Lack of progress on learning gaps

Although the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) has several programs that are supposed to help close the state’s student achievement gaps, they are largely ineffective.

A recent report from the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) recommended that the legislature more clearly define the role of the MOE in filling the gaps. And the study correctly concluded that the department should improve the administration, monitoring and frequency of reporting for the three programs in question. Legislators and the MDE should follow these recommendations.

The achievement gap is widely known as the difference in education between different groups of students – most commonly noted between white students and students of color on tests, grades, and graduation rates. These disparities in Minnesota are among the largest in the country.

Twenty years ago, white students made up 82% of public school enrollment in the state, but by the 2020-21 school year, that rate had dropped to 64%. In 2019, the “gap” between fourth-grade white students who tested their reading skills was 26 percentage points, with 46% proficient white students compared to 20% black, Latino, and Indigenous students.

The effective use of programs and resources to reduce these gaps is important for every student. It also matters, as the listener noted, as Minnesota’s student population has become increasingly diverse, disparities have persisted. And that means a growing number of students across the state are ill-prepared to become productive, contributing adults.

Auditors evaluated four separate MDE programs. They found that three initiatives—World’s Best Workforce, Achievement and Integration for Minnesota, and American Indian Education—closed the achievement gap in their mission statements. But the report says they have not specified how they will do this or track progress.

“What the strategic plan lacks, however, are sufficiently observable quantitative measures (beyond the size of the achievement gap itself) to show the effect of these strategies in closing the achievement gap. success,” the listeners wrote.

Although listeners criticized three programs, they noted that a fourth effort they reviewed did a good job. They have found that Regional Centers of Excellence provide useful support to schools that have been successful in reducing achievement disparities. Center staff members work directly with educators to enhance learning and teaching. The centers are not part of the MDE; however, the ministry supports them in a variety of ways. They are largely funded by regional service organizations and staffed by non-state employees.

Responding to the report, MDE Commissioner Heather Mueller noted that the centers have sufficient funding for 57 full-time positions, but the other three programs have seven full-time staff. In testimony before lawmakers, she noted that if they want more from MDE to close achievement gaps, they should allocate more funds. She also said that factors outside the classroom and the control of educators impact student success.

Listeners agreed, writing that these factors could contribute to academic struggles because “if a student’s basic needs aren’t being met, it can be difficult to focus on teaching.”

The report’s clever conclusion is that the vague definition of MDE’s role in closing Minnesota’s educational achievement gap should be clarified. And many programs that are meant to fill these gaps need better evaluation, better tracking, and better monitoring. If they fail, the department should devote its resources to efforts like regional centers of excellence that are showing progress.

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