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Achievement Gap

Hold the Applause for Minnesota's Schools

Daniel Sellers became MinnCAN’s Executive Director in 2012 after his work at the capitol convinced him of the power of advocacy in ensuring all kids get the education they deserve.
At MinnCAN, our guiding belief is that every child can succeed academically if given access to a great school. To learn what it’s going to take to get there, we end up spending a lot of time visiting changing-the-odds schools across Minnesota—schools where academic performance of students of color is well above state averages. While there’s no “silver-bullet” solution, all of these schools share certain characteristics: visionary school leadership, high expectations for student performance, and, perhaps most importantly, an almost-painful bluntness about the data—right down to the level of the individual student.

Sometimes Data Hurts

To improve, these schools all started with an honest assessment about where they were, even if admitting it caused frustration for some in the school community who weren’t comfortable with acknowledging where progress needed to be made. We need to continue push for that same approach for our state as a whole. While there are examples of schools that are producing awesome results for too-often marginalized student populations, our adjusted 4-year graduation rates are among the lowest in the nation for African American, Native American and Latino students. Nevertheless, the prevailing narrative continues to be that Minnesota has a great public school system and should serve as a model for other states to follow.

Be Honest, Minnesota

In order to make real progress in improving statewide student achievement—getting to where we want to be—we need to be honest with ourselves about where we currently are. A recent Education Week blog post by Alyson Klein only feeds the feel-good narrative. Klein writes that Minnesota might be the only state in the nation meeting its goals after receiving a waiver from No Child Left Behind. The data cited by Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota’s education commissioner, appears impressive: 59 percent of Minnesota's school districts are on track to close statewide gaps in math, 65 percent in reading. It is commendable that the Minnesota Department of Education openly shares achievement gap data with every district and charter school in the state so they can see exactly how they’re doing in terms of staying on track to meet the state’s NCLB waiver goal of closing its 2011 achievement gaps by half by 2017. But the published data does not tell the whole story. The percentages the commissioner cites include all Minnesota districts, but the majority of students of color are in just a few districts—and too many of these large districts are not doing as well as the state as a whole.

Doesn’t Add Up

Some quick back-of-the-napkin math: Minnesota has about 837,000 students, of whom 29 percent are students of color. A third of these students attend one of the state’s largest five school districts. How are these five districts progressing in closing achievement gaps? Three aren’t on track to meet the gap-closing goal in either math or reading, and only one is on track in both. Now, let’s widen the pool a bit. Half of the state’s students of color are enrolled in Minnesota’s largest 16 districts. Of these, six are on track in both math and reading, one is on track in reading but not math and nine aren’t on track in either. In these nine off-track districts alone, there are nearly 100,000 students of color. Yes, many Minnesota teachers and schools are making progress, but far too many students of color still face shocking achievement gaps and are stuck in districts that aren’t moving the needle.

Time for More Transparency

Our most successful schools and districts across the state understand that improvement can only begin when you’re frank with yourself and others about where you are. I look forward to our education leaders and policymakers demonstrating the same candor—even if it’s humbling and calls into question the rosy view our state has of itself. We can start by reporting what percent of students of color attend districts that are making expected progress so we have a more complete picture of how we’re doing. Turning around our largest and most diverse districts may be the fastest way to make sure our state meets our goals. But that turnaround can only begin with transparency around their student’s academic performance. For now, let’s hold the applause.
Daniel Sellers
After graduating from Gustavus Adolphus College with a degree in sociology and anthropology, Daniel joined Teach For America as a sixth-grade math teacher at Warren County Middle School in North Carolina. In 2009, he went on to become the Founding Executive Director of Teach For America—Twin Cities, and led a broad, bipartisan coalition to push for alternative teacher certification legislation at ...

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