U. S. education equity ‘has a long way to go’

New waiver calls for 50 percent cut in MN education gap by 2017

Souce: Reidaroo/Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Reidaroo/Licensed under CC By-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said she will continue to work with local groups to close the achievement gap between Black and White students. Getting federal approval for a four-year waiver extension will help in this regard, she noted.

The U.S. Education Department announced last week that Minnesota, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia are among five states that received a four-year renewal on its waiver for flexibility from provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), better known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). These waivers are good through the 2018-19 school year.
The state received its first waiver in 2012, which provided “a statewide solution” such as establishing a “more transparent, meaningful and useful accountability system,” said Cassellius in a March 31 conference call with reporters, including the MSR. “We are no longer sending out letters in punishing [low performing] schools” as a result, she added.

When asked about the still-existing achievement gap among Black students in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the state educational head told the MSR, “We have some significant work to do in Minneapolis and St. Paul specifically. It’s no secret that Minnesota has had one of the worst records in the nation in achievement gap.”

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius

Cassellius says her department is working with such local organizations as the Northside Achievement Zone that works with North Minneapolis families and children and others on closing the achievement gap. “We will continue to work with the Northside Achievement Zone and our communities to try to increase the achievement for our kids in Minneapolis,” she pledged.

Congress this year is working on an overhaul of ESEA, said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who also was on the call along with Cassellius, New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera and Virginia Public Instruction Superintendent Steven Staples.

“I do remain hopeful” that the GOP majority in both houses will work on “a strong, bipartisan reauthorization of the law,” the secretary pointed out. Therefore, “States today still need waivers to provide flexibility…to continue to implement innovated reforms” until a new law is in place, said Duncan.

Cassellius referred to the statewide Regional Centers of Excellence that were created to work with the state’s lowest performing schools. According to her, almost 75 percent of the schools that worked with these centers improved their student achievement, and 43 percent are no longer low-performing.

The new waiver extension calls for the state to cut in half the achievement gap between White students and students of color by 2017, “which most educators felt [was] a more realistic goal,” she explained.

State schools as a result are “making huge, huge progress” among all student groups, states Cassellius. She points to a 10 percent improvement in test scores among Latino students, and Black fourth graders’ math scores have jumped from 24th to fourth in the nation.

“We will continue to partner with states to support them through the ESEA flexibility process, starting with these five states,” added Duncan. He said the waivers will serve four purposes:

  • Provide needed resources to local school leaders and districts.
  • Make “a real investment” in high-poverty schools and districts and expand access to pre-K programs.
  • Keep high expectations for all students.
  • Put in place action plans for schools not performing, identify schools that [are] consistently low performing, and eliminate funding inequities.

Duncan said he’s seen “real progress” in U.S. schools, including higher high school graduation rates and “sharp cuts” in dropout rates as well. Yet, he admits, educational equality in this country “has a long way to go.”

Minnesota’s “ultimate goal” is for all students graduating on time from high school, said Cassellius.

All students should be well educated “regardless of zip code,” concluded Duncan.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.

Edited 4/10/2015 11:35 pm