Minneapolis schools to double down on grade gap

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2013 - 6:15 AM

Failure to meet most targets means district is likely to put two teachers in early-grade classrooms at schools that are struggling.

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Minneapolis schools

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Some classrooms in Minneapolis’ most struggling schools could soon have two teachers as the district turns to drastic steps to boost achievement in the wake of a new report showing academic results for minority students continue to lag.

The district last year met only three of the 20-plus academic targets it set for students. That’s worse than the previous year, when it hit about one-quarter of its targets.

“We have a lot of work to do,” said Michael Goar, the district’s No. 2 administrator, who called the data disheartening.

The school board will get the results of the latest academic report Tuesday night but hasn’t yet been asked to approve the two-teacher proposal. The district has not released a potential cost for the academic overhaul, but the median cost of one teacher is $87,000, including benefits.

The district’s self-evaluation comes as it’s already struggling and under pressure to boost achievement. Just over half of the district’s students graduate from high school within four years, and academic skills have lagged for many of the district’s minority students.

Although a recent round of statewide tests showed some progress in bridging the notoriously stubborn gap in achievement between white and minority students, the problem persists.

The outgoing mayor of Minneapolis, R.T. Rybak, has announced that his next job will be at the helm of Generation Next, a broad-based partnership of education, community, government and business leaders formed to focus the spending of millions of dollars already aimed at the achievement gap by backing the most effective programs.

In Minneapolis, the situation has prompted a defection of students to charter schools, some of which are demonstrating better results than the district has achieved despite trying a number of strategies to close the gap.

Goar said the district is going to try several measures to boost performance among its lowest-performing students that in some cases are based on what’s worked in its schools. As a sign of district urgency, one of the most aggressive — the two-teacher classroom — is scheduled to debut in the middle of the school year.

Administrators hope to add the second classroom teacher in the early grades of a half-dozen schools that are struggling to achieve better results. Those schools have yet to be identified and would be pulled from a list of 16.

Goar said the district would install that second teacher in kindergarten through third-grade classes at those schools, which at the district’s current class size targets would produce a student-to-teacher ratio of about 11 to 1. That’s lower than the level at which academic studies attribute gains from class-size reductions.

The goal would be to help struggling students at that grade level catch up with peers so that they have the necessary literacy and numeracy skills for more advanced learning, Goar said. If the pilot effort works and the district can afford it, he would like to expand it to all 16 schools the district labels as high-priority schools.

The district’s academic results continue to show lagging scores for students other than non-Hispanic whites, as well as students whose learning is affected by special education needs, family poverty or recent immigration. Yet the district’s white students outperform white students statewide by a significant margin for reading and a smaller margin for math.

Another tactic under consideration is to restore literacy coaches to lower grades after the district found that they helped to boost reading scores by third grade. These teachers can help teachers improve their techniques for instructing lagging students, and even model demonstration lessons for teachers to learn from.

Goar also wants to move back to the district’s classrooms some of the teachers who are on leave from their school duties to do administrative or curriculum work in the district office. Another initiative may be to encourage teachers to get additional certification in working with students who are learning English or have special education needs. That’s a technique that Goar brings with him from Boston, his previous district.

Many of the district’s strategies are aimed at reducing an achievement gap that’s already fully evident by the end of third grade, a time when having the reading skills for tackling further academic work is considered critical. Some 85 to 90 percent of the achievement gap among those groups is evident by the end of third grade, according to Eric Moore, the district’s research director.

Although 82 percent of incoming kindergartners who have participated in the district’s prekindergarten High 5 program are considered on track with skills leading to literacy, many incoming students lack that preparation. So by the end of third grade, the district’s all-student reading proficiency rate lags 15 percentage points below students statewide. That gap has been diminishing steadily since 2010, when the district was 22 percentage points below the state.

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