Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

MinnPost's education reporting is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Attacking ‘aspiration gap’ helps catapult new names to top-high-schools list

Patrick Henry High School in North Minneapolis was recognized as one of the state's top high schools.

After a three-year hiatus, U.S. News & World Report has again ranked the nation’s best high schools. Minneapolis’s Southwest is again Minnesota’s top-scoring program, showing up at No. 163 nationally, followed closely by Edina, No. 234.

The state’s other perennial “best,” St. Louis Park (363) was edged out of third place by Mahtomedi Senior High (247).  

I know: Snore, right? Au contraire, this year the exercise generated actual news.

In addition to high-flying programs one might expect — Mound Westonka, Lakeville South, Eden Prairie, Hopkins, etc. — Minneapolis’ South and Patrick Henry made the list. So did St. Paul Central and several charter schools — including some that serve mostly poor minorities.

Raising the bar

Brenda CasselliusBrenda Cassellius

Partly, the change is the result of a new ratings system instituted by U.S. News. But it’s also because of conscious decisions made by school leaders — yes, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, former overseer of Minneapolis high-school redesign, I am waving at you, personally — to attack the achievement gap by raising the bar.

I can see the commissioner wiggling in her desk chair out there, so I’m going to give you the takeaway I imagine she’d like you to have up front: When you expand access to challenging academics to poor and minority students and provide the support for them to meet that higher standard, the number of high achievers attending “best” schools mushrooms.

When I reported on the magazine’s first three ratings packages, produced in 2007, 2008 and 2009, I was pretty critical of the whole exercise.

Some creative calculations

Because “best” is a highly fungible definition, the newsstand glossies that depend on our love of lists to drive circulation have to come up with a methodology for figuring out just who or what can be quantified as qualifying. That fine print often discloses some creative calculations: Did you know U.S. News’ law-school ratings take into account the number of books in programs’ libraries?

In its first few bites at the high-school apple, U.S. News relied heavily on the number of students taking highly rigorous International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement classes and passing IB and AP exams. The net result, in Your Humble Blogger’s opinion, did not necessarily generate a list of the “best” schools.

Don’t get me wrong: Southwest, Edina and St. Louis Park are excellent high schools that deserve the parade of recognition. But until this year they were also the schools in the best position to report IB and AP success because they have had the programming — expensive programming, which requires equally costly staff training — for a long time.

IB, AP: Extremely challenging

I know this seems a little insider-baseball-y, but stick with me for a moment. At the high-school level, IB and AP are very challenging academically. Most of the brainiacs who enroll take a couple of the high-level classes, fewer take IB or AP exams in one or more subjects and fewer still actually earn an IB or AP diploma. Further, because there are only so many hours in the school day to earn one of these exclusive diplomas, a student often attends extra classes online at home.

As a result of all of this, and as a result of the time I spend visiting schools that produce great results with the disadvantaged kids who have rarely had access to this kind of rigor, the cynic in me was quicker to see IBs’ and APs’ value in terms of schools’ marketing efforts than anything. What Minneapolis parent doesn’t want their kid to attend Southwest even if they are not prepared to order their darlings to night school?

Coveting this type of buzz, schools all over the metro area have spent the last few years investing in IB and AP. And this year, U.S. News changed its methodology. The magazine first looked at a school’s overall test scores compared to state averages and then adjusted for student poverty rates and number of special-ed and ELL students. Finally, it looked at IB and AP participation and exam-passage rates.

As a result, the magazine awarded gold, silver or bronze medals to 145 Minnesota schools. A few deserve special mention.

Charter-school successes

First, two charters: Every single one of the 160 students at TrekNorth High School in Bemidji is enrolled in AP coursework. A majority are poor, and one-third are minorities. Many are Native Americans.

In addition to that academic rigor, the 7th-12th graders participate in outdoor adventure and service-learning programming. U.S. News rated the school eighth in Minnesota and No. 507 nationally.

Every one of Higher Ground Academy’s 662 K-12 students is black, 20 percent are English-language learners and 100 percent are poor. Its AP students use the coursework to position themselves to take classes at several of St. Paul’s liberal arts colleges, including Concordia and Hamline University.

Higher Ground’s 62 percent graduation rate with these demographics, while still not good enough, earned it spot No. 1915 nationally.

South and Patrick Henry lauded

We’ve forced top teacher Cassellius to sit on her hands long enough, so now for the real news: Minneapolis’ South placed 24th statewide and Patrick Henry 28th.

In 2008, under Cassellius’ guidance, MPS launched an ambitious, three-year overhaul of its seven high schools, which were graduating just 50 percent of students. The goal was to have every high school offer four core programs by 2011: Advanced Placement, College in the Schools, Career and Technical Education and International Baccalaureate coursework. South chose not to offer IB.

“There are 1,600 kids who don’t go to any school,” Cassellius, then the associate superintendent spearheading the transformation, told me at the time. “We want them back.”

Once she got them back, she had a sneaky plan to expose more to higher-level programming, provide the support for them to do the rigorous work and watch achievement levels rise along with expectations.

A twofold plan

The idea of expanding the programming was twofold: To democratize the availability of rigorous academics  and to create downward pressure on schools in the lower grades. In order to be positioned to take AP and IB classes in later years, elementary pupils must be not just reading proficiently and performing basic math, but reading and thinking deeply and critically.

The tactic has worked elsewhere. And now there’s evidence it may be starting to work here.

Perhaps best described as Minneapolis’ sleeper success, Patrick Henry has made other “best” lists. It’s small, has had IB for a number of years, and boasts high-tech classes as challenging as much of what’s on offer at your local community college.

I got to tour the north Minneapolis campus last fall with Sen. Al Franken and we watched high-poverty math and engineering students figure out vectors, R values, the Pythagorean theorem and lots of other stuff that’s above my pay grade. The future of our state’s economy is being cooked up in Henry’s halls.

The appearance of Minneapolis’ South on the U.S. News list — without the ratings-gaming presence of IB, and with just three years of expanded offerings to prime its student talent pipeline — is arguably the biggest victory.

Disparity in college readiness

As in most other schools, South’s advanced courses included very few kids of color. In part because of this aspiration gap, there was a lamentable disparity in college readiness, too.

After the school was “fresh-started” — reconstituted — as a part of the district redesign, South began requiring all 10th-graders to take AP U.S. history.

“Once we did that, students started thinking, ‘Oh, I can do that,’ ” said Principal Cecilia Saddler yesterday. “We don’t require them to take the exam or anything.”

Do they dumb down the AP to make it universally accessible? No, nor could they: Teachers have to report on the curriculum to outside monitors. South students have access to lots of support.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Saddler. “Our real goal has been to create pathways for students to see themselves doing advanced work.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Josh Williams on 05/16/2012 - 10:32 am.


    I thought all we had to do to improve these public schools was continue cutting their budgets!

    Snark aside, this is one of the most uplifting things I have read in quite some time.

    A round of applause for our public schools!

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/16/2012 - 11:32 am.

    Good article

    I particularly like the title. I think the aspiration gap has an important role in the achievement gap. No matter how smart or well-positioned a student is, if they don’t feel that it’s worth achieving or possible to achieve, they won’t. The solution, it seems, is to dare the kids (and teachers and administrators) to take up the challenge, and then provide the support, both time-wise and money-wise, to help them complete the challenge. In addition, it’s the only positive version of “teaching to the test” I’ve seen.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/16/2012 - 11:35 am.

    But …

    I thought kids of color couldn’t learn unless they were bused to white schools.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/16/2012 - 02:24 pm.

      Funny, isn’t it?

      It’s wonderful what students of all backgrounds can learn in public schools that have imaginative leadership and dedicated teachers (my son goes to South; I can vouch for them) who are treated as professionals and not drains on the fisc.

  4. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 05/16/2012 - 11:55 am.

    Thanks for writing this, Beth

    It’s about time South, Patrick Henry, Central and others got the applause and recognition they so richly deserve. And I say this as a Southwest parent alumni!

  5. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 05/17/2012 - 01:44 pm.

    The other side

    I am usually a glass is half full kind of guy, and if it is half empty, I’ll figure out a way to fill it! However, this year, like many teachers, my morale is in the toilet after being told over, and over, and over, the only really problem with education is the plethora of lousy teachers, and if we could just fire all the teachers, schools would turn around. Anyway, my comment comes from that place:

    As a reporter, did you notice

    Only 1 of the top ten was a Title 1 school?

    Did you notice 6/10 of the top ten are failing AYP?

    Did you notice, TrekNorth, as the only title 1 school, is facing the punitive and self-destructive NCLB punishment regime?

    TrekNorth is being punished severely while being great, while all the other NCLB failures face no consequences?

    All the top 10 should be proud, but our system is disgusting. Everyone wants to use test scores, test scores, test scores, which manifests in this crap system.

  6. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/17/2012 - 03:43 pm.

    Are some of these schools really that good – NO

    For example St. Louis Park; take the NCLB statistics. It shows that almost 50% of its high school kids can’t make the Science bar. On the other hand the school reports 60% of its kids are in IB.

    That shows the numbers are being manipulated. How is this statistic gamed ? All the puffed up IB numbers could be enrolled in a single IB class like psychology. Thats how.

  7. Submitted by Emily Palmer on 05/19/2012 - 01:53 pm.

    Are you kidding?!

    “Sleeper success”? Hardly. A “change”? Not so. I am disappointed that the author doesn’t seem to know that Patrick Henry has been on national “best” lists since well before Brenda Casselius had anything to do with it. South may be relatively new to the lists, but Henry has had a strong IB program for decades, and has been on multiple “national best” lists for many years.

    People on the North side know very well that great things have been happening at Patrick Henry – like kids graduating and going on to Ivy League colleges – for years. The Professional Practice School (PPS) in the ’90’s is what made the difference – growing great teachers who inspire kids to work up to their potential. In fact, the district’s recent revamping of high schools has only hurt Henry’s program, not helped it.

    SW, South and Patrick Henry have been the powerhouse high schools in Mpls since well before the district’s new initiative attempted to embrace “rigor for all” at its high schools. There is a really interesting story here, if someone would take the time to do the research. I expect better from MN Post.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/20/2012 - 07:20 am.

      Patrick Henry MCA Scores show otherwise

      The MCA scores at this school show a science proficiency of about 25%. How can this be some kind of wonderful school.

  8. Submitted by Regina Seabrook on 05/20/2012 - 06:46 pm.

    Aspiration Gap?

    Beth Hawkins wrote:

    “When you expand access to challenging academics to poor and minority students and provide the support for them to meet that higher standard, the number of high achievers attending “best” schools mushrooms.”

    She also wrote:

    “As in most other schools, South’s advanced courses included very few kids of color. In part because of this aspiration gap, there was a lamentable disparity in college readiness, too.”

    I agree with her first statement. It is a common sense statement that applies to all students. When students are provided the supports they need, they take on challenging courses and achieve. I, however, am not too sure about the second statement because it, if taken out of context, implies that the student is mostly at fault for not taking AP or IB courses. On the one hand, I hear Ms. Hawk saying that students do well when given the right supports, but I also hear her using a troubling phrase to highlight the fact that there are few students of color taking on challenging work at South and elsewhere. How does she know that these students don’t have aspirations? She also mentions this lack of aspiration and a lack of preparedness for college as two separate issues. They are not. They are inseparable. I have yet to meet a functionally illiterate young man with great aspirations for challenging coursework. I think that is why there is a preschool to prison pipeline.

    All research indicates that families and students of color have the same aspirations as everyone else, but have historically lacked access to equitable opportunities to fulfill their potential. Brown v. Board of Education is a testament to the fight against disparities in access. Also, the history of how the achievement gap was created is quite a fascinating. I suggest we all do some research. I walked away from mine with a deep impression that so called progressives and eugenicists shared a similar racialized understanding of intelligence and implemented policies based on this understanding. We happen to be paying the price for the past actions of men who measured people’s skulls, misused intelligence tests, and had three basic categories for humans: civilized, barbaric, and savage. According our historical record, we are finally taking the advice of W.E.B. Dubois and Carter Woodson seriously.

    The term historically underserved is a better one to use when referring to poor students and students and families of color because they have been historically underserved and intentionally so by the public school system and the greater society. To simply say poor and minority misses the entire point and can mislead the reader to think of this issue in terms of individual or cultural failure. This is a systemic and chronic failure.

    On a positive note, I applaud Dr. Casselius and school leaders, both inside and outside of the classroom for striving to meet the needs of all students. They see students for the shining stars that they are. I have hope.

    The Department of Education hosted a family engagement global cafe for historically underserved families yesterday. The event was packed. I think that those in attendance would be greatly offended by a phrase like aspiration gap. Unlike Ms. Hawk, they must directly experience and work through a number of disheartening institutional barriers that can and often do have negative impacts on their children’s learning. Hurray for the resilient parents who don’t lose heart! According to the recent Star Tribune article, it is their children who will comprise the majority of Minnesota’s students in the near future.

    On a side note, I am not thrilled with U.S. News rankings. From what I understand, they recently gave most of Minnesota’s teacher preparation programs low marks. They, however, did not share the scoring rubric with the institutions of higher education. How credible is this business and who is behind the rankings?

    Ms. Hawk, thanks for sharing the good news. Using a phrase like aspiration gap, however, trivializes a long history of inequitable practices in education and the “collateral damage” that has resulted.

    How do historically underserved families feel about their children being the face of the achievement gap? And what would they recommend we do to close this gap? Thanks, Governor Dayton and Commissioner Casselius for asking the right questions.

    As a reader of the MinnPost, I would like to know the future of integration funding. Much of this funding is used to provide the supports mentioned by Ms. Hawk. Will the funds be sunsetted and if so, what message will be communicated about our state’s aspirations?


    Regina Seabrook

Leave a Reply