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Minnesota community members ponder what to do to address continuing racial achievement gap

Chances are, most everybody at last week’s Minneapolis Foundation get-together — certainly the education honchos — had heard for years about the academic achievement gap between white and non-white kids in our schools.

Yet even they may have been a little startled to hear a think-tank bigwig from D.C. say this:

“Minnesota is doing pretty miserably compared to many other states. Your black kids are performing below black kids in Alabama and South Carolina.”

That’s what Kati Haycock told me, right before sharing that thought with a crowd of about 600 community leaders, corporate and foundation bigwigs, elected officials and involved citizens at the Minneapolis Convention Center. 

Hmmm. And we Northerners thought we could trump those Southern states on near everything. 

Still, Haycock ought to know.  As president of the Education Trust, she’s hell-bent on closing the racial achievement gap. And she took her role as rabble-rouser and truth-teller seriously, since 25 years of Minnesota Meetings have been designed to stimulate public discourse. She shook, stirred and served up food for thought.    

Haycock said what needed to be said, according to Sandra Vargas, Minneapolis Foundation president.  “Minnesota lives on a legacy that we’re great. It’s true in some areas. In education, we have a lot of work to do,” she said.  This was the first of three public forums on “Raising Expectations” for all Minnesota students.

The blows kept coming.

“On state assessments in reading, about 80 percent of your white fourth-graders meet the state standards. For black fourth-graders, it’s more like 44 percent, for Latinos, about 33 percent, and somewhere in the mid-50s for both Asian and Native American students,” Haycock said, according to a news release from the Foundation.

Further, “When those same fourth-graders take national exams, the results plummet. Only 42 percent of white fourth-graders are proficient; the results for African-American fourth-graders are 12 percent, Latinos 16 percent and Native Americans 20 percent,” she said.

Where’d she get those stats? From NAEP, short for the National Assessment of Education Progress,  a.k.a. The Nation’s Report Card, and a program of the U.S. Department of Education. The 2009 scores aren’t out yet.

Audience reaction to her remarks?

Provocative. Wide-brush. Common knowledge, said some educators.

Too negative, said one ed professional who didn’t want to be quoted. She preferred the message of another speaker at the forum: Rudy Crew, former superintendent of schools in New York City and Miami/Dade.

Crew talked about the need for schools to set high expectations for all students and about how important it is to demonstrate to all students a “high degree of human caring.”    

As for Haycock, I asked her where the achievement gap blame lies.

“Is this about family? I don’t think so,” she replied, pointing out the better academic performance of black kids and smaller achievement gaps in many other states.

What then? Money won’t fix the achievement-gap problem, she said, pointing out that Alabama spends a lot less on education than Minnesota. 

Nor does the answer lie in integrating minority and poor kids into middle-class school settings, an approach some education researchers think will solve the problem.

“I’m very much a believer in integration. I’m also a realist,” Haycock said. Integration is not happening.  Plus, a black kid does not have to have a white kid sitting next to him or to her to do better, as successful one-race schools demonstrate.

OK, so, what’s the answer to closing the door on the academic achievement gap? 

“What African-American kids, Latinos and others need isn’t different from what other kids need: quality teachers, challenging, rigorous assignments and support when they’re struggling. There is no voodoo weird thing you do for black kids you don’t do for other kids,” she said.

 Research “overwhelmingly” shows that too often black and Latino and poor kids of all races are “more likely to be assigned to less effective, less-experienced teachers” because experienced teachers too often leave schools challenged by issues of race and poverty.

Federal stabilization money — those stimulus funds we’re hearing about — may help. To qualify for the bucks, Haycock says, states will have to identify strong and weak teachers and show that low-income and minority children “are not taught disproportionately by inexperienced, out-of-field or unqualified or uncertified teachers.”   

As for educators in the crowd, the achievement gap was old news.  Yet St. Paul Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen praised Haycock for sparking discussion on the achievement gap in the wider community. Teachers in their first three years in the classroom need more support from experienced educators, Carstarphen agreed.

Other educators, like Joann Knuth, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals, stressed what’s working: “In many ways, we’re doing a really good job.” She cited high SAT and ACT testing scores among Minnesota high school students, for example, and said that principals are recognizing that more experienced teachers need to be assigned to students hamstrung by issues of race and poverty.

Cynthia Boyd, a former reporter and columnist for the Pioneer Press, writes on education, health, social issues and other topics.  She can be reached at cboyd [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/26/2009 - 09:13 am.

    Let us improve education for everyone by have real “change” and giving “hope” to our children.

    Instead of continued funding for this trickle down education system, that funds unions and hopes it trickles down to the kids. Let us invest in kids directly. Let us make kids a special interest group and not unions.

    May the children of America have the same education that Mr. Obama had and his children currently enjoy.

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/26/2009 - 10:50 am.

    I wish journalists, policy makers, and educators would honestly address a major problem in our achievement gap. If we try something and it fails or does not show results, it should be stopped. There is this myth that “school choice” will fix everything by emboldening schools to compete to be the best.
    School choice has been going on for 20 years, and it obviously has not improved the achievement gap. In fact, schools are more segregated by race and poverty than ever. No one ever talks about ending this process that hurts or students because the few that benefit are the ones with a political voice. It is time we seriously consider ending a program that benefits a few privileged at the expense of the rest, when it obviously has not cured the problem. Especially when a single district will spend 20 million dollars to bus kids all over the city instead of going to schools right next door.

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/26/2009 - 10:56 am.

    Do you have any facts whatsoever about unions harming learning? The overwhelming results of decades of research show that unionized districts significantly improve student outcomes for the average student. In addition, unions have much more stability than non-union schools where teacher turnover is a much, much bigger problem.
    It is too bad that once in a great while a poor teacher might be protected by due process by a unionized school, but the problem of losing good teachers is much much worse, and unions help districts hold on to good teachers.
    Clearly and factually, unions are good for student outcomes. I would ask you, Ron, if your failed ideology of hating unions is more important than the success of our children? Your condemnation of unions has nothing to do with student outcomes, and more to do with the fact you think teachers should be paid less, and somehow that will attract better teachers to the profession, because that is exactly what you will get with no unions.

  4. Submitted by Karen Schell on 03/26/2009 - 12:52 pm.

    Ron Gotzman says: “Instead of continued funding for this trickle down education system, that funds unions and hopes it trickles down to the kids. Let us invest in kids directly. Let us make kids a special interest group and not unions.”

    Indeed, the article even notes that “to qualify for the bucks, Haycock says, states will have to identify strong and weak teachers”. It’s virtually impossible to get rid of the dead weight due the NEA and like organizations fighting to keep the worst of the worse at the public trough.

    ABC News did a report, “Stupid In America”, which highlighted this central issue; “problem” teachers, no matter how awful, can’t be fired. Instead, they are just reassignned to what the educational system terms “rubber rooms” to kill their time relaxing while still collecting $$$ and benefits ad infinitum. It’s quite a racket.

    Ending tenure is just one answer to the problems noted in this article, but it would be an excellent place to start in order to give kids the best education the public schools can provide.

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/26/2009 - 12:55 pm.

    I do not understand why we still generate the enormous amount of data that we do based on the color of a student’s skin. Is there a belief that skin color makes a difference in a student’s ability to learn? I don’t ever see any data based on other equally irrelevant physical traits. The only consequence is that children will be treated differently because of their race, not necessarily as individuals but as a group. Maybe that’s the problem. There should not be any information in a student’s record about their race, and we should not quantify test results by race.

    I am sure that students whose native language is not English do not do well on reading tests. I am sure that students whose parents didn’t graduate from high school do not do as well as children of college graduates. Social issues like these are the obvious reasons for the “racial gap.” Schools are not doing anything wrong to cause the gap, and schools should not try to “fix” the gap. It’s a social issue, not an education problem.

  6. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/26/2009 - 12:58 pm.


    I did not say unions harm learning. Let families decide that issue

    “Factually, unions are good for student outcomes?” Where did you find that one?

    As a Tax-payer I do not like funding the political activities of the largest special interest group in MN, the teachers union.

    Why do you want to keep children on the “reservation” of union education? What do you have against children? Let us fund children instead of unions. Let us have the same education that Mr. Obama had and his children have. When given a choice, Mr. Obama chooses private education.

    I think that when families and students have true choice, the best teachers and schools will be rewarded and thus paid more. Why are you so against paying the best teachers and schools more?

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/26/2009 - 03:33 pm.

    “The overwhelming results of decades of research show that unionized districts significantly improve student outcomes for the average student.”

    Really, Alec? Can you point us in the direction of some of this research?

    Overall, I think Haycock makes some very good points. But I have to disagree with her regarding the the role families play in this issue.

    During my (failed) bid for Saint Paul school board a few years ago, I made a concerted effort to reach out to minority, specifically black stakeholders.

    I wanted to discuss the districts (non-existant, really) attempts to better serve their kids. My message was one of misplaced priorities, and the trade off of their academic success that was, and is being made to allow the district to persue an agenda of socio-economic experimentation.

    But I was often unable to connect with those folks, because I found so many parents were horribly disconnected with what their kids school day entailed.

    When I tried to discuss specific programs I felt were being supported at their kids expense, I’d often get a blank stare accompanied by a few polite “uh huh’s”.

    That’s not to say that many, too many really, parents of all races are not sadly lacking in providing an active participation in their kids education. It is just that I found it particularly prevelent in neighborhoods with a predominently black population.

    The public school system, in my opinion, is in need of nothing short of a complete, top to bottom overhaul, which must feature not only the retaking of their profession by teachers from the trade labor union that has hijacked it, but a concerted, persistent effort by districts to re-engage minority families with the schools their kids are attending.

  8. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/26/2009 - 06:13 pm.

    Notice you all can provide no evidence contradicting evidence of the efficacy of unions, obviously because there is no evidence. All you have is anecdotal evidence about a few bad apples that are protected by due process.

    Tenure is a myth, and not a single teacher has tenure rights in the typical sense like a college professor. After a set period of time, teachers have “due process” rights. They can still be fired or reassigned, but there is a process.

    Without unions, teachers earn about 10-12% less. Do you honestly think in your free market heart of hearts that you will attract better teachers for 10-12% less? Districts will pay salaries of what they can get away with. If it comes down to a budget crunch, they will fire the highly qualified, experienced teacher who may cost a bit more in order to hire a new and untested teacher who may or may not be good. Without due process you would have constant teacher turnover, like there is in non-union districts.

    The slug teacher protected by due process is the rare and extreme exception. Why don’t you guys admit this has nothing to do with student learning as all you have is your own ideology and theories but no facts. I do not really consider some sensationalized news magazine story on ABC to be very credible either. They show you the train wreck and the plane crash and make it seem like that is normal.

    For the hard facts on how unions help student learning, you could read my post at

    The data is somewhat dated, but that is because the issue was studied to death, and the conclusions so obvious that it really isn’t studied any more.

  9. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/26/2009 - 06:16 pm.

    You do not fund the union’s political activities. In fact, union dues cannot even be used for political activities. We have to voluntarily give an extra amount in order to fund the unions political activities. Anyway, how are you funding anything by us paying union dues. Again, you say things based strictly on ideology and what you think is true. It is the mark of a true fundamentalist when reason and facts mean nothing.

  10. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/27/2009 - 06:26 am.

    Greetings Alec,

    I think you have lost it. The largest special interest group in MN is big education.

    Every DFL politician says the mantra “education, health care, and env.” If big education is not invovled in politics, why the pandering. Also, follow the money. Just a little research should prove the point.

    I think we can agree that if we are to have the same health care Mr. Obama enjoys, why not the same education his children enjoy?

  11. Submitted by Paul Tessmer-Tuck on 03/27/2009 - 01:44 pm.

    The whole discussion here is missing the facts. We need to move beyond the pro-union vs. anti-union discussion. The facts are the Minnesota teachers are constantly rated at or near the top. Minnesota’s education system as a whole is also one of the best in the world. We have much higher standards than most of the US. Look no further than the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The headline from the Star Tribune was that “Minnesota students now world-class in math and science.”

    This article is right that the one area Minnesota struggles with is the achievement gap. But there is some great research that suggests this achievement gap is created not during the school year, but over the summer. School that test students bother at the beginning of the year and the end of the year find that most of the gap created during the summer months.

    A lot of money has gone in to trying to prove that public education is awful. Maybe the discussion can move toward the facts a little more. Can we continue to improve in Minnesota? Yes. But the fact is Minnesota, as a whole, has one of the best education systems in the world and our students do as well as other nations despite the fact that they attend school a month or more less than other nations.

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