Minnesota Trying New Approach to Reduce Achievement Gaps

St. Mary’s University of Minnesota is giving teachers interested in battling the state’s ethnic and racial achievement gaps a set of tools with which to do it, Minnesota Public Radio reports. The program offered by St. Mary’s teaches educators how to be more “culturally responsive” in an effort to teach in a way that is more culturally relevant to all their students.

Teachers who come to the Twin Cities program are not culture warriors. They are simply instructors who see the problem of the achievement gap – which is one of the widest in the nation – play out in their own classroom. A 5th grade teacher interviewed realized one day that the gap was not an abstraction but a reality that was taking place right in front of her among her students — half of whom were minorities and struggling academically.

St. Mary’s instructor Marceline DuBose encourages her students to shake up their traditional teaching styles. She said music and movement can help capture students who learn differently.

The education system is already working best for white, middle-class kids, particularly female students, so it’s no surprise that many teachers share those traits, DuBose said. The state Department of Education estimates that less than 4 percent of Minnesota teachers are people of color. Yet more than a quarter of Minnesota’s students are nonwhite.

She said that she noticed her fellow teachers expressing sentiments that left her uncomfortable. In her words, they were bemoaning the way things used to be, when they believed the academic standards had been higher as was the level of preparedness among the students. She felt that attitude was what was causing them to give up on students who were poor and non-white.

According to Luz Maria Frias, these kinds of lowered expectations sometimes don’t have anything to do with academic reality. Teachers express bias even when students are performing well.

Frias, who is an attorney along with her husband said she had to confront her daughter’s teacher when he declined to transfer the girl to a gifted program. Although her academic records and standardized test scores made her more than qualified, her white male teacher claimed that he had forgotten to recommend her for the program.

Frias then asked him how many kids in the gifted program were girls or kids of color. The teacher acknowledged that there were none.

“It was a tough conversation,” Frias said. “His first reaction was, ‘Are you calling me a sexist?’ And I said to him, ‘You’d be really lucky if I stopped there.’” Frias, now a vice president with the Minneapolis Foundation, was able to persuade the teacher to include her daughter in the program.