Friday, October 30, 2015

Generation Next: Key steps toward eliminating the achievement gap

Can we eliminate the achievement gap and make certain that all young people develop the skills they need for the 21st century? If Generation Next succeeds, Minneapolis and Saint Paul certainly have an excellent chance of doing so.

The Generation Next annual meeting, in mid-October, celebrated the initial steps that the initiative has taken and focused attention on what next steps we as a community need to take. In opening the meeting, President Eric Kaler of the University of Minnesota noted what Minnesota Compass has documented: that the gaps in academic achievement between white children and children of color result in a terrible ranking for Minnesota among the 50 states.

The situation might seem daunting, the problem intractable. The most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, show no narrowing of the achievement gap. However, Generation Next offers hope, for several reasons.

As Generation Next Executive Director R.T. Rybak pointed out, educational success relies upon joint action. He wants the initiative to provide tools to families, schools, and communities – all of which must work in concert in order for student achievement to occur. Generation Next has set a lot of joint action into motion.

Practical and tangible community steps

Generation Next has sorted the big issues into several goals within which the initiative can identify smaller, addressable community tasks. For example, it has worked in very practical and tangible ways to determine how many children lack quality child care or tutors for reading, raises awareness about issues like these, and develop strategies to link the children in need to resources effective for them.

Data informed programs

Generation Next has made excellent use of data to identify the timing and content of interventions to improve academic success. Eric Moore, Director of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment for Minneapolis Public Schools, described how 9th grade school behaviors (attendance and completing courses in 9th grade) constitute the most significant predictor of whether young people will graduate from high school. Generation Next intends to bring to our region an evidence-based program from the University of Chicago, which focuses on 9th-graders and which has demonstrated positive effects on high school graduation rates.

Professor Michael Rodriguez of the University of Minnesota (and an alum of Wilder Research) has done research showing that commitment to learning among African American males is higher than for whites. However, learning commitment tends to take a dip in junior high. Supplied with this knowledge, Generation Next can work with schools and others to intervene strategically to prevent that dip from occurring and thereby narrow the achievement gap.

Community investment

Generation Next has built coalitions of funders, providers, and volunteers. The United Way and the Bush Foundation have taken note of the momentum and announced at the annual meeting major new funding to sustain that momentum and promote quality care and services in the support of children’s education.

Will this all work?

We need to wait and see. The initiative has incorporated ingredients recommended by the National Education Association and by researchers who have spent years studying the achievement gap and its causes. Improvement of our children’s academic success will not result solely from efforts undertaken inside the school walls. Superintendents, principals, and teachers need to play their roles effectively to teach a changing population of young students. Generation Next can collaborate with those educators and with others to forge the symbiosis among families, schools, and communities that will make sure our children enter school ready to learn, succeed in learning, and lead fulfilling lives.

In sending us off from the Generation Next annual meeting, Kim Nelson, Senior Vice President at General Mills, reflected the excitement and energy embodied among those in attendance. She expressed hope. She noted: “We’re becoming aligned. We’re focusing on evidence based practice.” Through this alignment, she intends to help lead the community to our ultimate goal: eliminating the achievement gap and ensuring a great education for all of our children.