Minneapolis weighs ambitious plan to end student achievement gap

The Minneapolis School Board is scheduled to vote tonight on an aggressive plan to eliminate the achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts by the end of the decade.

It strives for a big increase in reading and math proficiency rates among students of color to bring them closer to their white peers.

The plan, called Acceleration 2020, is long on ambition. Indeed, its name suggests that school officials want to vigorously pursue the goal over the next several years.

"It's big, it's audacious and it's bold," Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said of the plan. "And I believe that it's doable if we're focused on doing the right thing."

Johnson said her blueprint contains 47 measures the district will closely monitor over the next six years, all in an effort to eliminate the gap in test scores between white students and students of color.

"I believe that it's doable if we're focused on doing the right thing."

They include erasing racial inequities in suspensions between white students and students of color, improving student attendance and the four- year graduation rate, boosting the effectiveness of principals and teachers and better engaging parents in their children's education.

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At the core of the plan is an effort to close the nearly 50 percentage point disparity in math and reading proficiency rates between white students and students of color by 2020.

That would require the district to ensure that students of color achieve an 8 percent increase in proficiency rates over each of the next six years.

It's an aggressive goal, but one the district must work toward, said former Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak, executive director of Generation Next, a group working to reduce the achievement gap in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"We don't have the option of having low expectations," Rybak said. "Right now we're getting low outcomes and we need to have much higher expectations."

Rybak said Generation Next and the Minneapolis district already are working on ways to cooperate on the effort.

"We don't have the option of having low expectations."

But setting goals is only a first step, said Ronald Ferguson, a researcher and professor at Harvard University.

"Goals can't hurt, but there also needs to be a realistic plan of action that helps you meet those goals," said Ferguson, director of Harvard's Achievement Gap Initiative.

So far, Minneapolis school district officials haven't offered details on how they'll implement their plan. But it is expected to include more freedom for officials at each school to make their own decisions on hiring, budgets and curriculum.

District officials say allowing schools to develop their own improvement plans, rather than having them prescribed by the central office, is the best way to close the achievement gap in Minneapolis.

"With that comes more autonomy on the school level to achieve the results that we want to see," School Board Chair Richard Mammen said. "But with that also comes accountability."

The district has not yet spelled out how schools will be held accountable for their performance.

Mammen said he expects the board to sign off on the Acceleration 2020 plan. But he said board members will first have plenty of questions about how the plan will be implemented.

School autonomy is something the Minneapolis district has experimented with in the past. There have also been a resurgence of such efforts across the nation in recent years, with mixed results.

Principals interested in gaining more independence for their schools will be required to submit an application with the district in October.

They are interested in what autonomy would mean for their schools, said Donna Andrews, principal of Marcy Open School.

"Most of us are cautiously optimistic and waiting to hear more," she said.

Meanwhile, teachers have their own questions about Acceleration 2020.

Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said the district should consider reducing class sizes to improve the performance of students of color, which the plan does not specifically mention. She said teachers want the district to have a plan to close the achievement gap, but are not sure yet that this is the right one.

Nordgren notes that the plan calls for higher expectations from the district's teachers, who she said already are working to improve the performance of all students.

"It says we're going to work harder; we're going to do more," she said. "People are already working so incredibly hard."