By Dane Smith, April guest blogger
As we strive toward our goals of much higher post-secondary attainment and reducing our racial and income achievement gaps, let’s consider the Mayo Clinic. This world-famous institution, a point of pride for Minnesota, might seem like a strange model for school improvements. But health care and medicine, like education, is fundamentally a human-helping-human enterprise. And the concept of healing is fitting as we try to address what ails our education system.
"The Mayo" earned its reputation by: considering the whole health of each patient in the most comprehensive way possible, dedication to the principle that "the needs of the patient always come first," coordinating the efforts of its entire group of doctors, and devoting much of its resources toward research and evidence, according to Wikipedia. (As the father of a daughter whose life was saved by Mayo’s collaborative expertise, I actually have firsthand knowledge of the Mayo formula.)
Similarly, we strongly believe that the ideal strategy for improving education investment in Minnesota must be comprehensive, student-centered, collaborative and evidence-based.
There actually is a growing consensus nationally that the entire cradle-to-career pathway must be tended and improved, as outlined in a national "Broader, Bolder Approach," with its guiding principles for educational redesign. While we should demand improvement in K-12 teachers and principals and administrators, we are missing the boat completely if we neglect the fact that about half our kindergartners, mostly from low-income families and disadvantaged minority neighborhoods, are not fully ready to learn when those professionals first see them. And education must begin by better equipping new parents for their weighty responsibilities.
This or that "silver bullet" — school uniforms, alternative teacher licensure or merit pay, all-day kindergarten — are not likely all by themselves to move the needle dramatically on educational outcomes. And we simply can’t hope for this or that individual miracle-worker in the school system to save our struggling students. Rather, the African proverb "it takes a village to raise a child" comes to mind. And although that phrase might be a little overused in recent years, this very comprehensive and collaborative mindset was crucial to success over the last decade in Cincinnati.
The graduation rate for Cincinnati Public Schools district increased from 51% in 2000 to 80% in 2009. And the graduation rate differential between African-American students and white students not only narrowed to nearly equal standing in that time but has remained at similar levels since 2006. Achievement scores for the district improved significantly. And perhaps most important, college enrollment and readiness have bumped up too: colleges in the Cincinnati area are reporting that more of the city’s high school graduates are enrolling, and more students from the local area are entering academia prepared for the challenges — and staying in college.
The Cincinnati story truly was a group effort. Cincinnati’s success involved multiple interventions along the entire pathway, from cradle to career launch, not just one or two of those "silver bullets," such as lower class sizes, aggressive testing or assigning pass/fail grades to schools. And the overriding lesson is that the school district was not alone in its efforts to reform schools and improve achievement for all students. The local business and philanthropic community, parents and community groups, teachers unions and even national experts on school change (including Minnesota’s own Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College) played a key role. More about the Cincinnati experience is available on our website at Growth & Justice, which also features our own Smart Investments in Minnesota’s Students agenda and project, detailing a comprehensive, evidence-based strategy for driving Minnesota toward a 75% higher education attainment rate by the end of this decade.
Education has always been a public responsibility in Minnesota and the United States, for the very good reason that it is essential to our common good, our economy and the quality of life in our community. Education really is everybody’s business, extends well beyond the school and before and after the school day. Mayo and Cincinnati teach us that comprehensive and collaborative are the right way to meet this responsibility.