Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Achievement Gap

The "Achievement Gap" refers to the differences between white children and children of color on measures of academic performance. For example, White children are about twice as likely to score proficiently on reading and math tests, and twice as likely to graduate from high school on time, compared with African-American children.

The gap presents a challenge to our region because children of color constitute a rapidly growing segment of our population; they represent the majority of students in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul schools. They represent a signficant portion of our future.

The Superintendent of the Saint Paul Schools announced that she wants to close this gap. According to reports appearing in the August 24 Pioneer Press and StarTribune, she intends to develop a plan that will engage the community to work toward equal educational outcomes for all students.

The education achievement gap is not new; it is not local. Wilder Research began formally reporting it in the early 1990s, as did others around the country. It had been identified even before then.

Dan Mueller of Wilder Research outlined a number of strategies that research demonstrates can reduce or eliminate the gap. These include: high quality, center-based preschools; elementary schools that have a strong focus on teaching and learning (minimizing distractions for other purposes, for example); schools that have a rigorous curriculum; schools that align their curriculum and instruction with their assessment process; effective school leadership; strong teacher professional development programs; and others.

Note that income differences do not fully explain the achievement gap; note also that different racial groups tend to score differently. And remember that the numbers are typically averages; within each racial group, you can find students who perform well and students who do not.

The Superintendent intends to create a plan in the coming months. I encourage her to consider both short-term and long-term strategies, as the research suggests. For some students, improvement can likely occur rapidly. Complete closure of the gap, for all students, will take longer.

Saturday's Pioneer Press reported that she will institute new "training" in which "outside consultants" will "observe staff members at work and advise them on areas of potential racial, socio-economic and gender bias." This will start with clerks and the executive team; observations of teachers will not occur at first. Research evidence does not yet exist to indicate that such training will substantially close the gap, but potentially it can begin to enhance the atmosphere of schools and the day-to-day behaviors of front line staff in ways that will foster better learning environments for children of all colors.

Closing the gap will require changes in the cultures of schools, other organizations, the community, and families. It will require joint efforts among many of us in Saint Paul. It will require that we all share responsibility; we will need to move beyond blame and finger-pointing and take special care not to "blame the victim".

If you have looked at the research, you know that elimination of the achievement gap will only occur if our schools change. That will cause stress and discomfort. However, our schools cannot accomplish this alone. We all need to pitch in, and we all might experience some discomfort in the short run.

Are we ready? I think that many of us are. If we pay attention to the evidence on what does work to close the gap, and if we make a steadfast effort, we can succeed to overcome one of the most significant challenges to the future of our region.

(You can learn more about the research on the achievement gap in the paper by Dr. Dan Mueller, "Tackling the Achievement Gap Head On" on the Wilder Research web site.)

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The 35W Bridge in Minneapolis

Does civic engagement affect our responses to metal fatigue? Probably yes, as I reflected upon it this morning.

Everyone in Minnesota, and many throughout the nation and the world, watched events unfold Wednesday evening in the aftermath of the collapse of the bridge over the Mississippi River. Today, we could view a tape of the actual collapse. The victims and their families have directly experienced a tragedy, and continue to do so; all of us feel the effects.

Today, the morning after the collapse, I had an 8:00 a.m. meeting with an advisory committee to discuss how to measure "Civic Engagement" as part of our Twin Cities Compass initiative, intended to measure the quality of life in the Twin Cities region. Prior to the meeting, I had wondered if committee members would attend, given the emotionally stressful events of the previous evening, not to mention potential traffic problems in the morning. I even had considered canceling the meeting.

I'm glad we met, not just because we productively accomplished our work, but because the meeting offered me the chance to reflect on the fact that civic engagement does very much relate to what happened to the bridge and on the bridge.

We have structures and infrastructures of all kinds in this world. They enable us to travel, communicate, and get important things done. Similar to people, they get old. Bridges get old.

Who should decide when to replace an aging bridge - engineers and other technicians? public officials? the general public? The experts gave this bridge a "sufficiency rating" of 50%, meaning from their point of view that it "might" need to be replaced; they rated its "structural members" at 4 on a scale of 9. Should it have been replaced? Who decides?

These decisions are not purely technical. They involve values; they involve hard decisions about costs. They pit different needs against one another, since money spent on bridge replacement cannot pay for something else. The decisions have implications that people feel directly, for example, in the time it takes them to travel, and in the taxes they have to pay.

Good decisions require informed and engaged members of the community. Productive action must be nonpartisan (or cooperatively multi-partisan), not motivated by attention only to rigid political or ideological agendas. Long-term thinking (which some politicians will not do) is required.

So, when we consider what happens to bridges, roads, and other physical structures, we must remain aware that our action or inaction, our interest or apathy, determine how safe we will be when we ride in cars, buses, trains, and planes. For the 35W bridge, some person or persons made the decision that the 50% rating was good enough not to make structural work a priority. Perhaps more people should be involved in that type of decision, in addition to many other decisions that literally affect our lives.

What about on the bridge? There we saw civic engagement at its finest in a crisis situation. Everyone - our police and fire services, service agencies like the Red Cross, nearby residents, passers-by, drivers (some of whom narrowly missed catastrophe), and others - pitched in, in some cases risking their lives.

I could not be near enough to get on that bridge to help people last night; but I'm very happy to be part of a process that can bring our region together to examine our trends and needs and to get mechanisms in place that will prevent future tragedies of this type.

That's why our meeting this morning - while it might seem remote from the victims, the crushed cars, the jumbled slabs of concrete - while it might seem irrelevant to engineering studies and reports - has great significance. We need civic engagement; we need good information that engaged citizens can use. Our lives and well-being depend on it.

As a footnote, three of the thirteen people in the room this morning had a close connection to victims on or near the bridge at the time of the collapse. One of these victims was seriously injured and is waiting for a decision about surgery. So, 3 of 13 at "one degree of separation" from people directly involved; my guess is that the rest of us in the room are only "two degrees" separated from the tragedy - that is, we most likely know someone who is personally linked to a victim.

That shows how much of a community we are - and demonstrates how important it is for us, as community members to make our region a better place to live!