wishes for your continued success,

    Thomas J. Swift


    If you care about kids, and wish to see the resurgance of our public school system, now is the time to make your voices heard.

    I urge you to contact your legislators and give them the encouragement they need.

  7. Submitted by Grace Rousseau on 04/17/2010 - 08:02 am.

    In the spirit of community… can I ask a few questions?

    What does Education Minnesota, the NEA or the AFT do that specifically causes such rancor? After all, they represent the teachers in a world where contract negotiations and liability claims would make it impossible for our public schools to exist. I would posit, that without the unions, our schools would be in more turmoil. They protect the teachers precisely because that is what they get paid to do.

    How many of you would be willing to become a teacher for an extended period of time… say 5 years? If you find yourself hesitating, then the follow up question is “what troubles you?” In my humble opinion, there has been far too much teacher bashing and too little attention paid to their day to day existence. Working alone with 30 some students on a shoestring classroom budget in a poorly lit and/or ventilated room is not the recipe for change. It is the recipe for burnout.

    What are Principals supposed to do? In many cases, these are teachers who did not love the classroom and chose to go into administration. In a school with 2000 students and 150 employees that makes them the head of a fairly large business with all of the regulatory, fiscal, and supervisory responsibilities. We talk about accountability, but fail to realize that the structure of the school does not allow that Principal to do the first and most important thing: get to know your employees strengths and weaknesses.

    My closing question is simple. If Minnesota has this huge influx of students, then shouldn’t we be measuring the growth between where they start and where they are? Even the best teacher needs time with a student in order to make a significant impact. If we want to make an impact, lets make school one of those places where consistency is possible. Consistency means that there should be a caring supportive and supported community of educators in an appropriate facility.

    Inequity? The inequity is in our broad critique of the schools as a failing institution. Come and see what our schools are doing, by sitting in our classes and talking to us. By the way, check your preconceptions at the door.

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