I attended a segregated two-room schoolhouse in Maryland before Brown v. Board of Education allowed me to be educated alongside my white peers. (Yes, I'm old — and Black.) I've raised three children, insisting that they take responsibility for their education, learn to read, and not accept excuses because of who they are or what others thought they could achieve. I taught for 10 years and founded a Minnesota public charter school serving Black and brown students, establishing similar expectations for staff, students and parents. I saw firsthand, time and time again, that when expectations are high, students rise to the occasion and rarely disappoint. What's essential is cultivating an environment in which all students can learn and holding adults accountable to that.
I honestly get angry when people have low expectations of my demographic, that low reading proficiency rates are all that's possible, as if throwing a crumb of an education to Black and brown kids is adequate, acceptable or all that is needed. I become just as angry when parents buy in to these low expectations and don't advocate for better results and a brighter future for their children.
Minnesota's achievement gap between Black and white kids is well-documented: 60% of white children passed the state's reading test last year, but only 31% of Black children did. Nicholas Kristof's June 4 column "Education in Mississippi: What a Southern backwater can teach America" — describing Mississippi's rise out of the nation's cellar of reading proficiency rates — gave me goosebumps as to what is possible: If Mississippi can do it, Minnesota can, too! Then reality struck me: Minnesota has made the Mississippi miracle illegal.
Minnesota's recently adopted Read Act requires the science of reading — which is great! — but it prohibits what Kristof describes as "perhaps the most important single element" of Mississippi's reading requirements, known as the "third-grade gate": Any child who does not pass a reading test at the end of third grade is held back and has to redo the year. Minnesota's Read Act doesn't allow that; the law says "a student may not be retained solely due to delays in literacy or not demonstrating grade-level proficiency." One might be inclined to think a prohibition on holding kids back is reasonable; after all, retention strips kids of confidence needed to continue schooling, right? But consider the alternative: adults who can't read — wow! Let's talk about confidence and self-esteem with that future!
Instead of demoralizing and stigmatizing retained students, Kristof reports that the third-grade gate "lit a fire under Mississippi. It injected accountability: Principals, teachers, parents and children themselves were galvanized to ensure that kids actually learned to read." Are Minnesota's principals, teachers and parents bold enough to galvanize behind the absolute — and well-documented — truth that children who can't read are at significant risk of a life of poverty? Are our principals, teachers and parents bold enough to ensure kids actually learn to read? Are we bold enough to light that fire?
This year's Read Act answers, "Not yet."
Liz Wynne, of Plymouth, is a retired educator.