Hamline News

Erasing the Achievement Gap

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By Shannon Prather 

More than half a century after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education leveled the playing field in education, alarming inequities still plague America’s classrooms.

Students of color consistently score lower than their white counterparts on standardized tests. That disparity continues to graduation day. Nationally, 85 percent of white students graduate high school on time, compared to 68 percent of blacks and 76 percent of Hispanics.

In Minnesota, the situation is direr, with just 58 percent of black students and 59 percent of Hispanics graduating on time.

The inequities also include harsher discipline and a higher rate of suspension for students of color compared to their white peers, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Called the “achievement gap,” these disparities generate some of the most intense debates and calls to action across the country and at Hamline School of Education.

“It’s now a moment of crisis,” said Hamline Associate Professor of Education Letitia Basford. “We cannot let our future teachers walk out of the classroom without understanding the gravity of this. It’s the most important conversation we’re having in education in this country today.”

Differences in achievement have been monitored since the 1960s, but the rise of “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” and other federal mandates that include standardized testing have ignited the issue in the last two decades.

“Testing has revealed a lot of the gaps,” Basford said. “We have these huge communities not doing well on these tests, and they are primarily students of color. Minnesota has always prided itself on its excellent schools. Yet, we are one of the worst states in the nation [for testing disparities]. If we don’t figure out what to do soon, we’ll have a big problem.” 

Hamline graduates are some of the most prominent and provocative voices in this national conversation. Many challenge the label “achievement gap,” arguing that it’s really a gap in equity and access in education. And, they’re doing something about it.

They’re overseeing initiatives to boost black male achievement in Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis public schools. They’re rewriting curriculum and mentoring students of color. They’re leading candid conversations about race, culture, and prejudice.

We can no longer espouse a “color-blind” philosophy in the classroom, Basford said. To erase the achievement gap, we need to start with culturally competent educators.

Hamline curriculum directly addresses issues of equity, diversity, and cultural competency, then sends students into diverse schools across the Twin Cities for real-world, hands-on learning experiences.

“We have classes specifically focused on culturally competent teaching, curricular practices, how to be an advocate for students,” Basford said. “That means having a social justice lens. That means actively advocating for equity.”

Hamline School of Education also has hosted two forums on the achievement gap.

“We have those open and honest conversations,” Basford said. “That’s a big part of the battle: awareness and professional development.”

Achievement vs. equity 

Robert W. Simmons III EdD ’07 is the new District of Columbia Public Schools chief of innovation and research. Part of his mission is to improve graduation rates and test scores of black and Hispanic boys. The graduation rate for black boys is 48 percent, compared to 66 percent for all students.

“African-American boys are our largest group of students, but they are the lowest performing,” Simmons said. “You can only go up from here.”

Simmons understands the challenges his students encounter. He grew up in a poor neighborhood of Detroit, the son of a single mother. His father was in prison.

His life changed when he was recruited to attend a private Jesuit high school. The mostly wealthy and white college preparatory school made him think about race, identity, and opportunity.

After college, Simmons became an elementary school teacher and then a tenured professor of urban education at Loyola University in Maryland. He returned to K-12 education to confront what he sees as an equity crisis in the nation’s capital.

Simmons said he and his staff are evaluating what is working in the D.C. schools and ways to improve. One of his first findings: The district’s predominantly black high schools have fewer advanced placement and honors courses as the predominantly white schools.

School to prison pipeline 

Simmons is also scrutinizing the district’s discipline records.

“We are analyzing the culture of suspensions,” he said. “I find, disproportionately, [students of color] receive harsher punishments for minor offenses. Some people walk into a classroom afraid of black boys.”

National studies have revealed shocking disparities in punishment for even the youngest students in schools across the nation and here in Minnesota. After a 2012 survey of more than 72,000 schools, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights determined that students of color face harsher discipline compared to their white peers.

“You are pushing kids out of schools, and it’s predominantly students of color,” Basford said. “It definitely affects the achievement gap.”

In Minnesota, federal authorities investigated Minneapolis Public Schools for racial disparities in discipline. Black students make up about 40 percent of the student enrollment but were the subject of 74 percent of the district’s recorded disciplinary incidents and 69 percent of the referrals to law enforcement, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Suspensions started as early as kindergarten. A black Minneapolis second-grader received a one-day suspension for poking a classmate with a pencil. A white second-grader who threw a rock that broke a teacher’s sunglasses and who also struck another student in the head was allowed to stay in school, according to a U.S. Department of Education report.

Last fall, Hamline hosted a forum about the “school to prison pipeline.” It filled the auditorium with more than 350 in attendance.

“People are hungry to learn about this issue,” Basford said.

At the forum, educators examined how harsher punishments for students of color affect achievement, increasing the odds of a criminal record vs. a high school diploma. Suspensions take students out of the classroom, causing many to fall behind and become disillusioned with school. When kids are on the streets instead of in school, there’s also an increased likelihood of scrapes with the law. In addition, “zero tolerance” policies often mean police are called for minor schoolyard scuffles and criminal charges are filed. All of these factors contribute to the funneling of students from the classroom to the criminal justice system.

Basford co-authored a case study of a Minnesota family where one mixed-race boy was suspended an estimated 40 times in his school career.

“It has a profound impact when you get to hear the experience of a family,” Basford said.

Many in education don’t realize the biases they carry with them, she said. “They don’t realize what they feel when a black child walks into their class.” These hidden biases can have devastating consequences for students.

Culturally relevant teaching  

In Minneapolis, Naomi Taylor EdD ’14 is teaching educators to acknowledge and address racial assumptions head-on. She is the education equity coordinator in Minneapolis Public Schools’ new Office of Black Male Student Achievement.

“We have all been socialized from media and family backgrounds,” Taylor said. “We all must ask ourselves, ‘What do I need to unlearn?’”

Taylor graduated from Central High School in Saint Paul, one of the most diverse school districts in Minnesota. Yet, the young black woman rarely saw someone who looked like her in front of the classroom.

When Taylor returned to Saint Paul Public Schools as a first-grade teacher, she immediately saw things that troubled her: immigrant students chastised for speaking and socializing in their native languages, curriculum that primarily explored society and education through a white person’s lens, and students of color slipping behind in reading and other subjects.

She started doing her own research. “I had to self-teach and really seek out resources,” she said. “It was newfound value to become a culturally relevant teacher.”

Taylor began to honor all the languages and cultures in her classroom. She and her students labeled items in different languages. They learned greetings from around the world during circle time.

As a Hamline School of Education faculty member, she drew from her experience to help create the Introduction to Urban Education course.

Now in Minneapolis Public Schools, where she estimates 90 percent of teachers are white and 70 percent are female, Taylor said a critical part of her new job is helping teachers understand themselves and their students better.

“Teachers need to ask themselves: ‘Do I really believe all students are capable of learning?’” she said.

One-on-one support 

In addition, Minneapolis Public Schools is trying to address the day-to-day needs of its students of color.

Rosa Costain, who earned her English as a second language licensure from Hamline in 2014, is part of the new Black Male Achievement Task Force at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis.

“We realize there are some things the adults in this building should do better,” she said.

All 80 of the school’s black ninth-grade boys are now paired with a mentor teacher.

Patrick Henry also offers a ninth-grade course called PREP 9 that is designed to teach organizational and social-emotional skills needed to navigate high school. It’s open to all students, but Costain co-teaches a section specifically for black boys. Classroom discussions often revolve around race, identity, and their place in the larger culture.

“We talk about this stuff openly,” she said. “They’re honest and thoughtful about what’s going on in their lives. It’s led to a greater sense of community. They definitely have an understanding of the way they’re seen by society, and they see it in the way school plays out.”

Costain, who is white, at first questioned if she was the right person to take such a prominent role in this initiative.

“How am I supposed to be the one doing this work?” Costain recalls asking herself. “On the other hand, we can’t just rely on educators of color to do this work. It’s not fair to put it all on them. It needs to be all adults.”

Diverse curriculum 

Amy Vatne Bintliff MAED ’07 grew up in Wild Rose, a remote North Dakota town. Bintliff, who is white, discovered diversity in the writings of Maya Angelou and Dr. Martin Luther King.

When she became a teacher, she sought a job that reached out to students who were historically marginalized in public school settings. Bintliff soon realized the curriculum rarely touched a chord with her minority students, so she rewrote it focusing on the diverse works that had moved and inspired her as a girl. It ignited the same passion in her students, in whom she saw the stirrings of young activists and scholars.

“Kids know what injustice is,” Bintliff said. “They’ve experienced it and have a sense of it.”

As a teacher in the Anoka-Hennepin District in the north suburbs of Minneapolis, she took her lessons outside the school, leading a 10-day camping excursion with at-risk students.

“We were retelling the westward expansion history from a social justice lens,” she said. “Part of our program was restorative justice talking circles.”

She takes that same trip now with students at Oregon Middle School in Oregon, Wisconsin.

Bintliff’s curriculum has drawn national praise. She was one of five teachers selected from across the country as a 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award winner by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Bintliff credits her Hamline education. “They told me: ‘Keep fighting for this. This is important work.’” Bintiff said about her professors and classmates. “It can be extremely isolating, and for the first time I didn’t feel alone in the work. I was able to meet other students interested in social justice and professors who thought it was important.”