Minnesota for years has shown some of the country’s worst inequities in education outcomes: graduation rates, test scores, reading, and math equivalency. These gaps are clearly defined by race, income, and locality.
MPR News’s In Focus series of convenings over the next year, meant to bring awareness, dialogue and potential solutions to Minnesota’s persistent racial disparities, continued earlier this month on the topic of education. Midday host Angela Davis led the Oct. 7 hour-long virtual event.
Participants included Minnesota Public Schools (MPS) administrator Michael Walker, 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Jess Davis, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis research economist Amusha Nath, Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs’ Samantha Diaz, and Ramona Kitto Stately of We Are Still Here Minnesota.
Angela Davis said in an MSR pre-event phone interview that the panelists were selected for their longstanding work for educational equity for Blacks and other students of color.
Nath co-authored a 2019 report that found statewide opportunity gaps between White students and Blacks, other students of color, and low-income students. Her report surmised that as overall graduation rates in Minnesota have increased in recent years, student readiness for college has declined.
“We are graduating more students, but they are not ready for college,” said Nath during the event. “Many states struggle with achievement gaps, but Minnesota has been struggling for a very long time, and we’re at the bottom persistently. We are the 50th in the nation in terms of the White-Black gaps.”
“We had the data for years. Now is the time to make real change, because we know there is a need,” said Davis, now a racial equity coach for St. Louis Park Public Schools. She formerly taught math in Twin Cities area schools from 2006-2020.
Walker said that K-12 students have been dealing with “educational brutality” for years. “This is what has been happening to our Black and Brown students…since we had integration. We have brutalized our Black and Brown babies for so long that they don’t feel connected to schools,” explained the MPS Black Student Achievement director.
“We are invisible,” added Stately on Native American education. She noted that “28 states do not mention Native people at all in their K-12 curriculum. And the ones that do, which includes Minnesota, do not discuss Native people beyond 1900. If we don’t talk about them in schools, they don’t matter.”
Diaz pointed out, “There are so many assumptions” regarding Latino families. “Our families are not engaged, our parents not paying attention. This is quite the opposite of what exactly is happening with our families.”
The pandemic is challenging education even more, and depending on the school district, students are either in distance learning or hybrid learning. Angela Davis stressed that the one-hour event, or even her weekday morning programs, do not have quick solutions.
“Education has been a constant, and we have done several shows [on it]” since she joined MPR in December 2018, the veteran news reporter-anchor said. “It’s about elevating this topic and keeping it on people’s minds.”
“There is not one solution to solving the gaps that have persisted and exist,” stated Diaz.
Walker said his office has seen improvement among Black students. “We have seen an increase in GPAs [and] graduation rates for these students. We have seen that our workshops have benefited our teachers. We can see that [MPS] schools we have been in have done better with Black students than the schools we are not in.”
“One quick fix is better communication with parents and families,” said Stately.
Jess Davis recommended “changing the mindset on how we approach education as educators. I hope that every teacher can see the potential of every student.” She also noted the importance of better recruitment and retention of teachers of color.
The educational gap “is a Minnesota problem,” surmised Diaz, adding that solving it should not be solely up to students and parents of color. “We really do need our White allies, our White parents, White policymakers to see this achievement gap and the opportunity gap as a Minnesota problem. If we don’t make intentional investments in addressing these gaps: what does that mean for the Minnesota economy?”
Dealing with a pandemic has presented an opportunity to “find new ideas for old problems in regard to education,” said Davis, the mother of one high school child and one beginning college. “We can’t forget our children.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.