July 2, 2019

Taking a Hard Look at Data and Making Harder Choices

By Matt Shaver

We just wrapped testing season in Minnesota. And while Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) results can’t tell the whole story of a school, they tell an essential part: how schools are helping, or not helping, students reach state standards in key subjects. Year after year, we see unacceptable outcomes for children of color. And, year after year, we fail to use those results to make the drastic, systemic changes that kids deserve.

As a teacher, I’m sick of it. Not acting on gaps, and simply accepting horrific inequities year after year, can no longer be an option. If we’re at all serious about building a more equitable education system, we need to act on achievement and opportunity gaps to make big, likely painful changes.

27 to 1: Our education system is producing bad odds

To better understand the gaps in Minneapolis, where I live and teach, I decided to look at the 2018 MCA results in reading for every district and charter school in the city that served K-8 students: 48 district schools and 25 charters.

I sought to learn how many schools in Minneapolis had at least half of their low-income, African-American students reading at grade-level in 2018. The results?

  • Zero district schools and only one charter school supported at least half of their low-income, African-American students to read at grade level.
  • Six schools had at least half of their low-income, African-American students at grade level in math.
  • Two schools had at least half of their low-income, African-American students at grade level in science.

You often hear that poverty—not race—is driving these results. So, I also decided to look into that. In the 36 schools in Minneapolis—29 district schools and seven charter schools—with a measurable population of low-income, white students, 27 had at least 50 percent of their low-income, white students reading at grade level.

The fact is that white students from economically struggling families vastly outperform their black peers. This debunks the idea that poverty is the only explanation for achievement gaps, and underscores the importance of race in schools in Minnesota.

How do we change the system? What’s your plan?

Clearly, schools effectively serving low-income students of color are too few and far between. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Every single student—no matter their race, income, or anything else—is capable of achieving state standards. When they don’t, we need to look at, and change, our education system—not point the finger at poverty, or worse, kids and families.

After starting my career in a high-performing Massachusetts school, I was dismayed to move back to Minneapolis and find an ecosystem full of underperforming schools, with little urgency for drastic change and a very low bar for quality—both for district schools and charters, where that is supposed to be part of trade for more autonomy. Change seems to be stuck, with little appetite for cooperation among charter and district schools, teachers’ unions, community members, and lawmakers.

To do what’s in the best interest of kids, we need to start asking bigger questions and advancing bigger solutions, even if it’s painful for adults and systems.

To do what’s in the best interest of kids, we need to start asking bigger questions and advancing bigger solutions, even if it’s painful for adults and systems. How are we measuring school quality? What does it look like to raise the bar and ensure every student receives a great education? Do our communities have the right types of programming, the right number of schools, and the tools to navigate their options? Who should intervene when a school is struggling, and what tools should they have?

Ultimately, raising the bar will require all hands on deck. We have to put aside petty disputes, make hard choices, and recognize that quality, wherever we can find it, must be at the heart of everything we do. Do we as a community and as a state have the courage, foresight, and commitment to stop poking at the edges and start doing what it takes to reimagine what schools can be for our kids? We have shown now over decades that we are not providing students in Minneapolis with the education they deserve and that our community needs to prosper. What is your plan?