In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama honored a special guest: John Soranno, founder and co-owner of Punch Neapolitan Pizza, who recently raised the starting wage at his metro restaurants to $10 an hour.
Minimum wage politics aside, we can be proud that a Minnesotan was lauded on the national stage for a commitment to progress and equity — values with deep roots in our state.
But our commitment to these values must start well before Minnesotans enter the work force.
We can no longer be complacent when our state’s academic achievement gaps are among the very worst in the nation — when a black fourth-grader learning to read in Minnesota trails not only his white classmates but also his black peers in Texas and Florida.
We know that these facts and numbers are unacceptable. But what’s harder to know is how to move forward, close our gaps and guarantee success for all kids.
In his address, Obama encouraged legislators and business owners to learn from Punch Pizza. What if schools and educational policymakers followed suit?
Punch Pizza representatives explained that raising the chain’s minimum wage was simply, “the right thing to do.” Let’s let our values better guide our decisions in education, too. When it comes to our schools and kids, there are some obvious right things to do:
Start early with pre-K
We should start early with high-quality pre-K, giving all kids — especially the most at-risk — a chance to learn in their most formative years. MinneMinds scholarships, which give low-income kids access to such programs, are a laudable start. We must do more. Currently, only 2 percent of Minnesota’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded pre-K, compared with 28 percent nationally.
We can elevate great teaching and leadership in our schools. We need to recruit, train and retain talented and diverse educators, and make sure student teachers hit the ground running by learning from highly effective educators. Let’s also implement teacher and principal evaluations with fidelity, ensuring that evaluations are linked to student achievement and that they provide educators with professional development opportunities.
We should meet individual student needs by making schools safe and supportive, yet academically rigorous and relevant. Let’s learn from schools across the state already pioneering innovative approaches — such as using technology to differentiate instruction or providing high school freshmen with information about the state’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options program so they can begin earning college credit as early as sophomore year. Allowing certain vocational and career-ready courses to fulfill math and science high school graduation requirements is another great place to start.
Finally, we must set high expectations for students, schools and communities. Our state assessments should provide transparency on whether or not all kids are growing each year and meeting the standards we’ve set.
If we let these shared, deeply held Minnesota goals guide us and if we seize these unique policy opportunities, we’ll make the necessary changes in our classrooms and at our Capitol.
Shape the agenda
Of course, we know that meaningful change comes only when values and action collide. So how do we do take action and usher in systematic and systemic change for our kids?
The 2014 state legislative session begins on Feb. 25, and we — the people of Minnesota — must help shape its agenda and outcomes.
We do this — as thousands already have — by calling and writing our legislators, Gov. Mark Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius in support of meaningful educational policy that aligns with our values.
We do this by seeking out and sharing the stories of changing-the-odds public schools — much like Obama told the story of Punch Pizza.
We do this because it is the right thing to do.
Let’s prove to our elected leaders, to the whole country, to ourselves and most importantly, to our kids, that Minnesota belongs at the top — not the bottom — of national educational rankings.
Let’s prove that we possess the values and muster to make Minnesota a leader in public education once again.
Daniel Sellers is executive director of MinnCAN, an education reform advocacy nonprofit, and former founding executive director of Teach for America — Twin Cities.
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