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Education gaps closing, but let’s go faster

Date Published: 11/26/2013

Author: Dane Smith, President

The director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP), Carlos Mariani Rosa (also known as state Rep. Carlos Mariani), frequently travels the length and breadth of our state to make a compelling case for closing our state’s racial opportunity gaps in education.

The MMEP narrative is based on the obvious facts of fundamental socio-economic unfairness and systemic disadvantage for minority communities, with resulting gaps in test scores and attainment.

But in a recent presentation to the Minnesota Rural Education Association in Brainerd, more than a little good news and hope pervaded the MMEP pitch, based on its latest “State of Students of Color and American Indian Students, 2012-2013.’’

For every racial minority category on the Minnesota Reading Accountability Test, the percentage-point improvement and the rate of change between 2007 and 2011 was higher than for whites, who still have a 15- to 25-point advantage over every other group.

In the case of African-American students, for instance, the reading proficiency rate was 43.1 percent, versus 75.3 for whites in 2007. By 2011, those percentages were 54.1 and 80.9. African-Americans thus reduced the gap from 32.2 percentage points to 26.8 percentage points.

The same basic trends — involving faster gains for kids of color over the last five or six years — held true for graduation and dropout rates, participation in the ACT test, and post-secondary participation. Among American Indians, Latinos/Hispanics, and Asians/Pacific Islanders, the rate of gain was higher than for whites. Gap-closing for math proficiency was consistent with the other gains, but much slower. In other research, MMEP has found that gaps actually are not closing on ACT scores.

But a couple of good things are going on here. First, every group, including whites, is generally improving. And further progress by all toward higher post-secondary completion and a more skilled workforce remains the single most important goal in building long-term economic growth for Minnesota. But most important, the race gaps finally appear to be narrowing — and certainly aren’t worsening.

The rate of improvement is maddeningly slow, not fast enough to provide the workforce we’ll need to replace the baby boom. Rough calculations suggest that if the improvement continues at the same rate, the gap between African-American students and white students won’t be closed for at least 25 years. The MMEP report for each statistical table contains a one-sentence analysis labeled “Progress!” and “Concern!” basically noting the ground gained but the much longer distance to racial parity.

The report does not explain exactly how or why we’ve made progress, and that story is infinitely complicated. But we can venture an opinion that extraordinary attention and effort to the disparity over the last decade — an increasingly strong commitment from teachers and school officials, business and nonprofit and governmental leaders — may actually have had an effect.

And let’s not forget that kids themselves may be trying harder, and actually have a healthy attitude about their prospects. Recent national polling suggests that young people of all races are surprisingly more hopeful and confident about their future than their parents and grandparents, despite the economic hardship of the last decade and several decades of growing inequality.

For young adults in a recent Pew Research poll, optimism trumped bad times by a large margin. Among those ages 18 to 34, nearly 9 in 10 said they either have or earn enough money now, or expect they will in the future. Only 9 percent said they didn’t think they will ever have enough to live the life they want.

But young people also actually know that they need more education. From the Pew poll: “Among 18- to 34-year-olds who are employed, less than half (46 percent) say they have the education and training necessary to get ahead in their job or career. Among those who are not working, only 27 percent say they are adequately prepared for the kind of job they want. Having a college degree makes a big difference on this question: 69 percent of young college graduates who are working say they have the education and training they need to get ahead. This compares with only 39 percent of those who do not have a degree and are not enrolled in college.’’

Polling also shows that Americans of all races are not only aware of our fast-growing racial diversity, but likewise know about the gaps and feel confident of our ability to close them and become a stronger and racially harmonious nation. According to extensive new polling this fall by the Center for American Progress, 70 percent of all Americans and more than 60 percent of whites support “new steps to reduce racial and ethnic inequality in America, through investments in areas like education, job training, and infrastructure improvement.’’

Although the deniers of disadvantage and those unconcerned about gap-closing appear to be shrinking in number, they are still out there and in need of confrontation or friendly persuasion.

In a recent Pioneer Press commentary, Rep. Mariani confronted head-on the lingering and wrongheaded dismissal of racial advantage, as expressed by columnist Joe Soucheray. The well-known radio talker and dispenser of “garage logic’’ had written a column declaring not only that racial diversity training for teachers was a waste of money, but that “the achievement gap is entirely normal,’’ comparable to the gaps in scores between golfers.

“Dismissing Minnesota’s achievement gap by comparing it with gaps in people’s golf scores is absurd,’’ Mariani wrote. “That kind of viewpoint is way out of the mainstream. Closing our achievement gap is a goal shared by educators, parents, business leaders and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.’’

And it’s hard to argue with these closing words in the latest MMEP report: “We know what to do. We have the knowledge. We have the leaders. We have the communities. We have the resources. We have the students. What we don’t have is a lot of time. We need to act more powerfully — right now.’’

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