Across the state, students are gearing up for, or even already taking, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs). As Minnesota’s only objective measure of whether kids are meeting state standards and on their way to success in college or career, the results of the MCAs are important. Unfortunately, they’re also predictable.
Despite the widespread belief that Minnesota schools are among the best, the truth is that they’re not the best for all kids: Students of color continue to score at much lower rates in reading and math than their white peers and their counterparts in other states, leading to graduation rates for students of color that are worst in the nation, according to NECS data (Minnesota ranks 50th in graduation rates for Hispanic and African-American students and 49th for Native American). State leaders fell well short of their 2012 commitment to cut our nation-leading academic achievement gaps in half by 2017. This should be an urgent call to action but instead continues to result in finger pointing and blaming that don’t promote collaboration and problem-solving.
Let’s be crystal clear: This is a failure on the part of our systems and our schools, not on the part of students who bring limitless potential and an incredible range of talents to the doors of our schools. We cannot ignore the fact that when students attend a school that meets their needs, they tend to thrive and succeed.
Minnesota has strong academic standards that, if met, will prepare students for success in college and career. Unfortunately, there are too few students attending schools that prepare all students to meet these standards. And, when schools do meet the mark for all students, regardless of their background, we aren’t doing enough to learn from those schools and share best practices.
Our education system needs to be re-envisioned to truly serve all students, and to do that, we need to undo the inequities that are deeply entrenched in the current model. We also must unleash the power and passion of teachers and principals to make the decisions in their school about what works best for their students, families and community. We need to give schools the specific supports and flexibility they need, not what we think they need, to deliver against the promise of educating all kids.
While it is important that we have high-level accountability systems in place, policy-level conversations about what is and is not working are simply not enough. If we want to serve families who have historically been left out, and if we want to embrace the idea of meaningful systems change, the first step is putting parents at the center of our education system. How information is presented to parents is paramount. Our current school performance reporting systems are unacceptably complex and confusing. It is time to empower parents, who have a vital responsibility to play a meaningful role in the education of their children, and that starts with sharing easy-to-understand data on how schools and districts are doing. We owe it to parents to be honest — is their local school struggling? What are its strengths and weaknesses, and based on that, will it meet their child’s needs? The state is in urgent need of an improved report card with digestible ratings for school and district performance.
The challenges of ensuring teacher excellence and diversity are not new, but it’s clear that one of the resources necessary for improving the performance of students of color is a teacher workforce that is culturally competent and diverse.
Minnesota students are increasingly diverse. In the past 10 years, the number of students of color across the state increased rapidly to 34%. But the number of teachers of color and indigenous teachers has remained the same at 6%.
We must commit to licensing a diverse teacher corps and providing all teachers with training to help address the needs of children from different backgrounds and divergent life experiences. The logistics of licensure are complex, but we should remove barriers to the classroom and embrace diversity as a critical element of a highly qualified teacher workforce.
In order to improve academic outcomes for students, we must hold higher expectations for students — and the schools that educate them. We need state leaders who take responsibility for appreciable, measurable progress toward our state’s academic standards until opportunity and achievement gaps are closed. If the results of the MCAs currently being administered show that many students are being left behind, we expect Minnesota’s state, district and school leaders and policymakers to explicitly name that more must be done if we are going to deliver on our promise of opportunity for all.
Fundamentally, Minnesota cannot accept that some kids will succeed academically and others won’t. Let’s not wait for the results of this year’s MCA tests to make changes that are necessary to finally move the needle.
Paul Mattessich is executive director, Wilder Research; Gloria Perez is president & CEO, Jeremiah Program; Daniel Sellers is executive director, EdAllies; Carolyn Smallwood is chief executive, WayToGrow; Roberta Walburn is a member of the board of directors, Ciresi Walburn Foundation for Children. Charlie Weaver is executive director, Minnesota Business Partnership.