Schools need funds to close achievement gap

The current emphasis on holding students to a higher standard of achievement will not work alone.

The minority achievement gap in Minnesota is proving far more difficult to close than education reformers might have hoped.

That’s the unmistakable conclusion of a new report published last week by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership. “The 2004 State of Students of Color” was released during a conference on race and education organized by the partnership and held last week at the University. The report should put Minnesota’s leading educators on notice that closing the state’s achievement gap will likely defy easy solutions.

The current emphasis on holding students to a higher standard of achievement, promoted by President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative and eagerly adopted by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, is hardly an adequate response to the gulf separating minority and white students.

Attending last week’s conference, Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke responded to the new report by reiterating her support for tougher standards of success. She also should have addressed the budget crunches and increasing average class sizes many school districts now face, which also contribute to the achievement gap.

The 2004 report shows just how wide the achievement gap remains. While 87 percent of white eighth-graders passed the Minnesota’s basic skills reading test in 2003, the passing rate for black students lagged far behind, at 49 percent. Similar gaps exist in the basic skills writing and math tests. Nor are American Indian, Asian/Pacific Islander or Hispanic students on par with their white counterparts. All three groups consistently perform well below white students on the basic skills tests.

Critics argue that adequately funding struggling schools amounts to “throwing good money after bad,” but closing Minnesota’s achievement gap cannot be done if schools lack the resources to teach their students. Increasing class sizes will make it harder for teachers to provide the one-on-one attention many students need. Tougher standards deserve a place in any solution, but so does adequate funding.