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After years of talk, MPS takes decisive action on the achievement gap

A new Office of Student Achievement will make sure that black male students are singled out — for resources.

When the announcement was made at the Minneapolis School Board’s February meeting that an office was being created to focus specifically on the welfare of black boys there was polite applause and a palpable wave of Minnesota Nice discomfort.

Black boys? Why aren’t we referring to them as African Americans? Why are we singling them out? Isn’t that stigmatizing them? Won’t calling them out shame them?

And, from veterans of the last decade’s cyclical, circular discussions about the district’s yawning and persistent achievement gap: What is going to be different this time?

The difference, according to backers of the move, is that Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) will stop generating plans that hinge on getting African American males, the district’s largest demographic group and the one it most consistently fails to serve, to start learning in the same ways as the white children it has historically been best-equipped to educate.

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Instead, a new Office of Student Achievement will adopt ways of serving African American students that have worked, both inside and outside of MPS. And it will be helmed by a member of the executive team tasked with keeping the pressure on to make sure that black boys are singled out — for resources.

“We have to have someone in charge of this issue and really focused on this disparity that has endured for years and years and years,” said district CEO Michael Goar. “If we can talk about it, we can begin to tackle these things.”

Impressed with the action

A survivor of numerous failed efforts to talk about racial equity in MPS, Bill English applauded the move. “Focusing on what culturally makes sense for black boys is important,” said English, education chair of the Coalition of Black Churches. “I’m impressed that [Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson] is prepared to move ahead right away with this.”

District headquarters, English pointed out, is within striking distance of several schools, including an MPS-chartered Mastery School, that routinely enable black boys to exceed state averages for all students. Culture, he said, is part of their success.

Meanwhile, despite a decade of seemingly ceaseless talk about the achievement gap, MPS has moved the needle incrementally at best. Late last year Goar, on the job for just a few months, and other district leaders were especially frustrated to have to deliver a dismal mid-year progress report to the board.

Michael Goar
Courtesy of Minneapolis Public SchoolsMichael Goar

Earlier this week, the district announced that African American graduation rates increased by more than 5 percent last year. There is debate about whether the gain is in part attributable to the elimination last year of high school exit exams.

Even if the increase is solid, it means 56 percent of African American students do not graduate within four years, which translates to the loss of hundreds of black boys every year.

Reading proficiency among all male African American MPS students is below 20 percent, less than half the district’s overall average. Math scores are slightly higher, but still half as high as MPS’ district-wide proficiency rate.

Minneapolis School Board member Tracine Asberry is among those who advocated for the Office of Student Achievement. “This is long overdue,” she said. “We cannot keep saying, ‘This group is failing,’ and not address their needs.”

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Relentless pragmatist

A longtime colleague of former MPS Superintendent Carol Johnson, Goar has quietly acquired a reputation as a relentless pragmatist who asserts himself effectively. His resumé includes time with her in urban districts that have had success with some of the strategies that Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson — also a Carol Johnson protégé — is attempting to implement.

And he has personal experience with how much progress is possible. Goar was adopted from Korea at the age of 10, and arrived in Minneapolis unable to speak English. He got a number of different supports, however, and graduated from Washburn High School on time.

Despite years of talk about the achievement gap, intentional efforts to address the unmet needs of African American students have been scattered and inconsistent, he said.

“It is not because we are overtly racist as a community,” said Goar. “We have a black superintendent and CEO, and we are reluctant to talk about race.”

In part, the pace of change is glacial because MPS operates as a collection of “silos.” Staff tasked with providing curriculum support may have one set of ideas about closing the gap, while behavior specialists have others. They may have the same aim, but not work together.

And when there is communication among the silos about race and equity, it is often framed as a matter of diversity — a necessary conversation, but not the same as talking about practices that are culturally relevant for a particular group of students.

Indeed early conversations about the creation of an office focused on African American males — something other large districts have done — centered on struggling students that some feared would end up neglected. Why not a special office for every subgroup?

In fact there has been a Minneapolis Indian Education program since 2006. Federal law and education policy have long recognized, at least rhetorically, the need for schools that do not attempt to assimilate Native American students. And few have questioned the need for culturally responsive teaching to serve MPS’ American Indian students, who have struggled with even bigger gaps than African Americans.

The effort appears to be paying off. Although again there is debate about the solidity of the numbers, MPS earlier this week announced a 12 percent boost in Native American graduation rates over the past two years.

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A swinging pendulum

African American achievement is in some ways a tougher conversation, particularly in a district where the teaching corps is 85 percent white and trained to think and talk about “all students “ and “every child.”

Indeed if there has been one consistent, predictable cycle in MPS over the last decade it has been the swinging of the psychic pendulum concerning racial equity.

When Carol Johnson left the superintendency in 2003, her white male successor was short-lived in large part because the African American community, fed up with not having a seat at the table, was outraged. His black successor, Thandiwe Peebles, posted some gains but agreed to resign after a series of scandals involving her brusque style and use of district staff for errands and other personal tasks.

In 2007, after fully half the school-aged children on the city’s North Side left the district for charter, parochial and suburban schools, a new regime announced the North Side Initiative. The plan closed some underpopulated schools but put arts and other enrichment programming in the consolidated survivors and capped class sizes.

Several months later, the school board adopted a strategic plan developed by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and paid for by Minnesota’s largest employers. It committed MPS to work to create a framework for eliminating institutional racism — then a phrase rarely heard at the board level.

That was followed by the African American Covenant, an effort to give the community a formal role in ensuring that curriculum, textbooks and other elements of school reflected black students’ histories and experiences.

The unique effort received national press, but met with systemic resistance and ended up imploding after a couple of years. Since then school board subcommittees have struggled with how best to keep the conversation going.  

After last fall’s discouraging progress report, Goar and Johnson announced plans to double the number of teachers in some of the classrooms that were struggling the most and, more recently, to add instructional time on Saturdays and during spring break.

To accomplish this, some of the district’s teaching experts are being reassigned from roles at the central office. Some of the two-teacher teams will use strategies employed in English-language learner classrooms, which are getting results with African American students at Folwell Performing Arts, a new district K-8 program.

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And because research now shows that African American men who do graduate often fail to finish college or to achieve success in other realms, Goar said the Office of Student Achievement will be responsible for figuring out how to make sure programming addresses “soft skills.”

“We fall apart in MPS because we fail to connect those dots,” said Goar.

Someone has to lead the discussion. “It’s long overdue that we have a conversation with each other, with our teachers, with our principals,” said Goar. “I think it’s about time we just had a plain discussion about race.”