by Sarah Squires, Editor-in-Chief, Winona Post
Test scores don’t lie.
Sure, they might be, as many WAPS officials complain, simply a “snapshot in time.” Maybe some of our students weren’t having the best day when they took their standardized tests; perhaps if the snapshot were taken at some other point in time they would have performed better. Though there is such moaning and groaning from educators over them you might think the tests were some form of torture, there is a point to them. Parents, community members, taxpayers, and students themselves deserve to know whether public schools are being effective in their work — are students learning the basic skills we’d expect them to learn? Are there particular grades, subjects, or individual schools that are struggling? Are educators failing to reach disadvantaged children; are poor kids and students of color falling through the cracks?
I’ve quite possibly written this every time I have written about our public schools on this editorial page: you can’t fix a problem that you won’t admit you have. And there are plenty of WAPS leaders who vilify the Post for pointing it out, but WAPS does have significant problems when it comes to student achievement. The vast majority of our student groups are lagging behind state averages — in some areas, considerably below — and in particular, our black students underperform when compared to black students statewide. Minnesota has one of the highest achievement gaps in the United States, so when we aim for the state average when it comes to how our minority students are doing, it is not aiming too high.
When you consider the fact that WAPS educators are struggling to help our black students learn, and combine it with the fact that WAPS has suspended black students eight times as often as their white peers, a reasonable person would note that WAPS is having problems connecting with black kids.
The state Department of Human Rights has decided, at least when it comes to school suspensions, that this major disparity is not acceptable, and is requiring that WAPS complete a bunch of various tasks in order to address it. While I agree with Fran that what shouldn’t happen is that teachers are forced to refrain from properly disciplining students, I do think that the Department of Human Rights intervention is a good and needed change. Among the requirements that WAPS must complete under the plan is training for all educators on “cultural competency.” It’s the kind of staff development resource that helps people understand their underlying biases and interact more effectively with people from different backgrounds with different cultures. It’s complicated. It takes time. And it’s not the kind of training that you can send seven teachers to San Diego to learn and then come back and teach it to the hundreds of other educators who didn’t get to go on the trip. Now, the Department of Human Rights is requiring that all of our educators have that training, and I think that is a resource that we need more of. The numbers don’t lie.
This is not a new problem for WAPS, and it’s not a new problem in the state of Minnesota, either. It seems as though the district and the state Department of Education have not done enough to address our achievement gap issues, and now the Department of Human Rights has decided to step in and say enough is enough. For years, when we ask WAPS leaders what we are going to do to right the ship when it comes to our minority students, we get the same line. They tell us teacher training. They tell us our teacher collaboration groups called professional learning communities are working on it. Year after year, as the problems persist and even get worse, we ask them, What are we going to do differently now? Because it’s clear, what we’ve been doing for years is not working. The answer is always the same, and at this point, the same isn’t good enough anymore.
When we write about this issue, I typically attend interviews along with reporters. It’s because I think WAPS’ problems educating students and educating black students in particular is one of the most pressing issues faced by this community. And honestly, when we repeatedly ask whether either our lackluster test scores or our suspension disparity among black and white students is a problem — repeatedly ask — we are met with some of the most overt question avoidance I’ve witnessed in my 15 years as a journalist. It would almost be laughable if it weren’t such a troubling and serious issue, if it weren’t children who have suffered because WAPS simply cannot admit it has real challenges that need to be honestly addressed.
It’s almost like WAPS is that alcoholic uncle who you forced to go to an AA meeting in a church basement somewhere, and we’ve all been waiting for the day when he finally stands up and says, “Hi. My name is Winona Area Public Schools. And I have a problem.”