It's the white elephant in the room, one that no one ever talks about, Thomas Harris, University of La Crosse assistant director of multicultural student services and Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) diversity committee member told the School Board earlier this month. In a predominantly white district, students of color and those from poor households on average underperform academically when compared to their white peers; the district employs few nonwhite teachers, and the diversity committee has approached the board with a list of recommendations that it says will help tackle the achievement gap and better prepare all students for a future in a world that is becoming more diverse every day.
Among the list of recommendations compiled by the committee are ideas to add more meaningful and ongoing teacher training, which would assist district teachers in meeting the needs of students of diverse backgrounds. The committee would also like to see teachers who do a good job of closing the achievement gap receive incentives through performance evaluations, and those who don't be provided with help to improve their teaching methods. The group would like to see curriculum changes that can help teachers utilize different ways of teaching students who have differing needs, as well as a plan to increase student retention and graduation rates. Committee members also urged the School Board to implement hiring practices that would help bring teachers of diverse backgrounds into the district.
District leaders also need to look at the data, Harris told the board, to better understand the current achievement gap between white students and students of color. (See charts.)
Board members generally agreed with the concept, and Harris pointed to the way that even white students may not be getting all they need to succeed in the world when nearly all of their teachers are white. "It's cheating our white youth, because they don't have the interactions with people of color who are teaching them," he said. "I don't know how long the school district has been this way, but I think it's perpetuating, year after year, with every white student who comes through the system."
"It's got to be deliberate," said board member Jay Kohner, referring to initiatives suggested by the committee. "We don't all start from the same spot; a lot of students have circumstances…beyond their control, and it's really up to us — the leaders — to see what we can do."
Each year, district leaders are presented with state standardized test score data that include academic achievement information broken down by ethnic group and also separates data on students from low income households. School Board members, however, have not discussed individual ethnic group performance in recent years, and have focused, rather, on all weaknesses in academic performance. During the School Board's discussion with Harris earlier this month, board member Steve Schild said data was not the only important way to evaluate the issue, but it was an important part of the puzzle, adding that he wasn't certain whether the district had data that showed the existing achievement gap.
Digging into the data
The data shown on the charts in this issue were taken from the Minnesota Department of Education, showing the academic performance and graduation rates of ethnic group cohorts in 2011. That year was chosen because the information was more readily accessible.
The data show that WAPS minority students are underperforming when compared to their white peers in the district, and that the achievement gap for WAPS exceeds average statewide achievement gaps in all areas except African American students tested in reading. Data for WAPS Asian students tested in math showed an achievement gap of more than twice the state average.
The next step
Harris recommended that the board explore the possibility of creating an administrative position that would oversee efforts at combating the achievement gap, and said the best first step would likely be for the board to meet with the district diversity committee to explore the ideas that the committee had generated.
Harris also said that because the WAPS student population is not very diverse, it was an opportune time to improve the system. It will be easier to help a smaller portion of students of color and low income households to succeed than it will be for schools in the Twin Cities, he said, that must work to address achievement gaps among thousands of students of color. "Why not start, anyway, so you can take care of those problems before the population becomes so big," he said.
"From where I come from, where I work, our goal is to retain and to graduate students and to give them every opportunity to be successful, and I think that's what equality is," explained Harris. "We all learn differently, we all teach differently. [We need to] look at the individual and what seems to be similar [among student needs], but also look at the differences to find out what they really, really need to be successful."
Board members agreed to schedule a time to meet with the diversity committee and begin a conversation about the recommendations it has generated, and to begin to examine data that explain the current achievement gap among WAPS student groups.