Recent education news confirms what this page has been saying for some time: Many Minnesota schools need to pick up the pace to replicate successful academic programs and step back from failing strategies, and the state needs a full-scale public-private push to get the neediest 4-year-olds into quality preschool.
This week, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) reported that high school graduation rates were flat in 2015, with 81.9 percent of public high school seniors graduating in four years, compared with 81.2 percent the year before.
In an encouraging trend, the data also showed that slightly more students of color graduated last year. Among African-American seniors, 62 percent completed high school last year, compared with 60.4 percent in 2014. More Hispanic and American Indian students also graduated. And Minneapolis Public Schools saw its largest jump in recent years with 64 percent of seniors graduating, up nearly 6 percentage points from 2014.
Still, the state has set a goal to have a 90 percent graduation rate statewide by 2020, with no student group falling below 85 percent. With black, Hispanic and American Indian rates still below 70 percent, there’s a huge challenge ahead over the next four years.
Last week, the MDE reported that hundreds of school districts, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, are not making significant progress in closing achievement gaps between white students and students of color.
A state law passed in 2013 requires Minnesota school districts and charter schools to improve test scores, boost graduation rates and cut achievement gaps. But in its first progress report, the MDE says at least half of schools are not meeting those targets and could lose state funding if they don’t by next year. The law, known as World’s Best Workforce, tracks how well the state’s 167 charter schools and about 350 school districts are meeting goals in five areas — including high school graduation rates and closing learning disparities. Districts and charters create their own plans, and the state tracks their progress.
To improve graduation rates, the nonprofit Generation Next — with funding from businesses and foundations — is working with both the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts to identify struggling ninth-graders and intervene to help them improve. The On Track program is modeled after a Chicago schools effort. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of Chicago teens on track to graduate rose from 57 to 82 percent.
In addition to replicating what works in the upper grades, more children need quality early education. For every $1 spent on educating the littlest learners, society can expect a $7 return when they become productive, taxpaying adults.
The Legislature made some progress on this front in 2015 when it increased funding for need-based preschool scholarships. Though that was a step in the right direction, it did not cover all eligible children. The 2016 Legislature should provide more targeted early-education funding.
Minnesota has a lot of work to do to improve public education for all students. The recent news on grad rates and the achievement gap should provide even more impetus to turbocharge education strategies that work, dump those that don’t and build strong foundations for preschoolers.