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Educational disparities: The gap we need to address is the opportunity gap

There are gaps in housing, nutrition, child care, transportation, parental wages, environmental exposure, school discipline, criminal justice involvement, and health, all with impacts on educational outcomes. These add up.

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Dr. Nathan Chomilo
“What is really the problem and how can we help solve it?”

A question posed by Anusha Nath, a research economist with the Minneapolis Fed, in a recent report by MPR, wrestled with how to fix what has been persistently described as Minnesota’s “achievement gap.”

The problems behind racial educational inequities in Minnesota are known to be numerous. However, the harm of the constant achievement-gap framing is often ignored. Placing our focus on an “achievement” gap creates the perception that the failure lies with our students. They are not “achieving” and therefore solutions should be focused on the individuals, because that is where the fundamental problem lies.

The gaps start very early

This lens largely ignores the systems our children are raised in and the system failures that lead to gaps long before they even enter a school setting. And by focusing on schools alone we ignore what science has repeatedly told us: Brain development in the first three years is crucial. The gaps we see between children from different racial and economic backgrounds start well before they are even in preschool, let alone kindergarten. In fact, gaps in oral vocabulary have been shown as early as 18-24 months old.

Therefore, if we are truly intent on addressing the racial educational disparities Minnesota is facing, we need to focus more on how the systems that impact children create or exacerbate these gaps. It is not achievement gaps that should be getting the headlines but gaps in opportunity.

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Our children face opportunity gaps in housing. Homeless children and youth age 24 and younger represent nearly half of the estimated homeless population in Minnesota. African-Americans and American Indians are particularly over-represented among the homeless population, in part due to the legacy of systemic racism via redlining and race-restricted covenants. Housing instability has been shown to increase exposure to abuse, trauma, speech and developmental delays, which leads to decreased academic achievement. In Minnesota, only 34% of homeless third-graders meet or exceed math proficiency vs. 70% of all students.

Effects of food insecurity

Our children face opportunity gaps in nutrition. Food insecurity, not knowing if you will have enough to eat week to week, is linked with reduced academic achievement in math and reading in kindergartners as well as increased depression and suicidal ideation in adolescents. University of Minnesota experts have demonstrated that adequate nutrition in the first 1,000 days has been shown to have significant short- and long-term outcomes on brain development and educational outcomes.

There are gaps in child care, transportation, parental wages, environmental exposure, school discipline, criminal justice involvement, and health, all with impacts on educational outcomes. These add up. When they are simply framed as an “achievement gap” it leads to yet another disparity — what Dianne Haulcy, former co-chair of Gov. Mark Dayton’s Early Learning Council, describes as a “Belief Gap.” The media, government officials and those in educational and nonprofit leadership have talked so much about the dreadful statistics facing children of color and those from low-income backgrounds that many in our communities become prone to believe they cannot succeed because the odds seem so long. This not only is internalized by students of color but sends an unconscious message to white students that their peers are bound to fail. This Belief Gap can undermine the very work and change our leaders are intent on seeing through. As Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan gather the re-launched Children’s Cabinet my hope is the language used will be one that focuses on opportunity and strengthens belief.

With a focus on opportunity we can start to answer Anusha Nath’s question. We can continue to invest in housing supports, like the recently passed Homework Starts at Home legislation, that show promise in improving educational outcomes. We can see the potential in universal free lunch policies that have helped increase math and reading scores in other states. We acknowledge the impact of universal paid family leave on early nutrition and brain development. We better understand how providing books and early literacy guidance at doctors’ visits early on improves vocabulary scores at 18-24 months. We expand not only the opportunity for our children to reach their full potential, but our opportunity to help them get there.

Nathan Chomilo, M.D., is a pediatrician and internist who practices in the Twin Cities. He was appointed to Gov. Mark Dayton’s Early Learning Council and is Medical Director of Reach Out and Read Minnesota.


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