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Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

A wakeup call for Minnesota's schools

  • Article by: KATHY SALTZMAN
  • December 11, 2012 - 8:49 PM

As Minnesotans, we're humble about most things. But our kids are a different story. We're proud of their accomplishments, and we like to talk about them. For years we've pointed with great pride to our state's high graduation rates, among the best in the country, and to our nation-leading ACT scores.

But few of us have been inclined to talk about new data released two weeks ago by the U.S. Department of Education on graduation rates. Minnesota has fallen to the bottom 50 percent of all states, below Arkansas, Missouri, Texas and Tennessee, among others.

This news didn't make headlines here at home, but it did elsewhere, as Minnesota was cited in national news reports as having the worst graduation rates in the nation for Latino and Native American students and the second lowest rate for African-American and Asian/Pacific Islander students.

These new graduation figures should give us all great pause, particularly educators and state policymakers. If we continue to ignore this crisis -- and what it means for the children who are most in need -- Minnesota's ability to produce a highly educated workforce that can compete in a global economy will be greatly diminished. For our students, it's also an issue of social justice. We may be educating some of our students at high levels, but this data shows that we're not doing that with all of them.

This fall, I joined the StudentsFirst team as its state director for Minnesota. The national bipartisan education reform group, which currently operates in 17 states, has a singular focus on changing policies to ensure that all kids get a great education. The policies we're advocating for are ones that put the needs of children ahead of adult interests and have been shown to help kids excel academically.

As a former state senator, I know firsthand what can be accomplished when policymakers from both sides of the aisle and interest groups that often have opposing agendas come together to solve critical problems. During my time in the Legislature, we had success with this approach on some key education reforms, including improved teacher preparation programs and stronger charter school laws regarding accountability. I believe true bipartisanship is essential if we want to address the achievement gap and increase graduation rates, in addition to other urgent problems facing our education system.

StudentsFirst Minnesota will challenge the status quo if it's not working for kids and seek to elevate the teaching profession, empower parents and ensure every education dollar is used wisely and effectively.

I recently heard Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools and a StudentsFirst board member, ask if the American dream was becoming an "American memory" for many of our nation's children. That may seem like a novel concept to most Minnesotans, but it's a lot closer to our reality than many of us realize.

I commend and applaud Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators for their recent shared work in the areas of early literacy and teacher and principal evaluations that will positively affect all Minnesota children. But it simply isn't enough, and this most recent graduation data can't be ignored.

Arne Duncan, President Obama's secretary of education, told attendees at a national education summit last month that we have been lacking courage when it comes to closing the achievement gap both nationally and here in Minnesota.

I agree and believe that our recent rankings should serve as an urgent wakeup call. It's time to roll up our sleeves, find our courage and put aside our differences to do what's best for our children.

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Kathy Saltzman is state director for StudentsFirst in Minnesota and a former DFL member of the Minnesota Senate.

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