Most Minnesotans would agree that it's in the state's interest to operate integrated and equitable schools in which all students succeed. But we are largely failing to do so.
Look at the numbers: over the past five years, according to research by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, students of color and American Indian students were two to five times as likely to drop out of school as their white peers.
It's commendable that Minnesota's white students beat the national graduation rate average by 6 percentage points in 2005. But in that same year, students of color and American Indians in Minnesota finished 10 to 17 points below the national average.
More than half of the combined students of color in the state either fail to graduate from high school or don't graduate on time; only about 4 percent of white students encounter such difficulties. Readiness for college as reflected through ACT test scores shows similar racial disparities: While 59 percent of white students demonstrated college readiness on algebra test scores, only 38 percent of American Indian, 34 percent of Latinos and 16 percent of African-American students did so.
Forgive me, but I can't help wondering what might happen if those figures were reversed. If white students were at the bottom of the education achievement ladder, how might Minnesota and its state leaders react?
Would there be any debate about the need to move quickly? Because of the urgency of the problem, might there not be a special session of the Legislature to ensure that adequate resources were available to address it? Wouldn't the state link arms with the business community to form a protective shield around failing white students, bolstering economic investment to rescue a precious human resource?
But we're talking about African-American, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian children, and unfortunately the pace of education reform is slow for these students. While we await action by the state, yet another generation of these students is in danger of reaching the age of majority without a high school diploma, without a college degree, without the skills needed to work in Minnesota's celebrated high technology enterprises.
This is bad news for all Minnesotans. Without trained workers who are proficient in English, who love math and science and can function in a culturally diverse environment, the state's aging population will become increasingly dependent on young workers who earn less money, pay fewer taxes and are more likely to need government assistance.
To make matters worse, Minnesota is becoming re-segregated. Prof. Myron Orfield at the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty points out in a new study: "As racial diversity expands in the metropolitan area, different communities of color are mixing with each other in nonwhite segregated schools and neighborhoods but not with whites."
Integration aims to ensure equity throughout our society, and education tries to foster academic excellence. If those two goals are combined, as many of us believe they should be in Minnesota's schools, the achievement gap can be narrowed considerably over time. But if the goal of having all children achieve at high levels is left to chance or largely unaddressed, the status quo is reinforced and the gap gets larger, not smaller.
How might the current system be changed? Perhaps we can answer that question by imagining, again, what might happen if the racial disparities were reversed. Wouldn't additional resources be allocated to ensure the success of white students? Wouldn't our educational structures be carefully examined to determine whether systemic patterns might be contributing to the achievement gap? Might regional integration districts or other entities be charged with providing services and support, such as advanced teacher training, to all school districts in the state?
Why is it in the state's interest to have successfully integrated and equitable schools where all students succeed? And why should we care? Because, when large numbers of children -- in this case, children of color and American Indian students -- fail in school, their lack of success comes back to haunt them and us: in increased taxes for homeowners, in the disruption of social cohesion and in the nagging sense that we simply haven't measured up to our own ideals for all students.
Daniel L. Jett is superintendent of the West Metro Education Program (WMEP), which operates FAIR School Crystal and FAIR School Downtown in Minneapolis, as well as The Choice is Yours Program.