Minnesota has a nation-leading education achievement gap. We've known this since the implementation of No Child Left Behind some 15 years ago and have been talking about it, like the weather and the Vikings, ever since.
But just as with the weather and the Vikings, no one seems able to do much about it.
With the recent release of Minnesota Department of Education statewide reports showing little or no growth in student reading and math test scores, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius opined, "It's frustrating to see test scores slowly increasing …"
The commissioner is certainly not alone in her frustration. Nearly everybody, and particularly the parents of students from Minnesota's lowest-performing ethnic groups, is frustrated — for good reason.
During the last four years, the percentage of 11th-grade students proficient in math fell by 3 percentage points, from 51 percent to 48 percent. Years earlier, during a similar window of time, Commissioner Cassellius' predecessor, Alice Seagren, oversaw a 12-percentage-point rise in the percent of 11th-grade students proficient in math.
With statewide results like these, it is little wonder that the powers that be would like to quickly change topics. We are told "test scores are just one part of the picture" — and so they are. Discerning parents and taxpayers might have their concerns allayed if the commissioner had other significant growth to report.
Perhaps that is why the Education Department used the occasion of releasing statewide test results to note that the data are now being reported with seven federally required ethnicity and race categories, up from five in previous years.
While the growth in the number of administrative boxes by which we can categorize students is interesting, it means that there are now even more categories of students who are not proficient. This is certainly not the kind of growth we seek.
A good education is vitally important to a well-lived life and a hope-filled future — the things parents want for their children. Minnesota employers want a well-educated populace, too, but they say such workers are increasingly difficult to find. Real, value-added change is hard and, the larger the organization, the more difficult it becomes. Still, significant statewide growth in reading and math is possible. It has been done before and can be done again.
The modest scale of improvements in Minnesota's achievement gap calls for a healthy degree of humility among all involved in education leadership. The Education Department is not able to fix this problem for us. Instead, we must do more to ensure that the voices and educational choices of parents are respected and that transparency is maintained.
We need more parent-directed choices in early-childhood education; a broader field of dual-enrollment options; and expanded career and technical education opportunities — initiatives that have been proven to yield long-term results.
Let's focus on doing what it takes to make sure our children — all children — have access to a great education that prepares them to be tomorrow's leaders.
Unlike the weather or the Vikings, this is something we can change.
Carla Nelson, of Rochester, is a Republican member of the Minnesota Senate.