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May 9, 2017

What's the solution to student underachievement? Some thoughts from a volunteer tutor

Originally published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
By Jay Kiedrowski

Education in Minnesota is a priority. Unfortunately, there is little consensus on the best policies for helping students learn. Tutoring in an inner city school has brought me new insights on what we must do.

Minnesota has emphasized spending on education and implemented many policies with good results. Our state is a national leader in educational achievement as evidenced by ACT scores.

Unfortunately, too many students, primarily diverse students, are not learning at an acceptable pace. I thought I understood what should be done about this underachievement until I became a reading tutor at Cityview Elementary School in north Minneapolis.

Cityview has 306 students, 94 percent minority. Nearly the same percentage qualify for free/discounted lunch. Reading scores on standardized tests indicate that only 9 percent are proficient.

I began tutoring a year ago at Cityview through a superb nonprofit, Reading Partners. This year, I was assigned two students for an hour apiece once a week: Isaiah, a third-grader, struggled with basic reading; Joshua, a fourth-grader, read at the third-grade level. (These are not their real names.)

My time with Isaiah was short. After refusing to do much of anything in our sessions, he was dismissed from the program. I keep wondering what is going to happen to this boy who refused to concentrate on improving something as fundamental as reading. What was causing this behavior? Where will he end up?

 I was assigned another third-grader I’ll call Jamir. He struggled with his phonics, much less with reading at grade level. Sometimes he would come and work with me, and other times he refused. The Reading Partners onsite coordinator tried to help, but had equal difficulty. On one occasion when I was urging him on, Jamir broke down crying. He couldn’t express what the problem was but it seemed far deeper than just his reading.

Students being tutored are encouraged to take home a free book to read with their parents. Jamir never wanted to take a book home. How much reading aloud occurred in his home?

Joshua was more willing to learn and had a genuine curiosity. He was making good progress through his weekly curriculum. A couple of months ago, he mentioned that the man who had been living with him and his mother had left. Then, a month ago, after telling me he was moving, he quit coming to school and our tutoring sessions. The school staff couldn’t locate him; he never came back.

Many students in the Minneapolis school system move multiple times a year, switching schools and teachers.

I have been impressed with Cityview as a school. It is doing what many would advocate:

• The student-teacher ratio is a low 11.6 students per teacher, with many diverse teachers who are friendly and seemingly competent;

• The students all wear uniforms (dark blue shirts and khaki pants);

• The halls are clean and orderly, with student art on the walls as in the best schools;

• Security is appropriate. One has to be buzzed in and register;

• The school offers an extended school year with spring break and summer academies;

• The school has the right mission (“We exist to ensure that all students learn”); and

• There are multiple programs in the school including French Immersion offering students choice.

And yet, most students are failing to learn. What is the answer? More resources would help when students are in school. Increased reading volunteers would also help.

But something more fundamental is needed.

If we want all students to learn, the families of the students need to be more involved. How do we foster that? The whole community must be enlisted. Churches need to encourage the parents and students. Role models need to show that hard work leads to success. The parks and community organizations need to offer after-school learning programs. Job development in inner-city neighborhoods is required. Government should help with adequate health care and affordable housing.

Our young are too important to be left solely to traditional education policies.

Jay Kiedrowski is a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He served as Minnesota’s commissioner of finance under Gov. Rudy Perpich.

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