Friday, May 29, 2009

Success for Minnesota's Children - and for Minnesota

“You are the only ones who can save Minnesota’s children,” Geoffrey Canada told an audience at the Minneapolis Foundation’s Minnesota Meeting on Wednesday.

The “you”, of course, is “we”. We are the only ones who care enough, and have the capacity and the will, to make sure that all children in Minnesota acquire the skills they need to be productive adults in the 21st century. (Canada leads the Harlem Children’s Zone – nationally recognized for increasing the educational achievement of children whom the system has not served well.)

In his remarks Canada stated that The United States has fallen backwards in educational achievement relative to other developed and developing countries of the world. This is something we at Wilder Research have noted before. Through our Twin Cities Compass initiative, we have documented the poor mathematics proficiency of our region’s high school students and the gap in skills that begins early in elementary school for our fastest growing group of students – students of color. If we want to preserve jobs and preserve our quality of life, we need to make some changes.

Harlem Children’s Zone demonstrates that low achievement, even for children from the poorest economic and community circumstances, does not have to occur; also, it can be reversed with sustained effort.

He recommended several principles to guide the development of our approach to education. Among them:

Begin early. Promote vocabulary development and pre-reading skills starting at birth; don’t let children fall behind. If they do fall behind, involve them in intensive programs to bring them back up to where they should be.

Maintain continuity of best practices through college. To enable at-risk children to succeed, it is critical to have a pathway of supports through college. Children who benefit from a short-term program lose those benefits if they return to schools that don’t teach them well.

Involve parents by all possible means. Do whatever it takes to involve parents. He “bribes” them with gift certificates to encourage them to come to meetings. Give parents the information they need to assist their children. Many parents, even with high school or college degrees, don’t have the depth of knowledge to assist their children in all the academic subjects taught in school. However, parents can learn where to direct their children to get questions answered. They can also learn how to create an environment of “warmth plus high expectations” which, from Canada’s view of the research will enable children to achieve at their highest potential

Design schools for success. “Schools that fail are designed for failure.” Canada asserted that schools have a certain “physics” – including, for example, a set number of days and hours which produces one year of achievement for children who are prepared. However, for children who start a school year unprepared or under-performing, the standard package does not work. It never enables them to catch up. He recommends lengthening the school year. He also admonishes school districts to stop hiring and firing superintendents who just travel from one district to another; instead, adjust the “physics” of education so that schools can accomplish their function with all students.

Evaluate in a timely, meaningful way. Use data to understand outcomes. Test in a way that provides immediate feedback that teachers can use to work with students during the same year the students take the tests.

Sandra Vargas, President of the Minneapolis Foundation, asked the audience of 1000+ individuals to “hold ourselves accountable” for higher educational achievement. We must “believe” we can do it; we must “take a stand to save every one of our children.”

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