Newspaper article

Needed: A Strategy and Structure for Change in Minnesota’s Social Climate

Newspaper article

Needed: A Strategy and Structure for Change in Minnesota’s Social Climate

Article excerpt

“… an old world is collapsing and a new world arising; we have better eyes for the collapse than for the rise, for the old one is the world we know.” — John Updike

Yet another report that decries Minnesota’s disparate educational outcomes has been issued, this one from the Federal Reserve Bank (“A Statewide Crisis: Minnesota’s Education Achievement Gaps,” Oct. 11, 2019). In summary, the findings of Rob Grunewald and Anusha Nath spotlight the stark reality that, despite our national leadership in “adopting policies that promote equal opportunity for education,” the educational outcomes for children in Minnesota remain stubbornly and strikingly disparate, in regard to both race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. More recently, we learn that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), our historical status of being above the national average in student achievement is slipping.

So we must be missing something here. We try so hard, and we just can’t move the needle. I think what we are missing is the crucial matter of social climate, which goes deeper than policy, deeper than good intentions and deeper, even, than good actions. It is about us, the way we view ourselves, and the way we view and relate to those we perceive as “other.”

Stuck in a paradigm

Minnesotans, we need to get to know each other. We aren’t who we used to be, and that’s a good thing. But we are stuck in a paradigm of white, middle-class cultural expectations that does not serve us and our future. To get free of its limits and release the potentials of our complex community, we need to teach each other who we are, penetrating the ethnic/racial and economic boundaries that separate us.

One needs only read “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota,” in which Minnesotans of color share their experiences, to realize that we suffer from genteel “othering.” Many people are engaged in laudable efforts to promote “inclusion,” efforts that do in many instances make a difference for individual people, and even organizations. But we have something larger at stake. We have to get beyond “inclusion.” We have a pervasive culture that has created and sustains the intractable problem that haunts us: we aren’t educating our children of color and lower economic status in a way that prepares them to enjoy and contribute to a healthy Minnesota future. The Federal Reserve Bank calls it a statewide crisis.

I argue that it isn’t fundamentally about education. In an attempt to shine a hopeful light, the Federal Reserve report cites several educational initiatives – in New Orleans, in New York, in Boston – that have resulted in narrowing educational outcome gaps. Yes, schools are of course part of the solution. But as a former classroom teacher, I find it disheartening that we continue to place responsibility on schools and teachers for dispelling disparities that begin not in the classroom, but in our larger social and economic interactions.

Fixing the foundation

References to social climate are common, and often come from prominent spokespeople. Minnesota’s first chief inclusion officer, James Burroughs, said, “Yes, it’s important to have the strategies and policies to do business. …

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