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Public school reform: A black-and-white issue

The following is an opinion piece by Daniel Sellers, Executive Director of MinnCAN. Pollen aims to promote open discussion among our members as a platform where all perspectives are welcome.

Never before in Minnesota have our public schools been so divided, and never before have we lived amidst such a stark black-and-white issue.

Until we reform our schools, the chasm will grow wider.

Sixty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court began to hear arguments for the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education. It’s one of the most lauded court cases in our nation’s history, a staple in our schools’ civic and history classes. Two generations later, education leaders and elected officials have dubbed public education as the civil rights issue of our time. This is news for many Minnesotans. It’s hard to stomach that Minnesota, far from being an exception, is a prime example of education inequities and disparities. Not only are Minnesota’s achievement gaps (e.g., between white students and students of color, and across different socioeconomic backgrounds) among the worst in the United States, but our Black elementary students actually score worse than their peers in the Deep South.

This should concern every Minnesotan.

Of course, this need not be the case. We know that all students can succeed when we give them opportunities to do so. All Minnesotans, from parents to policymakers, should consider it a key priority to make sure that every Minnesota child attends a great school.

A severe hiccup

We have much to be proud of. Time and again, from polls to community conversations and levy referendums, Minnesotans firmly attest their commitment to public education. This is great, and our values are fundamental and foundational to creating great schools across the state. But there is a severe hiccup: our self-evaluation of Minnesota—one that is rosy and harkens back to a simpler Garrison Keillor sort of time—too often stifles progress in communities where change is needed most.

While our most affluent, white students are racing ahead and carrying our state upward, a different reality exists for Minnesota’s students of color and low-income. The fact is we fail to provide these students the same opportunities and equitable access to high-quality schools as their peers. As a result, they fall further and further behind. We need to collectively adopt meaningful solutions that ensure they have the chance to join their peers at the top of the class. 

Here are some examples of how a Minnesota education fares well for only select students:

  • In 2012, 83-percent of 10th-grade white students reached the proficiency standard in reading on the state assessment, while only 51-percent of black students, 52-percent of Hispanic students and 65-percent of Asian students scored at least proficient.
  • According to the state assessment, more than 60-percent of all black and Hispanic students are not proficient in math. In comparison, just over 30-percent of all white students are not proficient in math.
  • Poor Minnesota students in the eighth grade are more than two grade levels behind their more economically advantaged classmates in reading and nearly three grade levels behind in math, according to The National Assessment of Educational Progress. (Note: 10 scale points on NAEP are the rough equivalent of one grade level’s proficiency in reading and math.For example, a 30-point gap translates to a three grade level difference.)
  • In a state-to-state NAEP comparison of reading ability, black fourth-grade students in Alabama outperform those in Minnesota. 

Concurrently, our demographics are changing and they’re changing rapidly. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 17-percent of Minnesotans are people of color and 30-percent of preschool-aged children are kids of color. 

Daniel Sellers
Daniel Sellers

Our state and business leaders repeatedly position Minnesota as a viable contender in a growing global market. At our pace and place, where left-behind students saturate Minnesota, we’re not slated to produce a workforce suited for international competition. Among all industrialized and developed nations, the Program for International Student Assessment often excludes the United States from its major top-10 rankings of high-performing public education systems. That’s deplorable.

We can’t afford to let complacency and the status quo guide public education.  Every student has potential. Every student can succeed. 

No matter where you reside in the North Star state, many next-generation Minnesotans are desperately struggling in our K-12 public schools. Who will carry the torch 15, 20, 30 years from now to make sure that Minnesota communities continue to thrive?

This is solvable

Minnesotans vote in droves, contribute the most money to charitable causes, are home to the second-most Fortune 500 companies per capita and some of the healthiest people in the country. Minnesota is an excellent place to live, work, and play. Perhaps the best in the United States. However, we face a crossroads in which the comfortable bubbles in which we operate are barriers to meaningful opportunities, opportunities to provide equality for all Minnesota kids to be college and career-ready.

Recent education reform policies have helped change the direction and conversation in Minnesota. But the ripples stirred up by statewide teacher evaluations and alternative teacher certification need to grow into seismic waves that propel all kids to success. Our state should give parents a choice among high-performing schools, grant school leaders the autonomy to run great schools—including the flexibility to recruit and retain excellent teachers—and ensure that we hold schools, districts, and communities accountable for student achievement.

By the year 2018, 70-percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require post-secondary education (that’s approximately an eight percentage point increase from where we are today). By that same year, Minnesota, as part of its federal No Child Left Behind waiver, aims to close its achievement gaps by 50-percent. Instead of celebrating our most recent Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment results, we’re confronted with alarming statistics: our students are slightly more divided than they were last year. We’re moving in the wrong direction.

The facts are sobering but clear, and so is the opportunity. Let us rally on our common ground—a unified valuing of public education—and adopt reform policies that help every Minnesotan child gain access to a great public school.

This piece originally appeared at

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Jeffrey Kolnick on 10/02/2012 - 08:35 am.

    poverty and racial isolation

    My reading of the evidence is that though teachers and administrators matter, the evidence points to the intractable challenges of poverty and racial isolation as the keys to eliminating the achievement gap. Promoting changes that focus only on teacher evaluation and liberating administrators to enjoy greater “flexibility” only dances around the problem. The only way to solve the crisis in our schools is to deal forthrightly with the legacies of racism and poverty that continue to plague our nation.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/02/2012 - 08:49 am.

    Logical place to start

    I agree 100% that schools need the flexibility to recruit and retain excellent teachers. To do that, they are going to need the flexibility to *pay* teachers commensurate to their skill.

    As it stands, someone who graduates with a degree in math, physics, or the sciences has absolutely zero incentive to apply their education and knowledge to public schools.

    In order to attract these people, we’re gonna first have to compete against the private sector.

    That sounds like common sense, but it also means the end of the step and lane system the public school unions are clinging to with all their strength.

    The fact of the matter is that we spend more than $10 billion dollars on K-12 ed in MN, 75% of which goes to salaries. There is simply no way we can afford to pay an art teacher the same salary a physics grad commands in say, the semiconductor industry.

    I’ll believe we’re serious about turning our dismal achievement gap around when government officials sit down and explain the facts of life to EdMN.

  3. Submitted by Tim Milner on 10/02/2012 - 09:10 am.

    I see 2 big issues

    in public education in the inter city.

    First is the lack of family stability. I have relatives who teach in the St. Paul school system and it is not uncommon to have kids dropping in and out of their classes each month based on where the family is living at that time. So it’s one month at one school, another at different school, and so on. Any wonder why these kids are falling behind? They miss things and are never able to catch up.

    The second is the focus on individual learning rather than best practices education. Manufacturing, health care – dozens of fields – have adopted the best practice model. Rather than letting each person decide how to do their job, it’s determined what the best universal practice is to gain the best outcomes. Then, everyone follows the best practice. But in education it’s seems to have swung hard toward trying to teach each student in the way that student learns best. 1 teacher, seeing anywhere from 25 (in elementary schools) to 125 (high school subject teachers) can not possible structure every days lesson plan in that many ways. Yet, we try and in the process have our teachers spend countless hours administrating verses teaching. And it shows up in what our children learn.

    Throwing more and more money at education is not going to be the answer. Yes, some things are under funded and some additional funds are needed to correct that. But we are not going to see a big improvement in intercity schools unless we can get families more stable and get people (students, parents, teachers and administrators) on board with the idea that best practices should replace individualized lesson plans.

  4. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/02/2012 - 09:28 am.

    Where is the argument?

    Sellers spends most of his time discussing the problem and then takes just a couple of sentences to assert his proposed solution to that problem. What is missing is any argument as to why his propsed solution works. I doubt many people are going to dispute that the acheivement gap is a problem, but the solutions proposed by Sellers are highly controversial, and rather than trying to sell them, he just wants people to assume that they work. Maybe there is a compelling case to be made, but Sellers hasn’t even attempted to make it here.

    Shouldn’t the executive director and public face of an education reform organization be able to at least write a coherent opinion piece?

  5. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 10/02/2012 - 02:06 pm.

    I have to pretty much agree with Dan Hintz…

    Have you started to feel a little queasy when reading articles of this type. The first part consists of “The Sky is Falling.” And unfortunately, it is.

    But any actual solutions to our problems are skirted. I’d like to suggest that these articles in the future devote about one paragraph to the problem and nine or ten to possible solutions – real ones.

    And another point. We have the usual cheap shot by another commenter at unions. I’ll just mention – as I have many times before – that the best school system in the world right now appears to be Finland’s and it is totally unionized.

    Take a lesson from Joe Nathan who probably knows as much as anyone about changes in K-12 education: remarkable improvements can be made in these areas under BOTH unionized and non-unionized schools, in charters and in the usual schools.

    Whether we need to pay high school physics teachers the same as if they were doing research in solid state physics is another matter I don’t have time to deal with right now, but the short answer is no.

    And finally. At least one commenter seems to think that the sole motivator for someone to go into teaching is economic. That is patently not the case from the little bit of experience I have at the U of M.

    One of my students was in the biomedical engineering program and was doing very well, at least according to his transcript, but he decide to get an MA in teaching after completing his undergrad degree. We have an excellent program at the U of M that allows undergrads with science backgrounds to pick up the necessary additional training to teach in Minnesota.

    When I asked him why he did this, he replied that he really wanted to teach in high school. He wanted to contribute to society in a way other than simply making as much money as he could.

    Different strokes, I guess.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/03/2012 - 07:20 am.

      Learn something new every day on Minnpost!

      I guess I’ve missed the teachers strikes where greater opportunities to contribute to society were a key issue….

      • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 10/03/2012 - 08:25 am.

        I realize that it is hard for some on the right, Mr. Swift,

        to understand why anyone would do anything to contribute to society except from self interest.

        That is an inherent flaw in the thinking of people like Ayn Rand and her disciples.

  6. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 10/02/2012 - 08:53 pm.


    Simply can not replace parents and their responsibilities.

  7. Submitted by Brad Blue on 10/03/2012 - 02:48 pm.

    It’s the HOW that matters

    Hintz (above) and many others have said it well, the data is clear so there is little to no value in restating facts. The real issue is the ‘How’ and if the public good is served by good policy (as a course of action), then all stakeholders should agree to define the How. The penchant to date (and for decades) has been winning ideological arguments and bantering (as well as restating what we all know).

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