Bringing method to our achievement-gap madness

/ 1 December 2012 / eunice

Pioneer Press, Editorial, December 1, 2012 – When it comes to efforts to narrow the achievement gap, the Twin Cities are “program-rich, but system-poor.”

In St. Paul and Minneapolis, about 500 programs are working — separately, often — to close the racial and economic gaps in student school performance. In 2010, corporate and community funders spent $96 million on such efforts in the seven-county metro area.

The programs and dollars, all well-intentioned, aren’t moving the big needle: Our significant, persistent achievement gap remains among the nation’s widest.

“There’s no mechanism for collaboration,” said Michael Goar, executive director of the Generation Next Partnership (, a venture launched last week that community leaders hope will provide the needed “system” to identify what’s working and bring research-based rigor to decision-making.

Goar, recruited to return home to Minnesota after serving as deputy superintendent of Boston Public Schools, will direct an unprecedented partnership that includes St. Paul and Minneapolis mayors, superintendents of schools in the two districts, teachers’ union leaders and top corporate, foundation and college and university representatives. Co-chairs of its Leadership Council are University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and Kim Nelson, president of the General Mills Foundation.

The group aims to tackle “what is perhaps the most important issue in our community right now,” Sarah Caruso, president and CEO of the Greater Twin Cities United Way, told us. The effort will use research to focus on the disparate programs and “equip all these caring people with better tools to get better outcomes.”

The Leadership Council members are people accustomed to getting results.

The level of commitment “gives me confidence we can move the dial,” Kate Wolford, president of the McKnight Foundation, told us. “We have a collective responsibility here to hold ourselves accountable for making a difference.”

Carleen Rhodes, president of the St. Paul Foundation, an affiliate of Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, has “a lot of hope” for the effort. “We talk a lot about cross-sector work. We’re motivated to cross boundaries of expertise or responsibility to identify better ways of doing things and using collective expertise and resources to solve problems.”

Foundation leaders told us they’ll draw on experience from such joint efforts as the Itasca Project, the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and recent work that resulted in creation of the Greater MSP regional economic development partnership. “We have a lot of civic will to get things done,” Rhodes said.

There have been some successes in closing the gap for some students, Wolford told us, but addressing “one piece of the puzzle to help some individual kids isn’t really changing the system to reliably deliver results.”

New numbers add support for Generation Next’s “cradle-to-career” approach — and increase concern about the state’s graduation rate gap. According to data released last week by the U.S. Department of Education, Minnesota ranks lowest in graduation rates for American Indian and Latino students and second-lowest for black students.

Generation Next — modeled on successful programs of the National Strive Network in Cincinnati, Boston, Portland and other metro school districts — will address “the full educational continuum” to ensure that all students enter kindergarten ready to succeed, achieve third-grade reading benchmarks, achieve eighth-grade math benchmarks, graduate on time from high school and obtain a post-secondary degree or certificate within six years of graduation.

Generation Next leaders are clear about their focus on evidence. Their work, with data and measurement support from the Wilder Foundation, won’t duplicate the efforts of advocacy groups, such as MinnCAN and others working on various school reform initiatives, they told us.

The effort is “a way to think differently about things all of us agree are pernicious problems,” Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, told us. “We got here because we stopped working in community,” and pursued efforts “in isolation from each other.”

We “won’t solve these problems with the same habits,” she said, but will “experience tension between the urgency needed to improve outcomes for kids and families and the patience it takes to do that well and do that right.”

What’s involved? “Hard discipline,” Wolford said, that will require willingness to “call the question and drive results to what works” and being “open to learning and having assumptions challenged.”

Generation Next has succeeded in engaging community leaders who are passionate about making a difference for all students. That spirit of engagement should continue to drive its efforts as it reaches out to parents, students, teachers and others in the community. We all have a stake in the success of this new “system.” Otherwise, we’ll wind up with 501 organizations working on little pieces of the same big gap.