[Update: This story was updated at 12:01 p.m. to include the final vote.]
Across Minnesota, the number of native American kids heading to college is on the rise. The reading and math scores of black students are catching up to those of whites. Low-income students, kids whose native language isn’t English, and kids with disabilities are meeting the higher expectations teachers have been setting for them.
The state – a high performer by many education measures – still faces many academic gaps between groups of students. But it is well on its way toward a goal it set in 2012 to cut those disparities in half by 2017.
Minnesota offers an example of what can happen when a state puts a priority on closing achievement gaps. It developed its approach through a waiver to some of the requirements of the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
Now that old, and many say, broken, law is on its way out. State leaders for years have been clamoring for more flexibility in how they hold schools accountable for academic improvement – so they can prioritize and tackle issues as they see fit, not as the federal government dictates.
And Wednesday, the Senate voted 85 to 12 to clear the long-awaited law that will finally grant them their wish. The bipartisan compromise known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) already passed the House by a wide margin Dec. 2.
ESSA will leave the main tools in place to track achievement by categories such as race, income level, disabilities, and English-language learners. But a big question remains: Will this shift to empowering states help or hurt the equity agenda embedded in the original law from the 1960s civil rights era?
Historically, not all states have shown the political will to set high standards for all students, and some observers worry they’ll again feel somewhat off the hook. “There probably will be less attention now on the achievement gap: The [new] law doesn’t force that conversation the way it did under NCLB,” says Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners.
Others are more hopeful that many states will stay the course or come up with new innovations to address achievement gaps – recognizing the impact those can have on their future workforce and economic health.
Minnesota’s current accountability system uses a range of measures for school achievement, including how well individual student and subgroup test scores improve from year to year.
The state legislature expanded the system in 2013 to cover all public schools, not just those that receive federal dollars for low-income students. It set up regional “centers of excellence” to provide assistance to schools that were struggling. And it’s dedicating more than $180 million in state funds to the effort.
“We’re focusing on the strengths of our schools and teachers and asking them to do more,” says Brenda Cassellius, the state’s first African-American education commissioner.
So far, two-thirds of the schools are on track to meet their gap-reduction targets.
At TrekNorth, a charter middle and high school in rural Bemidje, the state goals align with a mission to prepare as many students as possible for college through participation in Advanced Placement courses.
The school has been recognized five times in the state’s annual list of Reward Schools, recently scoring an 81 out of 100 on the Multiple Measurements Rating, which takes gap reduction into account.
The more sophisticated accountability system has contributed to a healthy “pressure to hone the subtleties of the craft of teaching,” says the charter school’s executive director Dan McKeon.
Many of the low-income or native American students that make up much of the TrekNorth population wouldn’t have access to AP at other schools, Mr. McKeon says. He helps teachers develop the ability to stop mid-lesson to do a “formative assessment” – checking to see that everyone’s getting the main points. Then they take that extra 10 minutes if they see some students struggling with a certain concept.
The staff also works with families to help them understand the world of opportunity that can open up for students who put in the time on academics.
On a recent trip to visit colleges around the state, McKeon says he watched as one 12th-grade girl -- from a low-income family where college has not been the norm – looked through a brochure about how college credit is calculated for students who have passed AP exams.
“She starts counting up classes since she was in 10th grade … and she realizes that if she went to this college she’d walk in with 29 credits under her belt,” he says, and that would mean saving a year’s worth of tuition and possibly earning scholarships. “I could see the realization on her face of how big of an accomplishment it was.”
As he has watched the new law move through Congress, McKeon says his cynical side worries that some educators might see it as a “release from accountability to underserved students.” On the other hand, he says, he’s “excited to see what gets created at state and local levels when professional educators get the freedom to do what they know works best.”
Civil rights groups are gearing up to take a seat at the table as accountability systems take shape over the next year and a half leading up to full implementation of the new federal law.
Many civil rights and education advocacy groups had pushed for the federal role to remain stronger.
But when it comes to what states now must do in regard to English-language learners, ESSA actually strengthens accountability. Their progress has to be accounted for by all schools, whereas previously that happened only in schools with high percentages of such students.
“States have been asking for a while now for more flexibility to own their state accountability plans, so we’ll be monitoring how this plays out, and calling out states that aren’t doing better by English learners” says Brenda Calderon, an education policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza. The number of English learners in the US has grown to about 1 in 10 students, she says.
Civil rights and student advocacy groups are also pushing local conversations about “opportunity gaps” that lie at the root of lower achievement.
A recent report in Boston, for instance, found that “black and Latino males were horrifically underrepresented in key opportunities,” as early as third grade, that largely determined whether students ended up on a college-prep track, says Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston, which published the report.
The report is helping inform a new task force in the city that’s exploring ways to address the gaps. One need is for greater “cultural competence” among school staff, to understand their diverse population of students.
One school, for instance held a well-intentioned celebration of the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo. The problem: none of the Latino students at that school had Mexican heritage. “If you don’t know who your kids are,” Mr. French says, “you are going to have a hard time reaching them.”
Local efforts to address stubborn gaps, like this nascent one in Boston – and state support for such efforts -- will become even more important under the new federal education law. And the degree of success states have could vary greatly.
The equity agenda doesn’t get a significant boost from the new law, some education and civil rights observers say, because its definition of accountability is still too narrow. “They are focused on accountability by test scores, but really not focused nearly enough on the learning-opportunities part of the equation…. We still have so many kids in underfunded, underresourced schools,” says Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the University of California in Los Angeles.