Studies have found little academic difference for poor Minneapolis students who enroll in whiter suburban districts. A few charter schools excel with poor black students; others flop.
“It’s alarming. It’s saddening. And it’s time to go to work,” said James Burnett, a North Side father of four, with two in district schools and two in charters. They’re not going to be caught on the wrong side of the gap, he insisted. “In my household, they’re definitely going to beat the odds because there’s no alternative.”
No silver bullets
The achievement gap has been in the news since the 1980s, but didn’t leap into public consciousness until the 2002 No Child Left Behind law forced schools to separate test scores for different racial groups.
In addition to poverty, parents, educators and reform advocates have blamed the problem on racism, lack of diversity in the teaching ranks, union rules that place the most inexperienced teachers in the most troubled schools, and poor parenting.
This year alone, the Minneapolis School District is taking numerous steps to address the gap. It’s adding classes for lagging students after school, on Saturdays, over summer, and even during spring break. It is working on a curriculum that better matches the state tests. It is participating in the Northside Achievement Zone, a targeted effort to stabilize families and support children from cradle to college.
The district also has begun the controversial task of evaluating teachers. And it plans to go back to the source — interviewing families to learn more about student attitudes and motivation.
Though scores of programs have been launched here and elsewhere, few districts nationally have found surefire methods. One group of experts convened by Harvard concluded that “while individual schools have successfully produced superior results … best practice reform rarely if ever delivers examples of transforming a mediocre district into a high performing one.”
As Minneapolis bears down on its achievement gap, Eric Moore, the district’s research director, is the point person.
His slicing of data has helped the district home in on two groups of students — those who meet some state standards and are making progress, and students who previously met standards but whose progress is slackening.
In a pilot project at 13 schools, the district is trying to get both groups to meet math and reading standards.
The 13 schools aren’t the worst performers, but they have students close to proficiency and teaching staffs that have shown success in this area. And they are schools with larger concentrations of student of color.
There are some encouraging signs.
The district has cut its reading gap with the state in the past three years. It has identified teachers who can squeeze two years’ worth of growth in reading into one school year.
As she greeted parents at last month’s school fair, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson urged them to ask tough questions: “Today is the first interaction that some of the parents will have with their child’s school. Take advantage of that and say, ‘I know that Minneapolis public schools has a gap. How will you ensure that my child is successful?’ Ask us the tough questions and say, ‘I want to be part of the solution and I want to be able to hold you accountable.’ ”
She can expect to get that attention from Phillips.
“My son is the next Barack Obama. He’s smart,” she said. “If I have stay up late every night and work on my son’s homework, I’ll do that. If I have to call the teachers, I’ll do that. If I have to go to school every day with my son, I’ll do that. I’m a dedicated parent.”