Minnesota's achievement gap: Asking the right questions

  • Article by: TED KOLDERIE
  • Updated: June 8, 2013 - 5:03 PM

Standards for aircraft differ based on what a plane is going to do. Why not for students?


Illustration: Learning.

Photo: Donna Grethen, Tribune Media Services

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Nothing so dominates Minnesota’s discussion about education. Yet despite the concern about closing “the gap,” we are not having a very intelligent discussion about it.

Just ahead of the last St. Paul school board election, Don Fraser’s achievement-gap group got the candidates together at House of Hope on Summit Avenue. The former congressman and mayor from Minneapolis has been holding discussions about closing the gap for several years, Friday noons at a church in southeast Minneapolis.

For this meeting, Grant Abbott, Fraser’s associate, posed three questions: What is the achievement gap? What can be done to close it? What is the role of the board?

Walking out afterward, I asked Fraser if he thought any one of the candidates had answered the first question — basic for the others. Don thought a moment, as is his way, then said, “No.”

Clearly “the gap” is a function of the way we define “achievement.”

For most Minnesotans, the gap probably is the difference between racial, ethnic and income groups in average proficiency scores on the state tests in English and math. The gaps are real; they develop early. Studies — as by James Heckman at the University of Chicago — show some students far behind, especially in vocabulary, when they first arrive at school.

Of course it’s a given that we want all students to be proficient in the basic skills. But questions need to be asked about so narrow a definition of our goals, and about the implied concept of competition among groups. We’ll come back to these. For the moment, let’s go to Grant Abbott’s second question: What would be required to “close the gap”?

In a foot race, one runner might be 200 meters ahead. The lead runner might slow; then the other would catch up. Or, the runner now behind might start running faster. How would we apply that analogy to the gap in learning?

Keep some students from getting a head start? Have the students now scoring better do less well? Get those now doing less well to improve faster than those ahead of them?

Not many would say: Have the higher-achieving students slow down. Most would say: Accelerate those now behind. But is that what we do?

There are “beat the odds” schools that get inner-city students scoring high. But overall, says Karen Seashore, Regents Professor in the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, gaps widen as students move through the school years. Probably we will want all students to improve. But how then does the gap close?

Getting the low-achieving students learning rapidly enough to catch up would take some very special efforts. That’s possible: In eight years as superintendent in Trenton, N.J., James Lytle — “Torch” because his hair was once red — tripled the graduation rate in that black district. But that required arranging everything to start where inner-city students are: with their attitudes and interests, their lived experiences, offering a culturally appropriate education.

Unhappily, most districts do not do that. They are unwilling to adapt to the values and lifestyles of inner-city youths because their schools would then not look “legitimate” in the eyes of those upon whom they depend for political and financial support. (See Lytle’s “Prospects for Reforming Urban Schools,” Urban Education, July 1992.)

Forced to choose between what’s required to succeed with inner-city youth and what’s required to maintain legitimacy, most districts elect to maintain legitimacy — hoping perhaps that it will be enough, if the gaps do not close, that they are seen as good people who meant well and were trying hard.

After 30 years of effort, is it possible that our current policy is at the same time failing to close the gap and, given its emphasis now on “common” standards, failing to push for high achievement? In other words, are we achieving neither equity nor excellence?


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