This commentary was first published in the Star Tribune.
Today, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis released a comprehensive report on the performance of Minnesota K-12 schools in preparing our children for their futures.
On average Minnesota schools perform well compared with other states. Unfortunately, those averages mask some of the worst educational disparities in the nation. If you are a low income white Minnesotan or a Minnesotan of color, whether your children attend a traditional or a charter school, chances are high that they are not getting the education they deserve.
These disparities are deeply unfair to those left behind. We all have a stake in closing these educational gaps: they affect rural and urban school districts equally. Minnesota will not remain economically strong without a well-educated workforce.
There have been many good faith efforts over the last two decades to close these gaps. Minnesotans care about one another; we want our neighbors to succeed, not just our own families. Yet, despite targeted policy initiatives to give parents more choices, to increase and equalize school funding and to change how teachers are evaluated, our education gaps haven’t closed at all — if anything they are growing.
The good news is that some other regions are successfully producing strong education outcomes for children regardless of their backgrounds. These examples show that educating all Minnesota children isn’t impossible, but it will require a fundamentally different approach to reform that focuses on educating each individual child.
We find that only 37% of low income Minnesota students of all races are proficient in math and reading compared with 68% of their higher income peers. On those same assessments, only 30% of African-American students perform at grade level, compared with 65% of white students. And, when it is time to enter college or the workforce, large disparities remain. Only 25% of African-American students are college ready compared to 69% for their white peers. Similarly, students from low income families are far less ready than their higher income counterparts.
As these gaps have persisted, some policymakers seem to be changing the measure of success from actual student achievement to things that are easier to control. For example, Minnesota’s education leaders point to progress in reducing graduation gaps. In 2003, only 36% of African-American students graduated high school, while 79% of whites did. In 2018, the gap had narrowed, with 67% of African-American students graduating, compared to 88% of white students.
Sounds like progress, right? On the contrary, tests of college readiness show zero progress in closing the gaps in terms of what students are actually learning. It looks like we’re graduating students who aren’t prepared for success.
Some policymakers have suggested turning away from test scores. While we agree that high test scores themselves are not the ultimate goal, testing is a necessary tool to help teachers and parents ensure that each child reaches his or her highest potential.
High performing schools across the nation that primarily serve low income students tend to have a number of features in common: They start teaching children at an early age and focus on maximizing student learning time. They work to attract, develop, and retain high-quality teachers. They use data and coaching to improve instruction. And policymakers give schools greater autonomy and remain focused on actual student achievement. We are not suggesting that Minnesota simply import a model from somewhere else, but these examples are proof that success is possible.
Why are a Federal Reserve Bank president and a retired Supreme Court justice focused on ending education disparities? First, Congress assigned the Federal Reserve the goal of achieving maximum employment — meaning that as many Americans as possible are able to contribute to our economy. There is no greater determinant of success in the job market than education.
Second, 22 years on Minnesota’s Supreme Court made it clear that quality education is a key driver of justice. Children who don’t get a quality education are far more likely to fall through the cracks of society.
Everyone deserves a fair chance to build a better life. Education should be the great equalizer. We are working together to develop a fundamentally different approach to closing Minnesota’s achievement gaps that will empower families and ensure that each child is getting a quality education regardless of where they live, family income, or the color of their skin. This is about justice and the economic vibrancy of Minnesota.
Neel Kashkari is president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Alan Page is a retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and a founder of the Page Education Foundation. The Fed’s new report can be found at minneapolisfed.org/achievementgaps