In last week’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama boasted that America’s younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. As a nation, he said, “our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high. And more Americans finish college than ever before.”
Also last week, a Politico piece called “The States of Our Union” named Minnesota the best state in the nation (tied with New Hampshire), in part because of our public education system. Indeed, the Minnesota Department of Education recently noted that our graduation rate is the highest it’s been in a decade, with almost 80 percent of high school seniors graduating.
While it’s true that some statistics are hopeful, a different picture emerges when we examine all the data. And if we really want Minnesota to be No. 1 for everyone, we must take a closer look at how our public schools serve all students, not just some.
As MinnCAN’s 2014 State of Minnesota Public Education report shows, in the class of 2013, 85 percent of white students graduated on time. Yet this figure drops to 59 percent for Latino students, 58 percent for black students, and 49 percent for Native American students. In other words, stubborn, nation-trailing achievement gaps persist in Minnesota.
This is the case not just for graduation rates, but also for measures of success across the K-12 continuum. In 2014, for example, 79 percent of white students were proficient on the fourth-grade reading MCA exams, compared to only 30 percent of Latino students, 29 percent of black students and 33 percent of Native American students. These proficiency gaps continue into the later grades, with eighth-grade MCA scores telling a similar story.
In fact, as MinnCAN’s report shows, we see significant gaps in every measure of academic achievement, from kindergarten readiness all the way up to college graduation rates.
My fellow Minnesotans, Politico may say we’re No. 1. But it’s time we become the best for all students.
Spending more — and passing the buck
In pragmatic terms, remember that our state’s achievement gaps mean more taxes, as some students must take the same classes twice — once in high school and once as a remedial class in college. And our gaps mean Minnesota high schools graduate students who are not proficient in reading and math, effectively passing the buck to others.
More than that, these gaps mean we’re not helping all kids reach their full potential. And this despite changing-the-odds schools across the state proving that all kids — regardless of their background — can succeed.
I believe, as a state, we need to examine our own channels for equal opportunity and social mobility — for everyone — before we pat ourselves on the back over recent accolades that don’t tell the full picture.
There’s also some good news: During the 2015 legislative session, we can work together to pass smart policies that would improve opportunities for all Minnesotan kids.
Things we can do right away
We can, for example, ensure that our students’ No. 1 in-school factor for success — teachers — are the best that they can be. Let’s do this by guaranteeing that student teachers be placed with and learn best practices from highly effective veteran teachers, and by establishing more streamlined routes to Minnesota licensure for qualified teachers from other states. Both of these policies would help ensure that our students are taught by experts in their fields and that our teachers have clear paths to successful careers.
I don’t believe Minnesota is No. 1 just yet. But if we work to improve our public education and provide all Minnesota students the great teachers and schools they deserve, I believe we can certainly get there.
Ben Davis is an advocate and researcher working toward social justice, great schools, and education reform. He was previously a School Reform Blogging Fellow at MinnCAN: The Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now.
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