Perpetual Omissions in Stories about Minnesota’s Achievement Gaps

The Pioneer Press ran a long story by Christopher Magan on Sunday about Minnesota’s immense achievement gaps.  (“15 Years Later, MN Schools are More Segregated, and Achievement Gap has Barely Budged,” August 20).  Two short comments. [Pioneer Press photo].

Magan is a good reporter, but the closest he came to saying that students have any responsibility whatsoever to work hard was the following, having to do with a meeting of the “Reimagine Minnesota” initiative.

“Students filled the walls with sticky notes full of ideas, with a consensus centered around improving relationships with staff and giving students more ownership of their learning.

“‘I know change is possible if we put effort into it,’ said Ann Doan, who will be a junior at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.  “‘It’s our education.  Why shouldn’t we have more of a say.’”

It’s not entirely clear what kind of “effort” Ms. Doan was referring to.  Did she mean that students will hit the books harder?   Or, that students should be more involved in building stronger ties with teachers.”  Or, that they should be more hands-on in developing and implementing policies and practices?  It’s impossible to tell.

I’m entitled to ask questions like these as I was a procrastinating academic goof-off in junior and senior high school.  But one good thing to emerge from those half-dozen years of laziness is that I have a professional-grade understanding that attempts at educational reform, no matter how brilliant, are at the mercy of students, many of whom don’t want to play along, which is to say work reasonably hard at all.  Loads of students are routinely allergic to studying, just as grand reform plans routinely ignore the fact.

A second, also consistently committed omission that many people, I trust, are tired of me pointing out.

There is a clear connection between how well children, on average, do in school and whether they live with two-married parents or not.  Yet there are communities in the Twin Cities where well more than 80 percent of boys and girls come into this life outside of marriage.  Yes, many kids growing up without a father (or mother) at home do wonderfully in school.  Yes, many teachers are superb and some are miracle workers – including many in private and religious schools.  And yes, at-risk kids tend to do exceptionally well in a certain number of schools.  Nonetheless, children growing up in difficult family circumstances, again on average, tend to do poorly and the schools they attend generally don’t shine whenever test scores are released.

Yet as strong as the tie is between fragmented families on the one hand, and children’s academic problems on the other, the Pioneer Press story contained not a single word about the connection.  Admittedly, relatively few news stories about achievement gaps in any publication ever acknowledge the destructive power of the demise of marriage, so my old newspaper (I was an editorial writer there in the mid-1980s) is not an outlier in the matter.  But the scholastic fact of life this time around is that there is no way, none, to adequately reduce Minnesota’s very large achievement gaps so long as so many children grow up not living with their two parents under the same roof.