Minnesota is a perplexing state. On one side, it is rich in natural resources such as iron, fresh water, and farmland. As the home to over nineteen Fortune 500 companies, businesses are booming, and according to U.S. News, Minnesota ranks #2 in Overall Rankings in terms of area, college graduates, gross domestic product, population, and median income. Even in terms of education, Minnesota boasts some of the best scores in the biennial assessment of student’s math and reading skills, thus making them the highest in literacy, education, and in wealth production.
But underneath this visage of prosperity and wealth, there’s an underlying problem that is affecting many of the state’s youth. Within the school system, there’s a disparity between students of color and their white classmates that is both shocking and disturbing.
Many of us have likely heard the term “achievement gap” at some point, but what does it actually mean? Minnesota’s Department of Education puts it this way: “The achievement gap refers to the differences in academic performance between two groups of students.” Despite the wealth and prosperity that Minnesota claims, it also houses one of the worst achievement gaps in the country. More Caucasian students graduate from high school than most students of color in the state, in particular African American students. According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, African American students graduate public high school at a 25 percent lower rate than Caucasian students in Minnesota.
Behind The Achievement Gap
The term “achievement gap” was first coined in the 1960s when a group of researchers began to study the disparity of academic performance between two diverse groups of students. Mostly, the term is used to identify the gap between African-American and Hispanic students, and their non-Hispanic, white counterparts, and can show up anywhere between grades, standardized tests, dropout rates, and other ways of measuring success.
There is no single factor that can be blamed as the sole cause for this problem. As it is with most things, there are a variety of forces at play that lead a child either to succeed or fall behind. Undoubtedly, though, one of the biggest factors is rooted in the child’s home life and the kind of upbringing that they had. During the first three years of a child’s life, massive amounts of neural connections are being made – roughly 1 million every second. New words are being learned, attachments are made, and the child is shaped and molded by the responsiveness of his or her caregiver. The development of communication and social skills are strengthened when a child is given proper attention, such as eye contact and hugs, after babbling or gesturing. When a child fails to receive these reinforcements, it negatively impacts their neural development.
Language Development, A Stable Home And School
Language development is also a key factor in the future success of a child. In a look into the causes of the achievement gap, the Harvard Gazette states, “One study of language acquisition showed that, by age 3, the children of professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words; those of parents on welfare had mastered only 525 words. The difference was reflected in IQ scores: an average of 117 for the first group, and 79 for the second.” Additionally, many middle-class families take the parenting approach of treating their children like adults, which gives them confidence in the classroom. Conversely, less affluent families emphasize hierarchy and discipline which commonly sets the child up to be more self-sufficient, but reflects poorly on academic achievement.
The value and importance of a stable upbringing and a good use of language can’t be emphasized enough when it comes to bridging the achievement gap. And yet, the home isn’t the only location that can either positively or negatively impact a child’s development. Schools hold a substantial portion of that power as well, and thus carry some of the blame for creating the disparity in performance among students. Hamline University targets the school system’s disciplinary measures, saying, “Suspensions take students out of the classroom, causing many to fall behind and become disillusioned with school. When kids are on the streets instead of in school, there’s also an increased likelihood of scrapes with the law. In addition, ‘zero tolerance’ policies often mean police are called for minor schoolyard scuffles and criminal charges are filed. All of these factors contribute to the funneling of students from the classroom to the criminal justice system.”
The achievement gap is real, and it’s a problem affecting many students in Minnesota. But why should we care? For starters, a high school graduate will make around $20,000 less per year than a college graduate – a high school dropout will make $30,000 less. Crime rates will decrease, considering 75 percent of the nation’s inmates are high school dropouts, and higher education breeds innovation and economic advancement, leading to a healthier country as a whole.
U.S. News Global Report Rankings 2018
Harvard Center on the Developing Child: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/serve-and-return/