Four ideas to close the achievement gap

I rolled out an economic argument for closing the achievement gap earlier this week.

Here’s a look at how to close it.

These are ideas to help kids pulled together from my 10 years writing and editing K-12 and higher education in the Twin Cities for the Pioneer Press.

I understand the “close the gap” discussion almost always breaks down into debates/diatribes about unions, budget cuts, uncaring politicians or broken family structures. But try this list.

Reach them early. Preschool and full-day kindergarten helps kids who would otherwise start school behind. Research shows this. People in business suits agree with this.

Minneapolis Fed economist Art Rolnick has been one of the key voices on this, coming at it with data and a convincing economic argument.

“Investment” is a word that gets thrown around way to easily, but it works here.

Keep them in one school. Kids need stability. When they don’t have to move from school to school they do better. When life forces them to switch schools, they do worse.

A decade ago, the Kids Mobility Project found Minneapolis children who did not move during the year scored twice as high on reading tests compared to kids who switched schools three or more times.

Kids’ stability is a good thing for teachers, too. Imagine being a teacher who gets a kid who’s behind in September, works with him through the fall to get him nearly caught up, only to see that kid not come back in January, replaced by another kid who’s way behind.

Get them taking tougher courses. We talk a lot about kids getting into college. We don’t talk a lot about whether they succeed there or fail.

Less than half the students of color who enter the University of Minnesota Twin Cities graduate within six years. That’s likely the best of any Minnesota public college.

High school course work matters. Teens who take rigorous college-prep coursework in high school are far more likely to earn a degree than kids who don’t.

U.S. Department of Education research shows that when students complete a math course in high school higher than Algebra II they more than double the odds that they will earn a bachelor’s degree in college (not just attend college).

That’s about as close to a magic bullet as you get in education.

The problem: local and national data show black and Latino students far less likely than white or Asian students to finish coursework in high school beyond than the basics. Too often that doesn’t show up until kids take the ACT.

Teens who thought they were ready for college work discover too late they are not ready.

Minnesota’s planning to require Algebra I in eighth grade as one means to fix this. I worry about that. Ordering Algebra I is not the same as making sure kids are ready to succeed in Algebra I in eighth grade.

Get them a great principal. St. Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff Elementary School is the one genuine school turnaround I’ve seen in the Twin Cities.

Despite millions poured in from the city, state and foundations, it was a basket case until the district overhauled staff and named Von Sheppard as principal.

It was risky. Sheppard had never been a principal before. But he came in, got student discipline under control, built bridges to families and children and created a climate in the building that let teachers teach and kids learn.

Test scores jumped and stayed relatively high even after Sheppard move on.

Those “beat the odds” schools you read about nationally are typically led by a principal who can build that kind of culture. When the adults in a school are working in harmony, kids succeed. When the adults are in chaos, success is unlikely.

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