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Minnesota's top education official pledges to tackle 'pernicious' achievement gap

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Kennedy graduates toss their caps into the air.
John F. Kennedy High School graduates toss their caps in the air at the end of commencement exercises in June 2016. As of 2017, Minnesota is second only to Wisconsin in the gap between graduation rates for white students and students of color.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2016 file

Minnesota's education commissioner says her top priority is closing the state's achievement gap between white students and students of color.

For decades, Minnesota education leaders have vowed to close gaps between white students and students of color. A report released last week, however, found Minnesota's persistent achievement gap remains largely unmoved.

Mary Cathryn Ricker, Department of Education
Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
Courtesy Minnesota Department of Administration

Minnesota’s Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said she's focusing on a number of strategies to make Minnesota's education system more equitable.

Ricker joined MPR News host Tom Crann to talk about what her department has been doing to address the achievement gap. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Crann: Is the stubborn achievement gap here in Minnesota at the top of your list when it comes to looking at the needs of students?

Mary Cathryn Ricker: Absolutely. The achievement gap is stubborn — stubborn is one word for it. The word I use most often is pernicious because there is a predictability to it that we have a responsibility to address this predictability is just as pernicious in achievement in math and reading, as it is in consistent attendance, as it is in discipline as it is in graduation. Those things are related. And when you see those things together, we have a responsibility to address them together.

Crann: Some parents say zip codes have too much to do with school quality. What's your reaction when you hear parents say that and what will your office do to address it?

Ricker: I have a responsibility not to give up on one student in the state of Minnesota. I am committed to making sure that educators have the time space and resources to reflect on their practice. I am just as committed to making sure that families feel like they are engaged — not a month before graduation but they are engaged through out a child's pre-K through graduation experience.

Crann: Are unions being as flexible as they can be to work on on innovative solutions to close this gap?

Ricker: When I was a union leader I put a premium on looking for that flexibility, looking for those opportunities where we could think differently. That's one of the reasons why when I was president in St. Paul that I pursued diversifying the teaching profession by starting our own alternative licensure program. And from this chair I would keep pushing in that direction.

Crann: What will you need to see to know that you've made progress in closing the achievement gap?

Ricker: I am going to want to see a reduction in discipline disparities and improvement in attendance because students are feeling safe and welcomed. We're going to see school leaders continue to invest in the ambitions of our students.

Students have already told us what the path is for their engagement and for their achievement and for their success. We need to listen to them and invest in those ambitions. And that's what I'm going to be looking for.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full interview with Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker.