Less Talk, More Action: Collaborating to Reduce Racial Disparities in Education

Today's guest author is Dr. Rev. PM Crowley Hillstrom.

Racial equity is not simply a buzz phrase. It is the foundation on which our national consciousness must be anchored if we are to heal the wounds of systemic racism and oppression.

That's true all over the United States, and my city, Minneapolis, is no exception.

In an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune ("Mayor Betsy Hodges: Minneapolis is wonderful but faces deep challenges"; May 18) Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges praised the city on many fronts but acknowledged that it is "a city with many challenges, especially regarding race."

If you've lived in or near here for any length of time, that should come as no surprise. Communities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul often are on the front pages of local news outlets regarding racial disparities. In the midst of these disparities, leaders such as Minneapolis Councilmember Abdi Warsame provide some real talk about addressing the issues. Warsame says, "if you want to reduce the equity gap, you have to have less talk and [have] more action."

As the director of educational equity for Osseo (Minn.) Area Schools, I have been directed by Superintendent Kate Maguire and our school board to help bring about transformational system change to ensure equitable student achievement.

The charge is an important one: Our data show that we have historically underserved students of color and American Indians as it relates to our mission of "inspiring and preparing all students." As we have developed a collective consciousness regarding racial disparities, we as a system are measuring our conviction and moving towards commitment. Part of that commitment is being developed in an unprecedented collaboration between the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education (NUA) and Osseo Area Schools.

Together with our teams, NUA President Dr. Eric Cooper and I have the opportunity to talk less and act more.

Our recently-forged collaboration will equip our leaders and educators with the ability to examine how race is experienced in our schools and change the lived racial experiences of students of color. It will help us unearth the underlying mental models that have established systems which do not effectively meet the needs of each child. The collaboration will be designed to address the technical needs of teachers in the classroom, and provide them with some of the oft-requested tools to address the adaptive challenges connected to the social construction of race.

Why is this important?

We believe this partnership will propel us toward:
  • Ensuring high levels of achievement for all students.
  • Accelerating growth for students of color and other underperforming groups.
  • Closing the achievement gap on all state-mandated measures.

School districts that have partnered with the NUA have had proven success in these areas already. Our neighbor to the south, Eden Prairie, for example, reduced its achievement gap by nearly 60 percent, using culturally responsive strategies, as well as those pedagogies guided by neuroscience. Districts such as Robbinsdale, Minn., and urban schools in districts such as San Francisco, New York City and Bridgeport, Conn., have in elementary grades seen two standard deviations of improvement for their students.

That's real progress - less talk and more action.

We see our partnership with the NUA as a crucial aspect in the evolution of racial equity work that is leading to a new era emerging in Osseo Area Schools. Leaders are adjusting their lenses to be able to look the reality of racial biases in the eye and make the commitment to developing a system that is racially equitable.

This collaboration will allow us to become CLEAR about what it means to provide solid culturally responsive pedagogy. Here, CLEAR means:

Cultural - emphasizes the human purpose of what is being learned and its relationship to the students' own culture.
Learning - encourages students to make choices in content and assessment methods based on their experiences, values, needs, and strengths.
Equitable - respectful learning environments in which students' racial and ethnic diversity is valued and contributes to successful academic outcomes.
Achievement - includes multiple ways to represent knowledge and skills and allow for attainment of outcomes at different points in time.
Responsive - through positive relationships, rigorous learning experiences are created involving higher order thinking and critical analysis used to address relevant, real(ness) world issues in an action-oriented manner.

Our collaboration with the NUA is the next iteration of a set of practices that, over time, will help Osseo Area Schools take necessary actions to move towards equitable student achievement.

Based upon our consciousness, conviction and commitment I am optimistic that we will be doing much more than talking.

We will provide leaders, teachers and students the ability to change our racially predictable outcomes through this powerful collaboration of proven pedagogy and critical system theory. Our partnership will create the lens from which to understand the new paradigm of education--one that values the cultural and racial backgrounds of students while elevating them to the highest of global standards of education. This commitment to transformational systems change is so that each child in Osseo schools can be equipped with the confidence, courage and competence to achieve their dreams, contribute to community and engage in a lifetime of learning.

That's the kind of action all of us should be taking, if we really are serious about eliminating racial disparities in our schools and communities. If we get serious about that, we can help make Minneapolis, surrounding districts, and all our cities - the very best they can be.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets as @ECooper4556.

Dr. Rev. PM Crowley Hillstrom is director of educational equity for ISD 279 - Osseo Area Schools. Email Dr. Hillstrom at HillstromR@District279.org