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To help close Minneapolis' school achievement gap, address these six things

I know we can create a truly outstanding public school system that works for the benefit of all children.

Pam Costain has retired as president and CEO of AchieveMpls; the following is excerpted from Costain’s remarks at her retirement party on Wednesday.

Pam Costain
Pam Costain

Over the past 10 years I have been in hundreds of meetings and thousands of individual conversations that go something like this: “I don’t get it. Why does Minneapolis have such persistent achievement and opportunity gaps?” “What are we doing wrong? How can it be that this affluent and caring community is not able to make a greater difference for low income kids and children of color?” The conversation then tends to go over and over the same issues.

I have participated in these conversations, led these conversations and sat in the back of the room stewing about what is or is not being said in these conversations. I have been and am still frustrated, so I want to talk frankly about two areas that are rarely, if ever discussed, but which I know affect student outcomes. The first is how adult decisions and behavior maintain the status quo and consistently thwart real change. The second is how unexamined racism and white privilege often end up hurting the youngest among us.

I approach these issues with humility. I have lived these struggles, made my own mistakes and frequently grieve our lack of progress. My purpose is not to lay more blame, but simply to try to peel back the onion to understand how we as adults fail make the changes our children so desperately need.

There are six areas where I see adult resistance to change and/or unexamined racism affecting our children: inaction by our elected state leaders, bureaucracy in the Minneapolis Public Schools, poor governance of our school district, wrong-headedness on the part of reformers, silence on the part of progressives and white people’s attitudes about children of color.

Elected state leadership

Democratic leadership in the governor’s office and the Minnesota Legislature has demonstrated a distressing lack of urgency about the achievement gap – not only in urban areas, but throughout our entire state. The statistics about how vast numbers of poor, black, brown and Native students are not proficient in reading or math or are not “on track” to graduate are alarming. Yet, in response to what can only be called a crisis that impacts not only the young people themselves, but also the future of our state, Democrats generally offer status quo solutions and a call for more money for education. 

There is no question that our schools need more reliable and consistent sources of funding, but we also need new and innovative policy solutions. The two parties could decide both to invest more money in our schools and to change policies and practices that do not serve kids well. This impasse we have at the state level is a tragedy, but I know can be overcome; all it would take is political courage and the will to do things differently.

Let me give you one example of how this impasse is manifest. For decades Democrats fought the establishment of charter schools and many continue to demonize them to this day. Yet when charter advocates sought legislation to strengthen their sector by making it easier to shut down poor performing schools, Dems would not support the legislation. Why? We presume it was because if poor-performing charters could be shut down, then poor-performing traditional public schools might also face the same fate. But my question is, “Why should any child be left in a school that is failing?”

Central administration

Being wedded to the status quo is unfortunately the definition of a large, centralized bureaucracy such as Minneapolis Public Schools. I don’t have to tell you how much I love Minneapolis Public Schools and how much I admire many of the people who work at the Davis Center. Yet, despite exceptional talent and wicked smart people who work unbelievably hard, central administration of MPS takes forever to make decisions, often fails to follow through on decisions and plans they do make and perhaps most distressing, does not truly listen to the voices of teachers, principals and support staff in the buildings when those people try to say what is and is not working.

We have squandered years of good ideas, strong initiatives and the talent of our staff because the bureaucracy moves either too slowly or inconsistently, and is not able to build authentic two-way communication.

Governance of our schools

If any of you have attended a DFL endorsing convention for school board then you know what I am talking about when I say that system is the definition of adult dysfunction. Many of us go to conventions because we care and want to participate in grassroots decision-making. When we get there we soon learn this is an insider’s game with arcane rules, endless delays, a party line that cannot be breached and a process designed to drive all but the most masochistic away.

Yet it is precisely this process that by and large determines who will be elected to the Minneapolis School Board. If you want to serve on the board, you had better master the intricacies of the DFL city convention. I did it, others do it, but frankly, it is no way to pick leaders for our schools.

If we want to improve our schools, we must improve the governance of our school system. That begins with changing the endorsing process, developing a mechanism for an authentic citywide conversation about our public schools, finding strong candidates to run for office and then holding our elected officials accountable for results.

And something has to be done about school board meetings. They are now routinely four- or five-hour marathons, filled with disruptions and diversions from the published agenda. Board meetings consistently do not focus on student achievement or on evaluating programs that are producing results. They are disheartening to attend and a disservice to those who come to learn and contribute to the discussion.

My people – the reformers

Those of us who consider ourselves education reformers – that includes me – also have our adult issues. Many of us come to school reform with deep roots in progressive politics, a concern about equity and a lived commitment to the public schools where our children and grandchildren attend. Still we have made mistakes. We have been arrogant and have communicated, unwittingly I believe, contempt for teachers and the teaching profession. The respect many teachers deserve has not been core to the narrative of the reformers. Admittedly our narrative has been distorted by those who disagree with us, but we also have to take responsibility for how our words and actions have driven committed educators away when what we actually need their participation to build is a common effort to strengthen public schools.

And if we are honest, some people in the reform camp do not have any real loyalty to our public schools. They attended private schools and their own children and grandchildren go to private schools. They unquestionably care about the achievement of children of color, but their experiences are separated from schools and neighborhoods in the city. As a result of this privilege, some reformers see only failing schools, but not the unequal social structures that contribute to the challenge of educating all children well.

In a very rare occurrence some years ago, a union organizer sat down to talk with me about school issues. We agreed and disagreed about many things, but finally she asked me, “Where were school reformers when the Legislature was discussing the minimum wage?” Her reasonable question had a big impact on me. Where ARE education reformers when it comes to issues like income disparities, housing segregation, paid sick leave or a myriad of other issues that impact the ability of families to provide for their children?

Let me be clear: I reject the notion that only when we have addressed poverty can we address our failing schools. Improving our schools, especially those with our poorest children, needs to happen right now. Yet I also reject the notion that we can improve our schools fundamentally without addressing structures of inequality that destabilize families and leave them without the means to support their children.

The silence of progressives

I am appalled — and I mean really appalled — that so many progressive friends, union activists and community organizers are silent on the failure of poor, black, brown and indigenous students in our schools. It is difficult for me to understand how people can have so much outrage about the banks, the corporations, the police, city council, the mayor, the fossil fuel industry, or our criminal justice system and yet demonstrate so little concern for the violation of the civil and human rights of children of color within education. This blind spot saddens and perplexes me.

One education issue that does claim the attention of social-justice activists is the differential discipline and oversuspension of children of color. This is a really serious issue in our district and elsewhere, but it is not the only issue that affects black and brown students.

Let’s collectively name our failure to educate all children well and to demand this becomes a priority issue. As part of that we need to be willing to discuss the crucial role teachers play in the success or failure of children. Protecting teachers who are not able to get the job done does not serve anyone. It only means that the poorest children will continue to suffer the most as they are the most likely to get those teachers.

The subtlety of racism

Finally, I want to address myself to white people about two areas of concern. The first is low expectations for children of color and the second is the de facto segregation in our schools and neighborhoods. These are very tough issues to discuss in our liberal city, but we need to have the conversation.

Low expectations for children of color permeate our culture and consciousness and represent one of the most subtle forms of racism. When we expect less, demand less, and accept less from children of color, then we do them a disservice. These attitudes and practices widen the gap rather than close it, and leave many kids ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the world they will inherit. We have to truly believe in the capacity of all children to succeed as our first imperative and then work like crazy to provide the conditions and support to make that promise a reality.

Finally, let’s talk about how housing segregation, neighborhood boundaries and, yes, the choices parents make about which schools their children attend all contribute to the gap between poor students and their more affluent peers. We do not want to believe that our personal choices have racist undertones, but when white people pack themselves into overcrowded schools, leaving nearby high-poverty schools with lots of space, when MPS employees do not send their own children to our schools or send them only to certain schools, and when efforts to address equity in our schools are met with active and sustained resistance by white and middle-class parents who are concerned their children will lose out, then we have a problem. We have a problem aligning our beliefs with our actions, our concerns with our actual commitments.

I know we can create a truly outstanding public school system that works for the benefit of all children. I know we have it in our power to leave adult squabbling behind and focus instead on what needs to be done for our youth. I know great things are happening every day in our schools and that those things must be lifted up and celebrated. So here are some of the bright lights in our schools and community that sustain and inspire me.

  • The revival of Roosevelt High School as a school of choice, built on a firm foundation of social justice, teaching excellence, the healing power of the arts and celebration of difference.
  • The commitment of white parents in Kingfield to challenge their own racism and continue to help build an inclusive and integrated Lyndale School community.
  • The sustained gains in graduation rates at Patrick Henry High School that prove that high-poverty schools can also be high performing schools.
  • The exceptional work of the STEP-UP, one of the nation’s leading youth employment programs, that this week placed nearly 2,000 young people in summer jobs.
  • The amazing energy and commitment that is poured into the students of Lucy Laney, creating one of the strongest communities of love and support in the entire city.
  • The strong teacher leadership and the power of site-based solutions found in our Community Partnership Schools, but especially at Bancroft, the school I know best.
  • The outstanding gains in student achievement made not only in some of our great charter schools, but also at Green Central.
  • The power of Achieve’s Career and College Center staff to inspire youth to believe in their dreams and make a plan to realize them.
  • The sense of community at Edison High School and Sanford Middle School with a student body that truly reflects the United Nations.
  • The role of our amazing Graduation Coaches who help guide and support students who are most vulnerable to not getting over that finish line.
  • And finally, the excitement of graduation for all students, but especially for so many young people who might otherwise be left behind – those who are homeless, who have experienced trauma, who are refugees, who are teen parents, who made mistakes and then overcome their mistakes, who thought they couldn’t do it but were convinced by a teacher, counselor, coordinator, support staff or an employment supervisor that they are worthy, capable and meant to succeed. This is what makes it all worth it.

We cannot move forward without reckoning how adult resistance to change has, for at least a decade, held us back in this Minneapolis Public Schools and in public education generally. But with strong relationships with one another, a firm belief in the promise of the beloved community and an unwavering commitment to the future, we can make Minneapolis Public Schools the premier urban school district in the nation and a source of pride for our entire community. 

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If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

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Comments (14)

We have spent Trillions on education and the "War on Pverty"

At what point will some one look at the "how and what" we teach our children? It is not lack of money, it is lack of results! I know in academia results don't matter but in real life they do... Children are not prepared for work force or college after 13 years of public schooling. That is a disgrace. I know there will be the folks who back the current system because to admit failure to some is impossible. Bottom line is public education is not working, why? It is not lack of money so please don't bring that up.

More of the same.....

This article is just "more of the same" rhetoric with a twist of selective outrage at the establishment, trickle down, government school model.

Let try something new. Let's invest in Kids! What do you have against kids? Let's empower families. Instead of investing more in "schools" lets invest more in kids. In fact, let's invest in all the kids - you can't get more public than that. That is real change.

If not, keep this article ready for a "new" dressed up version in five years with even more selective outrage that will seek to further empower the failed, trickle down education model.

Reformers

I'll give you credit for mentioning the problems with the reformers, but it's not a fix. If you delve into the funders for a lot of education reform groups, you will see they are funded by right-wing, anti-LGBT, anti-immigration groups/people. If you want to be taken at your word that you are acting in good faith, you have to stop taking their money. Having Wal-Mart pay their workers more would do more to solve the achievement gap than anything they spend in this area.

Lyndale school

This is slightly larger than a nit, but why only Kingfield white parents vis a vis Lyndale School? It's also the community school for East Harriet, the wealthier whiter neighborhood to our west. I'd be curious which neighborhood sends a higher percentge of kids to Lyndale.

By the way, Lyndale was our daughter's favorite elementary school. It literally changed her life for the better. Great teachers, true integration, much respect. I'd encourage any parent to consider it; my experience and district stats show kids progress by more than a year no matter their circumstances. It walks the talk.  

Excellent article

Required reading for everyone who cares about kids and education in Minneapolis. Stop the fighting for position and power and get into the schools to learn what it takes in today's non-white, multi-cultural, multi-language world. It isn't about money or funding but about walking in the shoes of non-white families who bear the brunt of the achievement gap; focus on the kids and their needs.

I am a volunteer tutor at Jefferson and Whittier schools and have great admiration for the teachers and staff who daily make extra-ordinary efforts to teach children and communicate with their families. All the best to the new superintendent in maneuvering past adult agendas and articulating the different educational needs of white and non-white children.

No mention of parenting...

You did not mention parenting, crime, drug and alcohol abuse in the home, or any of the dozens of personal responsibility issues that are truly the heart of all of these problems.
Ignoring these and throwing money at the problems will not solve them. We've seen the largest transfer of wealth from rich to poor that has ever occurred in history, and yet we still have problems that our politicians and educators wring their hands over. Blaming them is not a solution.

Backwards

We've actually seen the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich.

How so? Federal income taxes

How so? Federal income taxes are 4.2 trillion, state and local are 2.4 trillion.
Medicare, subsidized housing, food stamps, energy assistance, the list goes on and on. All of these programs are paid for by the American people; including public education.
ssa.gov ~ In 2015, over 59 million Americans will receive almost $870 billion in Social Security benefits.
This is the transfer of wealth I'm referring to, and never before in human history has so much been collected to benefit so many.

what is the focus

Douglas

This article is not about parenting, crime, drug and alcohol abuse in the home. How can schools control or impact those things. Schools cannot change those things.

This is about what school can control

You are trying to shift the blame of school failure away from the schools.

If your wife or daughter is raped is it automatically her fault??? Just like you blame parenting, crime, drug and alcohol abuse

All the statistics say the the separation from the 1% to the 99% is greater now than 10 years ago and its growing.

Agreed!

Never any mention about the folks that have the greatest control and time with these kids, parents and relatives. Its called responsibility, who is #1 responsible for raising their kids, the parents or the state? When we hold parents responsible #1 then we might start seeing progress, until then status quo.

Divided Responsibility

I think Costain's ratio is about right. To effectively address the Minneapolis achievement gap about one-third of the responsibility resides with the school board and the new superintendent, while two-thirds rests with the State political leadership, the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, non-profits, the business community, and community leaders.

The achievement gap is caused by many factors - lack of school readiness for students living in poverty, low expectations for student success, and low achievement by students of color. School readiness would be improved by having affordable housing, living wage jobs, inexpensive transportation options, quality day care, and universal preschool. High expectations for students of color begins at home with supportive and engaged parents, then must continue with all of the school staff, and eventually resides at the college level and/or the work place.

For higher achievement among students of color we need a much better system of assessment. In particular, we need testing for multiple intelligences, kinesthetic learning ability, innovation, creativity, and the fine arts, and - the so called "soft skills" - like teamwork, collaboration, honesty, productivity, interpersonal skills, and compassion for others. All of that is needed rather than merely using a test that is designed for college bound upper middle class white kids. We also need a strong broad-based, consistent (plan family movement in advance) curriculum across the district that is relevant and accessible to students of color. Academic counseling and career counseling are essential – starting in middle school.

Finally, a family and community support system is needed that consists of accessible mental health services, social services and food shelves (for homelessness and other crisis situations), medical health services (including dental), a strong neighborhood police presence, and active church congregations to help struggling families.

A complex set of factors lead to a wide achievement gap in Minnesota. A sophisticated alignment of public and private programs and services are needed to change that and break the cycle of poverty.

Closing the Gap in Minneapolis

Pam Costain made many good and valid points in her article. I taught in the Minneapolis Public School system for 30 years. Then I went to another district for 9 years as an administrator, but have kept in contact with many Minneapolis teachers and administrators.
It occurs to me that fair is not always equal! Schools with larger numbers of students who lack resources at home need to be provided with the means to assist those students in learning. That will require greater funding than those schools whose students are more privileged.
A robust recruiting of parents in parent education and early childhood education programming for starters.
Food, books, clothing and technology in the homes of these students,
After school programming for tutoring and socialization.
Access to medical, psychological and emotional support.
Small class sizes/student to adult ratio.
My list is not complete but you get the idea.
Yes it will be expensive, yes it would be nice if parents could provide these basic needs for their own children, but they can't!
I'm lucky, I could and my parents could and their parents could so we do, clearly family culture and situation plays a large role in whether or not children are successful in school.
In order to change these cycles we need to provide these children with the resources and support needed so they have the skills and confidence to be successful in school and society at large.

"My purpose is not to lay more blame"

"But I'm happy to point fingers!"

Keep pointing fingers at "liberal policies" and "DFL government" and you'll get nowhere until you also point out that "conservative policies" and "GOP government" have failed too. If we want to be honest, the problem isn't a liberal problem, and certainly isn't helped by conservative policies. It's time to look for the real problem, and quit trying to masquerade political agendas as solutions.

Why are school board meetings dysfunctional

School board meetings are dysfunctional because they are public forums not school board meetings. The design of the meetings is based on a fundamental flaw in the understanding of what a school board does.

It is the job of the school administrative leadership to make decisions with public input. The administration must recommend major decisions to the board after factoring the input of stakeholders. When the school board feels that it must conduct public hearings so that it can double check the work of the administration, it is stepping out of role. It is saying to the public and to the administration, make a decision, and bring it to us, then we will make the real decision. And, we presume that you have not done an adequate job of listening to stakeholders, so by golly, we are going to do that job all over for you. And, we will make sure to listen to the people who yell the loudest, and do the best job of humiliating us in a public forum to the media.

When the administration makes a recommendation, it should demonstrate to the board that it has listened and considered. Remaking decisions undermines executive responsibility and empowers people not in proportion to their knowledge, experience, and qualifications, but rather in proportion to how many people they can bring to the meeting who have nothing better to do than to hold up signs and shout.