Good news about closing urban achievement gaps

Dec 28, 2011 by

Joe Nathan

As we move toward 2012, here’s some good news about closing urban achievement gaps. Creative, hard working educators in Minneapolis in partnership with Cargill have produced major academic gains. Here’s what happened.

Over the last year, a group of eight Minneapolis area charter public schools in Cargill’s LEAD for Charter Schools averaged several times more improvement in the percentage of students judged proficient on Minnesota’s state-wide reading test than the state’s average gain. Statewide, there was a gain of 2.3 percent. These participating eight schools increased the number of proficient students by an average of 8.8 percent.

LEAD schools use seven strategies to help produce gains that are more than three times the state’s average. With help from Larson Allen and Center for School Change, where I work, educators

  • Acquired strategies to spend more time on learning and teaching, less on classroom disruption. This one of several lessons from visits to and training with educators from high performing urban schools. (Please see picture of several Project LEAD educators meeting with the director of an outstanding public school in Houston. Photo by Joan Arbisi Little of CSC staff)
  • Arranged late afternoon or evening meetings with families. Educators showed them how to promote more positive attitudes and practice reading and math skills at home.
  • Set a few specific project-wide goals, including a 10 percent increase in reading achievement per year over the next two years. The 2010-11 school year was a planning year, and initial implementation of new approaches. The project continues through June, 2013.
  • Obtained an executive coach from Cargill’s staff for each school director. These coaches helped principals improve time management, employee feedback and work with boards.
  • Developed a work plan. This helped each school study itself and determine key next steps. Then, we met periodically with the schools to help them carry out their plans.
  • Received approximately $30,000 from Cargill to help support the work
  • Evaluated student progress periodically and used results to help refine the program.

LEAD builds on a seven-year commitment by Cargill to local charter schools. The LEAD schools average 2-3 times the state average of low income, limited English speaking and students of color. For example, 86 percent of their students came from low-income students, compared to Minnesota’s average of 36.7 percent. Eighty-eight of their population is students of color, compared to Minnesota’s 25.6 percent average. And their percentage of English language learners is three times the Minnesota average: 25.5 versus 7.7 percent.

Participating schools include: BEST, El Colegio, Excell Academy, Hiawatha, Metro Tech, Partnership Academy, Sojourner Truth and WISE. In the spring, Minnesota Transitions, Friendship Academy and Stonebridge also joined the project.

CSC’s involvement is a result of our experience coordinating a similar program in the Cincinnati District public schools. Between 2000 and 2007, Cincinnati’s district high schools increased overall high school graduation rates and eliminated the graduation gap between white and African American students. This initial work, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation formally ended in 2007.

Now, four years after Gates funding ended, Cincinnati’s gap has remained closed. Participating Cincinnati high school principals tell me that many of the same strategies continue to make a difference. A few goals were established, but that’s not enough. Educators also learned from outstanding district and charter public schools around the country. They focused staff development and expanded partnerships with families and other community members.

In Cincinnati and Minneapolis, teachers, administrators and students were recognized and honored by funders for their progress.

These programs show that public schools can dramatically reduce or eliminate achievement gaps. It’s hard work, but it’s doable.

Joe Nathan, PhD, a former urban public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College. Reactions welcome,

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