Lori Sturdevant: Achievement gap -- a disaster in slow motion

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 17, 2011 - 4:00 PM

Like any disaster, it will require a community response -- one the U's new president could lead.

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Eric Kaler

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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A been-here-before feeling hit me as I pushed the Morrill Hall elevator button for floor No. 2 and prepared to ask the new president of the University of Minnesota why he's been talking so much about the state's chronic K-12 achievement gap.

Would I hear Eric Kaler reprise Mark Yudof's vow to make the university a better K-12 ally? Is this still 1997?

Thankfully, it isn't -- even though when Kaler sounds alarmed about the big disparity in test scores between white and nonwhite K-12 learners, he echoes both Yudof and the president who came between them, Robert Bruininks.

In 1997, Minnesota's achievement gap was already old news. But denial was still rampant among well-meaning folks who claimed that the gap was large simply because middle-class white kids were unusually "above average" in this state.

Knowledgeable folks don't say that anymore -- not in the face of nonwhite Minnesota kids' test scores that are lower than those of nonwhite kids in most other states.

Others thought 15 years ago that whatever problem existed would fade by itself over time. Or that all that was needed to bridge the gap was one ideologically tinged remedy.

More charter schools! Pay teachers more! No, bust teachers' unions!

In some respects, maybe it is still 1997.

But it's sobering to realize that the 1997 kindergarteners who were on the right side of the gap then are mostly in college today, while many of those who arrived unprepared for kindergarten that year are engaged in activities considerably less promising.

More depressing is the realization that even as both Minnesota's nonwhite population and the economy's demand for educated workers have grown, the achievement gap has barely budged.

According to the education advocacy group MinnCAN, the state's black students scored more than three grade levels behind white kids in math and two grade levels in reading in the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Kaler has been sharing his take on Minnesota's achievement gap almost every time he's stepped into his office's bully pulpit this fall. "Quite simply, we have an emergency on our hands and we must respond," he says.

The "we" in that last sentence ought to have broad meaning.

"We" is certainly the state's land-grant research university. The whole 19th-century point of endowing young states with such an institution was to give them the tools to spot looming problems, collect data and promulgate solutions. That's the U's job.

What's more, the university has skin in this game. Its own ambitions depend on the political and financial support that a well-educated, prosperous populace provides.

"The idea that the university of Minnesota is going to be excellent is critical for the state of Minnesota. As we move forward, we should pull K-12 and pre-K along," Kaler told me that day in Morrill Hall.

But if anything has been learned about the stubbornly persistent achievement gap since 1997, it's that it won't be eliminated through the efforts of a single entity -- not even the mighty University of Minnesota.

A strategic full-court press is called for -- and one appears to be in the works.

Since last summer, 31 Twin Cities education stakeholders have been meeting under university auspices to learn what good a coordinated, communitywide strategy called Strive has done in Cincinnati since 2006, and to think about whether and how to imitate it here.

A decision is expected early in 2012.

Kent Pekel, a coordinator of that working group and executive director of the university's College Readiness Consortium, said the plan that's taking shape envisions networks of researchers, teachers and out-of-school support systems working together with targeted populations to achieve a handful of key goals, such as kindergarten readiness and literacy by third grade.

It also projects a new problem-solving role for the university -- that of fully involved team player.

"We're fundamentally departing from the idea that research and analysis happens here, then we lob it out of the ivory tower and hope that somebody catches it," Pekel said.

The Strive approach "has a network of practitioners tied to researchers, here and elsewhere. The university coordinates the inquiry, then becomes part of a partnership in embracing a strategy. ... This moves us to a different level of collaboration."

Partnerships need multiple leaders. Too much public identification with one voice sometimes isn't helpful.

But it can't hurt the cause of closing the local achievement gap for it to become the pet cause of a university president who comes across as the super-smart, demanding professor you couldn't bluff. In the face of excuses about why Minnesota hasn't made more headway toward solving a major problem it has known about for years, Kaler projects what Pekel called a "calm impatience."

"All you have to do is look at the numbers to know that this is a catastrophe coming right down the pike at us," Kaler told me.

Minnesotans automatically join hands when sudden disasters strike.

It may take the repeated warnings of a data-driven chemical engineer from New York to help them see that the achievement gap is a slow disaster, threatening to damage more Minnesota lives than any tornado. It deserves an "everyone" response.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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