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Continued: Minnesota's achievement gap: Asking the right questions

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

Told that schooling does not close the gap, people quickly say: “Get children ready for K.” Nothing has been more persuasively advocated and more widely supported than early education.

But do we do that? How possible is it to get public money past the K-12 system and into pre-K for those starting behind? Frustrated, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation turned to raising “scholarship” money privately for quality child care. This year the Minnesota Legislature voted $40 million to expand early education scholarships. But significantly more went into all-day kindergarten for all students.

How are we to think about a situation in which disadvantaged children start behind and in which school does not catch them up?

One of my associates uses a different analogy — still in the track meet but thinking about the high jump.

A high school boy should jump chest height. Some can clear head height. Some can’t clear waist height. That’s a gap in performance.

How would a coach close that gap? If a 16-year-old boy stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 190 pounds, is it possible for him to jump chest height?

Applied to learning generally, the analogy would suggest that some can’t learn. Nobody accepts that. So we come back to the question: What is achievement? If you can’t jump high, can you do well in some other event?

There are sprints and there are long distance races; there are jumping events and throwing events. At St. Francis High School, Magdalyn Ewen might not run the 100-meter dash. But she is No. 1 in the nation in the discus and shot put. She is achieving.

If there are multiple dimensions of achievement, why do we have this narrow concept of achievement in learning? Why does everyone talk as if there is not a broader dimension of quality in student and school performance?

Can you name an area of life in which quality is one-dimensional? Assessing an automobile, you think about purchase price, gas mileage, power, size, style, color, comfort, safety. Think about your college, your job, your church, your community, your house, even people you know. Isn’t quality multidimensional? Aren’t judgments made on balance? Why not in education?

For years, the argument for a broader concept of achievement was put down: You can’t define it, and you can’t measure it, so we won’t consider it. Happily, that objection is fading. Read Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed.” The National Research Council has just finished a six-year project to define and assess “21st-century skills” — cognitive and noncognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal; critical thinking, creativity, collaboration.

Bob Wedl, formerly Minnesota commissioner of education, asks: “If proficiency meant being able to speak two languages, which students in Minnesota would be ‘high-achieving’ ”?

He asks, too: Why don’t we define the “gap” as being below-proficient and close that gap first?

And: Do all students need to be equally good in all subjects? Standards for aircraft differ based on what a plane is going to do. Why not for students? Proficiency might be enough in math for a student heading into the arts. It would surely be too low for one aspiring to an engineering career.


Whose definition?

We should ask why school has become the only route to achievement. Why do we keep the old institution of adolescence — that “separate society for the young” that denies them serious responsibilities early, separates them from adult society, tells them they have no function except to be schooled and cuts off work as a route up?

Why are so many things at which many young people regarded as “low-achieving” excel disregarded or disrespected by those defining success? Is it possible that we simply have middle-class folks with advanced degrees and aptitudes that are verbal, conceptual and abstract deciding that achievement is doing well what they do well? If so, is that fair to students who are not middle-class, without highly educated parents and with aptitudes different from those that lead to white-collar careers?

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