Poppe: Challenge in closing achievement gap

Published 10:41 am Wednesday, February 15, 2012

ST. PAUL — This past year I was selected to serve as one of four legislators on the external task force referred to as the P-20 Education Partnership. The P-20 Education Partnership is made-up of organizations representing pre-school/early childhood through post-secondary and beyond. Initially created as a P-16 council to focus on educational issues from early years through four years of college, it has been expanded to include a reference to year 20 which deepens its emphasis into work and life preparation that might have been missing in previous discussions which focused on education only. The partnership brings to the table key education, government, and private sector leaders. Members are the Chief Executive Officers and Presidents of their systems, agencies, and organizations. The current chair is Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) Chancellor Steven Rosenstone and the co-chair is Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota Commissioner of Education.

Dr. Rosenstone comes into this effort with less than a year under his belt as Chancellor for the MnSCU system. His direct style and comprehensive understanding of what makes for a functional organization have already made its mark in developing the mission, vision and goals of the group. He has openly engaged with his counterparts in the educational systems of the state including Dr. Eric Kaler, the University of Minnesota president and Larry Pogemiller, Director of the Office of Higher Education, in addition to his close work with Dr Cassellius. For all of Minnesota this is a welcome and important step to elevate Minnesota into the top tier of states regarding educational achievement and workforce development.

Selecting a narrower focus yet one where all stakeholders around the table can make an impact was the first task to accomplish. Not necessarily an automatic outcome but realized after deliberate discussion, the focus for the P-20 Partnership will be to address a persistent and growing problem in Minnesota: the achievement gap. This will require a common understanding of what is the achievement gap, where is the gap and how big is the gap, along with developing concrete measures to change the outcome, which should lead to maximizing student achievement while promoting efficient use of resources.

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Our state is a national leader in test scores, yet we have one of the widest achievement gaps in the country. Study after study indicates that the achievement gap between white and upper income children and “at risk” and low income children (who in Minnesota are disproportionately children of color) begins at an early age and often widens as children move through the education system. The achievement gap begins even before kindergarten, and school readiness gaps are a strong predictor of ongoing and later educational achievement gaps. One measure of this is assessment tests. High school students who took the ACT in Minnesota show that 67 percent of white juniors scored at a proficient level in math while 23% of African American students did and students of color are less likely to attend a four year college than white students.

The P-20 Partnership is uniquely positioned to work on this urgent challenge and is currently preparing a work plan that identifies areas of focus, project initiatives and a timeline for implementation. This plan will take a holistic approach that encompasses early education intervention, teacher preparation, accountability targets and readiness for post-secondary education. P-20’s unique composition will provide leadership to the statewide effort to close the achievement gap by 50 percent by 2018. Members of the Partnership agreed closing the achievement gap is an imperative on three levels: economic, moral and civic. The state of our state is in jeopardy should this achievement gap continue.