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The achievement gap cannot be resolved by isolating it

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
All of us wish Mayor R.T. Rybak the best as he prepares to begin his new job tackling Minnesota’s achievement gap.

All of us wish Mayor R.T. Rybak the best as he prepares to begin his new job tackling Minnesota’s achievement gap, by some measures the worst in the nation.

According to the Star Tribune, “Federal data indicate that Minnesota has one of the largest education achievement disparities in the nation. Most recently the state ranked dead last in four-year graduation rates for Latino and American Indian students, second to last for African-American students, and near the bottom for low-income students overall.”

We often talk about the “achievement gap” as if it were an isolated phenomenon. The solutions too often focus on the public schools alone. Reformers target teachers, or administrators, or the teacher unions, or the need for more charter schools, or the necessity for more and better testing, or the pressing need for tablet computers in every classroom. Rarely do Minnesotans focus on racism and discrimination.

The wider picture: discrimination and racism

The achievement gap cannot be resolved by isolating it. Based on recent reports, Minnesota ranks near the bottom in several other critical areas. Discrimination and racism are baked into Minnesota’s culture, and we are coasting on a reputation for racial justice that was established by Hubert H. Humphrey in the 1940s. For Mayor Rybak to succeed he will have to widen his vision to include an open assault on the icy cold racism that characterizes Minnesota.

Consider the facts:

Minnesota is at or near the bottom of the rankings as regards the “employment gap.”

  • Recently MPR reported that, “the Twin Cities region has one of the country’s widest racial gaps in employment, according to the Economic Policy Institute.”
  • In 2010 the same institute reported that, “Looking at the unemployment ratios with whites for Hispanics and African Americans … the Minneapolis metropolitan area stands out as having the worst relative disparity. The Minneapolis metropolitan area has a black-white unemployment ratio of 3.1 to 1. This means that blacks are 3.1 times as likely to be unemployed as whites. Additionally, the black-white difference in unemployment is almost 14 percentage points.”

Minnesota has one of the worst “health care disparity gaps.”

Minneapolis has an exceptionally high disparity in arrests rates for marijuana possession.

  • The Star Tribune reported that, “while nationally blacks are 3.73 times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, in Hennepin County they are 9.1 times more likely to be arrested. Even more disturbing, however, is that in Minneapolis blacks are 11.25 times more likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. Moreover, the racial disparity increased by 112 percent between 2000 and 2010.”

Though we may not like to admit it, Minnesota is a racist state. Indeed, depending on how you count the data, we may be the most racist state in the union.

Part of a larger struggle

Now before I am accused of opposition to solving the achievement gap or opposing all forms of educational reform, let me say that I am only pointing out that to solve the achievement gap we need to admit that it is part of a larger struggle against racism that dramatically impacts our educational systems, our employment picture, our health care system, and our public safety institutions.

Before they are six years old, young people of color enter educational systems that reflect Minnesota’s frozen style of racism. Racism permeates President Barack Obama’s Department of Education. It is present at the Minnesota Legislature, the Minnesota Department of Education, and on our school boards. It is there among our teachers and administrators. It infects every level of the higher-education institutions that train our teachers.

Once they complete their education, they graduate into a state that rejects them and provides too few openings for joining the middle class. They experience a Minnesota that discriminates against men and women of color for jobs and health care and they live every day with police and sheriff departments that racially profile with impunity.

To solve the achievement gap, Mayor Rybak and his allies need to confront and root out racism and discrimination in the same forthright ways that Hubert Humphrey did in the 1940 and 1950s. Without this commitment, we can open as many charter schools as we want, we can bust the teacher’s union and fire all the teachers, we can revamp the systems of teacher training and collect as much data as we want, and we will still be left with one big gap — the racism gap.

Read the data — and confront racism

It is time for white liberals to look themselves in the eyes and stop blaming others for the problems that confront Minnesota’s communities of color. It is time for white liberals to stop dreaming up ways for communities of color overcome “their gaps.”

It is time for white liberals to get their own house in order and to confront racism where it is and when they see it. And if they cannot seem to find any to confront, they need to shake off their “Minnesota Nice” and wake up and read the data. And then they need to do something about it.

Jeff Kolnick is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University.


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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/05/2013 - 07:45 am.

    And who runs the schools

    the city, the state, and the unions? White liberals. White liberals have done more harm to the black community than if those evil republicans had been running things.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/05/2013 - 12:33 pm.

      no answer?

      It is easy to cast aspersions & dole out blame. But do you have any constructive suggestions for solving the problems outined above? Do you agree with the author’s premise that MN has a racism problem? Or do you have nothing to contribute beyond your incessant criticisms of liberals?

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/05/2013 - 03:48 pm.

        Here’s some suggestions

        1. More money isn’t the answer.
        2. Quit focusing on race. People who do are normally called racists.
        3. Find out what works in the schools with top academic performance and replicate it.

        • Submitted by Beth Daniels on 11/06/2013 - 10:29 am.

          Re: item #2

          About race and racism: People are called racists when they discriminate and oppress people based on race. Talking about race is NOT racism; in fact, it is the only way we can solve the problem of the systemic injustice that permeates the Minnesota experience.

    • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/05/2013 - 05:05 pm.

      Wow – just wow

      Of all the comments I’ve made on this site – and all the ones that have been censored – I’ve never tried to setup a race war like Mr Tester. Maybe Mr Tester doesn’t realize a black woman has been running the Mpls district for four years.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/05/2013 - 08:14 am.

    Some simple math to consider:

    By the time a child gets to the end of 3rd grade they will have spent approximately 4,300 hours in a variety of classrooms in front of a variety of teachers.

    By the time a child gets to the end of 3rd grade they will have had about 53,000 awake hours, having a variety of life experiences.

    It seems quite unrealistic to expect that the 8% of the time spent in the classroom will be THE defining element in the child’s life. Consider that the 8% is split between multiple teachers, classrooms, schools and even districts.

    And in any given year, the child spends about 18% of their awake hours per year in a classroom in front of a teacher. Is the expectation that that 18% will outweigh other influences in their life realistic?

    It happens–but will it consistently?

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/05/2013 - 09:01 am.

    Achievement gap

    The first thing to do is to understand what an achievement gap is, perhaps by identifying kids who suffer from the phenomenon.

  4. Submitted by mark wallek on 11/05/2013 - 09:23 am.

    good luck

    the gap between a decent biking system and what we have on the streets now indicates a tendency to push something sloppy thru as more desirable than nothing at all. I’ll not miss this figurehead.

  5. Submitted by rolf westgard on 11/05/2013 - 11:37 am.

    Helping minority children compete

    Children from lower income homes, often minorities, have little exposure to computers, reading skills, and sometimes a parent or parent who are not fluent in English. Those children arrive in elementary school unable to compete with children from homes where they have learned computers, some reading skills, good English, etc.
    The minority children are unable to compete, and they may either lash out or, more likely, drop out.
    The problem is not racial prejudice. IMO the answer is a strong pre school program which can bring all children up to a minimum level of competence.

  6. Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/05/2013 - 12:26 pm.

    misdirected criticism

    While its fair – and important – to point out disparities like the arrest rates between races, I fail to understand how focusing on the achievement gap in dchools is a bad yhing. It seems to me that improving education opportunities & outcomes for the poor is a critical component in closing the other gaps cited by the author.

    • Submitted by Jeffrey Kolnick on 11/05/2013 - 05:41 pm.

      the problem is racism

      I am not opposed to working on the achievement gap or on improving our schools. What I was trying to say is that you cannot solve the achievement gap without it being part of a larger struggle against racism.

      The goal of “Generation Next ” is to “use a cradle-to-career framework to help students achieve five key goals, or success benchmarks. These goals are research-based competencies and key transition points that are necessary for students’ developmental progress.”

      If successful, Generation Next will indeed measure improvement. But the cause of race based gaps, whether in education, health care, housing, jobs, or arrest rates, is racism. Until we come to grips with that, we will be left with gaps in all aspects of society.

      So it is ultimately pointless to work only on schools and measuring benchmarks. To solve a problem caused by racism we need to also work on eliminating racism with the same intentionality and careful thought as we put into school reform. We must do them together.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/05/2013 - 09:17 pm.

        I like to say that the easiest job in the world

        is being a back surgeon. The chances of successful back surgery are so minimal, and expectations so low, that no one expects the surgeon to succeed or blames the surgeon when he fails. Yet he collects a handsome paycheck.

        The advantage of blaming racism for a problem is that no one expects racism to go away so your nonprofit can “work on eliminating racism” without ever having to worry about being held accountable for any results. Nice gig.

        • Submitted by Jeffrey Kolnick on 11/06/2013 - 08:37 am.

          struggling against racism works Dennis

          Fifty years ago legal segregation was the law in the South. In 1965, the US passed the Voting Rights Act, dramatically increasing voting among black and brown populations who had been systematically discriminated against. In 1967, the US Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting blacks and whites to marry were unconstitutional. To deny that by confronting racism we can gradually limit it destructive impact is to admit ignorance of our nation’s history. To expect racism to disappear without naming it and confronting is like living in a dream world.

          • Submitted by Beth Daniels on 11/06/2013 - 10:44 am.

            Yes we can

            Hearts and minds — and, importantly, behavior — can be changed. Look at the successful campaigns to reduce drunk driving, for example. To change the racist behaviors in organizations, government, and individuals, first we must understand what racism means. It does not mean simply saying hurtful words. One way to define racism would be the providing of unequal supports, services, and opportunities in ways that limit (or thwart) the ability of members of particular racial groups to thrive and “get ahead.”

            When I was a child, my teacher — not in Minnesota — taught me about “de facto” and “de jure” racism. “De jure” means that it’s the law. Thankfully, many of these laws have been fixed over the intervening decades. “De facto” means something that, while it isn’t a law, is a typical everyday practice. The way some organizations “can’t seem to find qualified people of color” to employ would be an example. Or a teacher who, perhaps unconsciously, never calls on the kids of color except to reprimand them, or only asks them the simple questions. Or only offers extra help to white students — yes, I have seen this happen in Minnesota schools! Where decent affordable housing is built, where transportation dollars are spent, how health care is provided — all these and more can be impacted by racism. We used to use “softer” words such as prejudice or discrimination or segregation; people don’t like being called a racist so maybe we need to look for language that will avoid the reflexive defensive reaction. But the problem is real and it is persistent.

            I also think that Minnesota racism is related to “Minnesota nice” — as someone who moved here over 30 years ago, I have seen how people born and raised in Minnesota will be pleasant and friendly to your face but will never invite you to hang out with them. Minnesotans tend to stick to their own. This tendency breeds exclusivity which is related to racially discriminatory behavior.

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/05/2013 - 09:55 pm.

    Let’s stop blaming racism for everything

    Here is a simple math: The difference between A and B is determined by how big A is and how small B is. So if Minnesota is on the very top in white students’ achievement (A) and the same as the rest in black students’ achievement (B), it will have the largest achievement gap (the difference between A and B). No reason to bring racism in.

    Really, the Star Tribune article is telling the story of three very powerful people trying to do something to reduce this achievement gap. Are they going to fight racism in themselves or in their organizations? In fact, all companies and schools and all powerful people responsible for hiring and education within them are so afraid of being accused of racism that they would never dare to do anything that even remotely can be viewed as racism. Many large corporations have diversity VP’s (or something similar) and try to hire more minorities (let alone that anyone dealing with the State of Minnesota or federal government must do it within affirmative action program). That doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist; it just means that it is negligible when it comes to hiring and education.

    Let’s stop blaming racism for all the problems that minorities may have – there may be other reasons – such as this (from Wikipedia):

    “In the United States, acting white is a pejorative term, usually applied to African Americans, which refers to a person’s perceived betrayal of their culture by assuming the social expectations of white society. Success in education in particular (depending on one’s cultural background) can be seen as a form of “selling out” by being disloyal to one’s culture. This is a curious interpretation, as after the American Civil War, freedmen were so eager for education that both adults and children went to school, and families strongly supported their children becoming literate.
    The term is controversial, and its precise meaning is hard to define. There is a sense that some minority students are discouraged from achieving in school by the negative prejudices of ethnic peers who do not want to be left behind; such a view has been expressed in articles in The New York Times, Time magazine, and The Wall Street Journal—and by public figures and academics across a political spectrum.”

  8. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 11/05/2013 - 11:49 pm.

    Unsupported conclusion

    What the writer neglects are the negative influences of poverty and insufficient parental and personal responsibility. Is there racism in Minnesota? Well, there’s usually some degree of racism everywhere, but simply listing data that show huge differences in achievement (or arrests) does not automatically lead to racism as its primary cause.

    I believe that reducing poverty will reduce most of our social problems.

    For marijuana arrests, as an example, we get no data showing whether black people use MJ less than, the same as or more than white people. Or maybe blacks are arrested for MJ more often than whites because so many have lower incomes and live in parts of town with high crime rates — hence more police are in the area more often. There’s no doubt in my mind that black people get more attention than whites from police, and one can make a good argument that racism is a reason; in fact, I believe it to be true, though much less so in the last two decades. But the argument that racism is the sole reason needs to be supported by data that show whether there’s a significant difference in arrest rates of blacks by police officers of color. Maybe or maybe not; we need facts, not conjecture.

    Schools are just one part of the process of raising successful children. Neal Rovick has calculated that children spend only 8 percent of their time in school, so why do we expect schools alone to solve the “achievement gap?” How can we expect that children from wildly dysfunctional environments who spend 6.5 or 7 hours a day in school and go back into the dysfunctional environments afternoons, evenings, weekends and three months in the summer will become serious, successful adults? Some will and do, but it’s much less likely than for children from stable middle-class families that remain in one neighborhood (so their children aren’t moving from school to school). And parents who aren’t working two or more jobs just to keep the lights on are more likely to be around to control kids’ behavior and see that they study.

    We have a huge poverty problem in this nation, and it’s getting worse. We have a Congress that somehow thinks that everything will improve by denying youngsters early childhood education and food. Hungry kids can’t learn.

  9. Submitted by Kate Sattler on 11/07/2013 - 06:52 pm.

    Getting the Facts on Parental Involvement

    Thanks for raising this issue and encouraging us to read the data. Negative assumptions about low-income students of color and their families’ lives (as referenced in several comments here) have a devastating impact in school and beyond. These assumptions obstruct children of color from realizing their academic potential, enjoying a healthy, enriching future, and benefiting from the security that comes with all adults expecting the best for and from them. Meanwhile our community’s positive assumptions about white students and their families go unspoken and rewarded.

    According to U.S. Dept of Education 2012 National Household Education Survey results, Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, and “other race” students (which includes Native and multiracial students) are all more likely than white students to do homework outside of school.

    Students from non-English speaking families are more likely to do so than those with only English-speaking parents. Students at “assigned” public schools are more likely to do so than students who attend “chosen” public schools (e.g., charters and magnets). And 94% of students living in poverty do homework outside of school – a rate just 2 percentage points lower than that of their more affluent peers.

    There’s more. Of the students who do homework outside of school:
    • Parents of Black students are more likely than whites to have a place set aside for homework.
    • In 71% of African American and 69% of Latino students’ families an adult always checks that homework is complete – compared to 65% of white students’ families.
    • It’s more likely that an adult always checks homework in “poor” vs. “non-poor” families (72% vs. 66%), in cities than in suburbs (68% vs. 65%), and in homes where the parent(s) have less than a high school diploma vs. a graduate degree (67% vs. 66%).

    Homelessness, hunger, illness, and other crisis situations create strains for all families. But of course – and the data shows – parents of all races, incomes, and zip codes make their children’s education a priority. By checking our assumptions against the facts we can all learn something new and, as a result, we can better ensure all of our children will learn, too.

  10. Submitted by Don Allen on 11/05/2015 - 01:26 pm.

    R.T. is not the Face of the Gap

    If Mr. Rybak was the superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools, I think he would implement important changes in curriculum, teacher expectations and community/district relations. Currently, he is the head of a collective impact agency that as most know cannot see past making sure overpaid staff get their checks bi-weekly.

    There is only one way to fix the downward spiral in classrooms where whites and black students sit and one thrives while the other fails. It’s called First-things-First, the New Deal for Urban Mom, R.T. has a copy of the plan.

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