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Achievement gap cures have their own gap

  • Article by: MITCH PEARLSTEIN
  • December 6, 2012 - 9:10 PM


In "A promising focus on achievement gap" (Dec. 4) the Star Tribune Editorial Board was prudent in expressing both hope and caution regarding "Generation Next," the Twin Cities' newest and most encompassing attempt to narrow achievement gaps between white and nonwhite K-12 students. Led by a remarkable collection of business, foundation, educational and political leaders, Generation Next has been inspired by a similarly comprehensive approach in Cincinnati known as "Strive."

Along with others, I very much hope Generation Next accomplishes at least a portion of its quest -- which includes having all kids in Minneapolis and St. Paul graduating high school on time and then obtaining a post-secondary degree or certificate no more than a half-dozen years later. However, I would have more confidence in Generation Next eventually even approaching its goals if, at the big kick-off last week at the University of Minnesota, any of its leaders had acknowledged several complicating facts.

Let's start with how well Strive is actually working in Cincinnati. For several years now I've heard colleagues claim that achievement gaps in Cincinnati were going away fast. I'm happy to acknowledge the impressive progress made regarding graduation numbers. Cincinnati officials cite data showing that differences between white and black on-time graduation rates have been essentially erased.

But go to Cincinnati public schools' own website and you will learn it's far different matter when it comes to what students are actually learning.

In 2010-11, for a sobering example, 17.9 percent of white students scored in the bottom two categories (of five categories overall) in mathematics, while the figure for African-American boys and girls was more than twice as large, at 43.1 percent. As for the top two categories, the numbers were 54.8 percent for whites and 21.4 percent for blacks; again a more than a two-to-one difference, albeit in the opposite direction. Ratios for reading and other subjects are similar and sometimes worse.

Are things getting better in Cincinnati? Yes, but not as much better as is assumed by some in Minnesota. Also keep in mind that the mountain to be climbed in this community is even higher than Cincinnati's, as achievement gaps in the Twin Cities are bigger than almost anywhere else in the country.

I also would have been more encouraged at Generation Next's opening act if any of its leaders suggested any recognition that if kids really don't want to work hard at school, no amount of programmatic brilliance will get them to buckle down or shape up. This is another way of raising pivotally difficult and politically sensitive questions like this:

What's more powerful -- up-to-date instructional techniques grounded in top-flight research, or the fear many young people of color have about being ridiculed by their peers for "acting white" if they take school seriously?

I'm all for excellent research leading to excellent teaching. But conflicts like these reflect how perverse peer pressures often trump the best intentions and practices.

This is another way of saying that something called "culture" matters, and that sometimes the best institutions for shaping culture -- which in this instance means sculpting what we believe most deeply and then faithfully living those beliefs despite disapproving slings -- are not governmental institutions like public schools, but religiously imbued ones.

Yes, this is a pitch for vouchers, which I have been known to make. But it's more specifically intended to spotlight how Generation Next appears to have zero interest in taking advantage of what private schools have to offer, which often is quite a lot when it comes to helping disadvantaged children.

I presume the group's reluctance has something to do with keeping the state's voucher-despising teachers union, Education Minnesota, in the coalition. If so, it's a lousy bargain.

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Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.

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