Education summit on achievement gap exposes divide

/ 6 February 2014 / eunice

Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio, February 6, 2014 – When a key group of Minnesota business leaders, education officials and lawmakers met in St. Paul today for a summit on how to improve education, they invited national leaders in the education reform movement.

But in inviting Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor for the Washington D.C. school district, the event exposed the deep divisions that exist between groups that are trying to address the state’s achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Minnesota has one of the biggest achievement gaps in the country on metrics such as test scores and graduation rates. In some cases it’s as large as 30 percentage points. Some high profile education reform groups have laid some of the blame for the gap on bad teachers.

One of their core beliefs is that decisions on whether to fire teachers and how much they’re paid, should be based on student performance, not on teacher tenure.

That’s something Rhee has been pushing. As head of the district in the nation’s capitol, she closed down schools, fired principals and negotiated contracts with fewer job protections for teachers, all in an effort to turn around the struggling district.

Although Rhee maintains those efforts led to big increases in test scores, there have been allegations that her push to hold schools accountable for student performance led to cheating.

The topic of education reform has deeply divided the education world in recent years, with proposals to base teacher pay and layoffs on student performance facing strong opposition from teacher groups.

Even before Rhee spoke at the summit sponsored by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, its leaders acknowledged that divide.

“We intend to generate a healthy discussion this morning regarding education reform, which can be controversial,” said Jeff DeYoung, chair of the chamber’s board of directors. “In reality it shouldn’t be, but it can be.”

But there are serious differences of opinion over how to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Rhee, who in recent years has headed the group StudentsFirst, which has pushed to end teacher tenure in states across the country, suggested today that doing so is one way to turn around struggling schools.

But after the speech she maintained that both sides of the education reform debate want the same thing, and shouldn’t get mired in controversy.

“I believe that those people want the best things for kids, I want the best things for kids, we have to assume the best about each other, and say we disagree on some of the strategies to get there,” Rhee said. “So let’s have a conversation about those strategies instead of these peripheral things on the side that don’t matter.”

Critics of the education summit complained that it didn’t make an effort to include teachers in the conversation. The teachers union Education Minnesota pointed out that the summit took place in the morning, when teachers were at work.

Union president Denise Specht said the problem of Minnesota’s achievement gap can’t be fixed without input from teachers.

“The complexities of the issues in our schools are far too great for just one group to solve,” she said. “We need to bring more people together.”

One group trying to bring people together to solve the achievement gap is Generation Next.

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recently took over as head of the group. Rybak, who took part in today’s summit, said GenerationNext is focusing on finding the best way to get all Minnesota students reading at grade level by 3rd grade.

The group also is sifting through data now to find out which approaches help students of color and low income students do better in school. Rybak hopes to take those ideas to more schools in Minnesota, while avoiding the debate over education reform.

“While it’s occurring in the middle of a deeply polluted education debate, if we agree on the data and we use that data to agree on what’s working, and then we figure out a way to get what’s working to scale, we can solve this thing, and we have to,” he said.