Sometimes the simplest points make the most profound impact. That was the case last week when an offhand comment became one of the most profound statements I’ve heard about how we need to view closing the racial gaps we have in student achievement.
The comment came near the end of a complex meeting about how to close racial gaps in math. After a long technical discussion about data, Wilder Foundation’s Paul Mattessich told a story about his daughter’s experience teaching math in Los Angeles and then Minnesota.
The children in her Los Angeles classroom had a difficult time understanding the concept of negative numbers. That’s no surprise: It’s hard enough to understand the idea of zero – nothing – and much harder to then understand what is less than zero.
When she got to a Minnesota classroom she was surprised students understood negative numbers much faster. Then she realized anyone living through a Minnesota winter understands negative numbers. Less than zero? Just walk outside.
The comment got a knowing laugh, and it has when I have repeated it since then, but it also makes a profound point.
Think about what this story tells us: A unique set of children, because of their unique experience, has a learning advantage.
Understanding unique skills
Now apply that to the work of Generation Next, where we are trying to make sure every child from very diverse backgrounds can thrive in school and beyond. To do that we must close gaps in learning but it also means doing more to understand, and enhance, the unique skills different groups bring to the table:
- The immigrant child yet to master English has a steeper climb to master reading, but she also gives the child next to her a new understanding of the global populations both of them will have to work with in the future.
- The African American or Native American child who takes a bus across town to a school where most people are different from him faces barriers, but he is also developing the skills 3M or Cargill need as they send workers to parts of the world where they are not part of the majority culture.
Too often, discussions of closing our unacceptable academic gaps with children of color are wrapped in the idea that we need to bring “this part” of the population up to the level of “that part” of the population. In reality every child has to move together to a new world that will require every one of them to be exposed to, and comfortable with, multiple cultures.
Like those kids in Minnesota who understand negative numbers because of their unique experience, every part of the population brings something to the table that we all need to navigate a rapidly diversifying world. And like the Minnesota child who can teach a child in L.A. something about math, some of the very kids who have the largest achievement gaps are also the ones who can open the eyes of others.
None of this diminishes the critical work of closing unacceptable racial gaps in outcomes for getting children ready for school, reading by third grade, mastering math standards by eighth grade, graduate from high school and then college. Generation Next has initiatives under way in each of these areas.
New assets in the community
The value of the weather analogy illustrates that we are addressing this work mindful of both the deficits and assets of each of our children. I saw that clearly over the past week, as a series of events demonstrated how an increasingly diverse community has new assets and still struggles to find ways to bring different populations together:
- At a ceremony celebrating honor-roll students at St. Paul’s Ramsey Middle School I met Hafsa Ali, an eighth-grader especially strong in science, who wants to become a doctor so she can open a clinic to help those in Somalia.
- At the Act 6 Celebration at the Colin Powell Center in south Minneapolis, I saw 30 students — representing all the cultures of our community — get full college scholarships because of their exceptional high school records. Many mentioned they will be the first person in their family to go to college, including a student from the fast-growing Karen immigrant population from Burma.
- At Saturday night’s fundraiser for the Sanneh Foundation I saw 800 people giving time and money to support this exceptional group that helps mentors build trusted relationships with a diverse group of high school students.
- Sunday morning, after giving the sermon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in southwest Minneapolis, I talked at coffee hour with members of an almost all white congregation deeply committed to finding ways to help tutor and mentor the diverse students in our schools.
- And as I write this on Monday, 60 dedicated public health professionals are in the next room working through the details of how to make sure every 3-year-old is screened so we can eliminate disparities before children get to school.
We’re much closer than we think
My work today, like my time as mayor, gives me the privilege to travel between our community’s many different worlds that often exist right next to each other. It has shown me that we are much closer than we think. The challenge we face isn’t about having part of the population help another; it’s about all of the population understanding we need each other more than ever.
So, the next time you walk out into a below-zero Minnesota day and wonder why you live here, remind yourself it’s all about teaching kids negative numbers, and a whole lot more. That, and some good long underwear, should be enough to get us through at least next January.