Ending the crisis of the achievement gap

On paper, the Mayor of Minneapolis has no authority over the city’s schools.

In reality, Minneapolis cannot be everything we need it to be unless every one of us, including me, does everything we can to dramatically improve the performance of every student in every school in every part of our district.

Over the past 12 years, I’ve been in all of our schools, some many times, and I can say that there are teachers and students soaring in every part of town. But still, despite this success, there is a completely unacceptable achievement gap in Minneapolis schools that falls starkly along racial and economic lines.

We have to treat this crisis like the crisis that it is, and we have to take more aggressive action to solve it.

The good news is that Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and the Minneapolis School Board have outlined a promising strategy – The Partnership Zone. This new approach to our most challenged schools proposes creating Partnership Zones, with new responsibilities for teachers and students. The strategy deserves our support, and at the end of this email I will tell you how you can do your part to help.

  • The first step in the Partnership Zone proposal is to give our students more high-quality instructional time. Minnesota suffers from one of the lowest numbers of instructional days of any state in the nation, and the Superintendent’s proposal aims to reverse that. We cannot begin to end the achievement gap unless our students spend significantly more time actually learning.
  • This new shift proposes that the students who are facing the most challenges will be taught by our most capable teachers. Because the district and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, working cooperatively, have developed a robust teacher-evaluation tool that is more comprehensive than the State’s, we now know much more about measuring quality teaching. The Partnership Zone proposes to use this data to make sure that those students with the greatest needs are taught by highly effective teachers.

This new thinking also carves out new areas of opportunity.

  • It creates more autonomy for schools.
  • It also creates more preparation and partnership time for teachers, and boosts career ladders for them.

This is a promising start, but we need to encourage the Superintendent, the Board and teachers to be bold. This wise outline needs to be enhanced with management and contract details that ensure that schools that face the greatest challenges have more flexibility and funding, in order to move beyond what we already know isn’t closing the achievement gap.

As the details for the partnership schools are outlined and negotiated, I encourage the administration and the teachers to give the community options that may require all of us to give more.  No doubt very tough choices will need to be made, but if an extremely innovative idea is put on the table to close the achievement gap it could attract some of the funding that is now going into other education action alternatives.  Be bold, challenge all of us with a new approach and in return ask all of us to give more time and money to make it work.

I especially want to encourage the Board and Superintendent to do far more to diversify the ranks of our teachers. There is a shocking lack of teachers of color in the Minneapolis Public Schools, where the majority of students are students of color. The status quo simply will not close this gap fast enough. Our increasingly diverse students cannot wait another generation to start seeing more people in the front of the classroom who reflect our city.

The success of our next generation, and our entire city, depends on every person in Minneapolis becoming more engaged in improving our schools. Here are a few things you can do:

A final point: This discussion about how we improve outcomes in Minneapolis schools takes place while the national education debate is increasingly polarized. Highly charged labels and attacks are being thrown around that negatively characterize those who work every single day with our kids, as well as those who want better outcomes for all of our students. That is a great recipe for getting nothing done.

If we are going to make progress, we have to leave the overly charged terms of the national debate at our city limits and make our discussion a respectful, Minneapolis discussion about Minneapolis solutions to Minneapolis challenges. I hope that all of us can find a way to get outside of our comfort zone, hear what others who may not agree with us are saying, think about new ways of doing things, and see new ways of looking at what is being done now.

Now is the time for us find a way to move our whole city with a single-minded focus: This city that leads the country on so many positive levels also leads in the achievement gap, and that absolutely must end. Nothing in Minneapolis is more important right now than ensuring that every single young person has the chance to soar.

This is a great city that has tackled huge issues in the past by working together. Let’s do that again for our kids.

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