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RESET effort focuses on achievement gap, and shows ways to close it

“Those of us who work in education know how bad the achievement gap is,” said Sandra Vargas. “But this knowledge hasn’t pierced the consciousness of the Minnesota public at large.”

A PSA from the Minneapolis Foundation will kick off a broader campaign to raise awareness of the achievement gap in Minnesota and strategies to shrink it.

Finally, coming to a silver screen near you, an education film thoroughly worth watching. No fake “real-life-story” plotlines, no ideologically motivated backers, no breathless starlet heroines or Cruella deVil-esqe union villainesses.

OK — so actually the mini-versions that are to be rolled out in Twin Cities movie theaters are trailers. But hopefully they will compel you to sit down at the computer — or these days, your Internet-enabled flat-screen TV — and watch the entire 10-minute feature.

Produced by the Minneapolis Foundation and more than a dozen community partners, the short film marks the kick-off of a first-of-its kind public awareness campaign designed to showcase strategies that are working to close the achievement gap.

Trying to reach the broad public

In coming weeks, Twin Cities residents can also expect to see ads in skyways and in print and broadcast publications. A series of Minnesota Meetings co-sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio will be held at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater. The idea is to sound an alarm about the size of the problem and then to give parents, taxpayers and others enough information about things that work to allow them to evaluate the policy debate for themselves. 

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“Those of us who work in education know how bad the achievement gap is,” said foundation President Sandra Vargas. “But this knowledge hasn’t pierced the consciousness of the Minnesota public at large.”

Five strategies, which we shall get to presently, give the campaign its acronym-name, RESET. The three Minneapolis schools where teachers and principals are depicted employing them include two high-performing charters and an odds-beating mainline public school.

(Full disclosure: Your Humble Blogger has a child at this last school, Kenny Elementary, where Principal Bill Gibbs was filmed providing strong school leadership. And three of RESET’s community partners employ two sons and a daughter-in-law of MinnPost Editor and CEO Joel Kramer.)

And the foundation’s major community partners span a range of sectors: Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and its nonprofit partner, AchieveMpls, are joined by the African American Leadership Forum, Charter School Partners, the parent-organizing group EMPOWER, charter schools Harvest Prep and Hiawatha Leadership Academies, the reform advocacy group MinnCAN, the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership and Teach for America.

Several foundations involved

Funding comes from the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children, and the St. Paul and Cargill Family foundations, in addition to the Minneapolis Foundation.

The allusion at the start of this post to “Won’t Back Down,” a movie about a parent takeover of a Dickensian inner-city school, is intentional. Funded by conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz, it was a dreadful attempt to whip up support for so-called parent-trigger laws.

Most of the folks who saw it probably assumed it was Hollywood dreck ripped from real headlines. It was, in fact, just super-bad fiction. 

As education reform has become terrifically politicized it’s become harder to consider initiatives without dissecting the agendas of their proponents. Necessary and healthy though they may be, the ensuing debates have a tendency to generate white noise so intense it can drown out discussion about ground-level practices that are working.

R = real-time use of data

Case in point: The R in RESET stands for real-time use of data. Principal of the middle school Adelante College Prep, John Kaczorek is shown asking his math pupils to use an electronic clicker to answer a problem of the day so that he can determine, before moving on, which students are still struggling to grasp the day’s lesson. Every class has a measureable outcome, and every kid is expected to master it.

Adelante is a charter school, but that’s its legal structure, not a predictor of its instructional approach. Nor is the continual use of formative assessments like the “exit ticket” shown in the film a new layer of standardized tests. It’s a tool.

The first E in RESET stands for “Expectations, not Excuses.” “Teacher expectations are shown to account for 42 percent of the difference between white and African American students’ realization of their potential, after controlling for all factors,” the campaign’s website explains.

Expectation leads to persistence

To return again to Kaczorek as an example, kids who don’t master the material aren’t shrugged off as too challenged. The teacher instead comes back at the material until the lesson takes.

The S and the next E stand for “Strong Leadership” and “Effective Teaching,” which can provide a student with two months’ to a year’s worth of additional learning. The final T: “Time on Task,” the final ingredient that has helped a handful of local schools produce outsized results with fragile populations.

After you’ve seen the film and attended the public events and absorbed RESET’s citizen-empowerment toolkit, Vargas would like for you to get involved; the website has specific suggestions. 

“What comprises a good school? That’s what the focus of these messages is,” she said. “It counts when school board members see the public in the audience in support.”