By Robert Jones, April guest blogger
Nearly 34 years ago I arrived in Minnesota as a 26-year-old newly minted Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. As the son of a Georgia sharecropper and a product of both a segregated public school system and the Civil Rights Movement that brought about its demise, I had traversed a road less traveled by African-Americans in general and males in particular. I had not only finished high school, but also had obtained an undergraduate and two advanced degrees in science-based disciplines and landed a dream job as an assistant professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota. I chose Minnesota not only for its professional fit, but also for the quality of its public schools — reflecting my desire for my five-year-old son to have better educational opportunities than I had experienced.
Much has changed over the last three decades, not all of it positive. Readers of this blog undoubtedly know that Minnesota has slipped from being a model of excellence in public education to being a state where the academic achievement gap looms largest. The gap cannot be explained by the high performance of our white students. In fact, in many cases students of color in Minnesota score below students of color in other states. On the 2009 national NAEP exam, for example, African-American fourth graders in Texas and Georgia scored higher in reading than their counterparts in Minnesota. Minnesota’s Hispanic students also performed significantly below Hispanic students in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi.
More than 58 years after the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, and in view of all the economic and intellectual resources available in Minnesota, we should all be profoundly troubled by our state’s shameful results.
The social, economic, and moral consequences of the achievement gap should alarm every Minnesotan. The future of our communities and our state depends on ensuring our children are prepared for and successful in some form of postsecondary education. A recent study anticipates that by 2018 — the year today’s sixth graders graduate from high school — at least 70% of jobs in Minnesota will require some postsecondary education. To make sure today’s sixth graders have a bright future, by 2018 we will need to significantly increase the number of students graduating from our community, technical and four-year colleges.
Reaching this goal will be impossible if we do not find a way to close our state’s achievement gap. According to Minnesota’s state demographer, the percentage of residents in the Twin Cities region who are Latino, black, and Asian is expected to increase from 23% to approximately 35% in 2035. The white population in the Twin Cities, in contrast, is not expected to grow after 2015. If nothing changes, we are headed for an increasingly racially, economically, and educationally segregated community. And to quote author James Baldwin, “These are our children and we will either benefit or suffer from what they become.”
At the University of Minnesota, we are deeply concerned about these trends and are committed to leveraging resources and partnering with K–12 schools and educators to prepare students for success in college — and not just at U of M campuses. Our Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) is collaborating with the Northside Achievement Zone and other organizations on literacy and school readiness initiatives that could be models for all economically challenged urban communities. Our College of Education and Human Development is redesigning its teacher preparation program as faculty members advance research aimed at eliminating the gap and improving outcomes for all students.
In my office, the College Readiness Consortium reaches out to schools statewide through Ramp-Up to Readiness™, a school-wide guidance program that helps students master the knowledge, skills, and habits they need to succeed in college — whether at our institution, a MNSCU college, or a private campus.
Many school success and college readiness efforts are going on in schools, colleges, faith communities, and nonprofit organizations across the state, especially in the Twin Cities. A recent assessment identified more than 500 initiatives now working to close the achievement gap. The pressing question is, why hasn’t the work of a multitude of well-intentioned people succeeded in eliminating the achievement gap? And how can we leverage our work to achieve the results our children and our state so desperately need?
I believe the answer is that in the Twin Cites we are “program rich but systems poor.” I also would suggest that a comprehensive framework developed in Cincinnati called Strive may in large measure provide the solution — and will explain why in my next post.