StudentsFirst recently released its 2014 State Policy Report Card [PDF]. Rather than rank states based on current student-achievement levels, the report card evaluates whether states have the right policy environments in place to best raise academic levels from where they are today.
Considering the comfort and prosperity of many Minnesotans, our “D” grade may be a surprise. It is tempting to say that our education system is just fine.
But that is profoundly not the case.
While many of our citizens benefit from prosperity, communities of color are left behind. As Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh recently described, racial disparities between whites and nonwhites are larger in Minnesota than in many of our country’s urban centers. While only 6 percent of white people in her region live in poverty, 25 percent of people of color do.
System doesn’t serve all equally
And why is that? A big reason is an education system that doesn’t serve all students equally. While 46 percent of white eighth-graders — a disturbingly low number in itself — scored proficient on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 20 percent of Hispanic students and 16 percent of African-American students did.
Education is key to the economic success of all citizens. And given these kinds of numbers, shouldn’t we be doing whatever it takes to improve our education system and address laws that are preventing all kids — regardless of their race — from getting the best education possible?
That might shake up the status quo, but it’s time we have the courage to consider policies that can lead this generation of kids out of poverty. And the State Policy Report Card provides a roadmap for this effort.
It is encouraging that Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature recently acknowledged Minnesota’s educational shortcomings by investing heavily in high-impact programs like all-day kindergarten and early-childhood education scholarships. But increased funding isn’t enough. We need to pair this investment with smart policies that ensure our education system is focused on what really matters: Minnesota’s students. There are several parts to this.
We need to make sure that every student has great teachers and school leaders. In fact, research shows that teacher quality is the No. 1 in-school factor affecting student achievement. That’s why we believe educators deserve the opportunity to be evaluated annually and receive meaningful feedback to help them improve. And that will only happen if our lawmakers create a better evaluation system for our teachers. Districts should be empowered to use evaluations to make staffing decisions that are based on teacher effectiveness, rather than seniority, which would help keep our best teachers in the classroom.
We should also strengthen the accountability measures for public charter schools in the state. It’s true that Minnesota has a strong charter-school environment, but the commissioner of education must only review charter school authorizers once every five years. We believe five years is too long to wait; after all, a whole generation of kids goes through school in this time. Instead, we suggest authorizers should be reviewed annually, just as educators and students are.
Require transparent A-F report cards
If we truly want to empower parents, we should also require a clear and transparent A-F school report card system for schools, based on multiple factors that measure school success. Letter grades provide easy-to-understand information about school performance that would allow parents to make informed decisions about the education of their kids.
These common sense changes would help ensure that all of Minnesota’s students are set up for success in life.
So rather than take the easy way out and dismiss the results of the State Policy Report Card, let’s have a discussion on how we can continue to innovate and improve education. Kids in Washington, D.C.; Tennessee; Indiana and elsewhere have all seen impressive gains in their academic achievement after implementing student-centered education policies.
These same gains are possible for Minnesota’s kids, if we only have the courage to support them.
Kathy Saltzman is the Minnesota state director of StudentsFirst. She is a former state senator who represented Washington County.
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