Thursday, September 1, 2016

David O'Fallon - A Proactive Response to Minnesota’s Education Gaps

David O’Fallon, PhD, is the President and CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center.

Liberal and progressive Minnesota and its two largest cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, have one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation. Repeat: in the nation. There are multiple education reform efforts underway to address this gap. These efforts have made little difference. Recent state test scores reflect that the “gap” was not significantly changed despite millions of dollars invested and years of multiple efforts, from the state legislature through the state department of education through city school systems, charters, private foundations, and multiple funders. According to Minnesota Public Radio in July 2016:
  • Nearly 70% of white students passed the subject tests in both reading and math. Black students saw proficiency rates around one-third (33%). Similar gaps exist for American Indian and Hispanic students. Those disparities remained virtually unchanged from last year.
  • Minnesota ranks 34th among all states for on time graduation, 48th for black students, and dead last, 50th, for Latino students.
Considering this, and drawing upon both research and experience with multiple education improvement and reform efforts at the state, national, and international levels, and drawing upon its work and partnership with the multiple cultures of the state, the Humanities Center evolved a strategy driven by these questions: What can the humanities bring to this challenge? What can the Humanities Center do in response to this continuing crisis?

We made the following observations:
  • To frame the education problem as an achievement gap is the wrong frame. This thinking has led to less than satisfying results because it calls for the wrong remedies.
  • A school is a complex human community—not a technical problem to be fixed with technical remedies (e.g., high stakes testing, narrow measuring tools).
  • Communities identify the source of the problem as a relationship gap—between teachers and students, between a school and its several communities.
  • Relationships built on authenticity and integrity are the foundation to student engagement.
  • This foundation of engagement of strong relationships is essential for sustained achievement.
  • Relationships live in community and culture.
The Humanities Center is emerging as a thought leader in education reform in Minnesota. The Humanities Center is reframing the problem through our resources and professional development opportunities based in the humanities, which build the relationships essential to education achievement and learning. Here are some examples of ways that you can get involved with the Education Strategy:
  • Professional development beginning with the foundational workshop Increase Engagement Through Absent Narratives, offered on November 2, which serves as an introduction to the core strategies and concepts of the Humanities Center’s approach to community engagement through absent narratives— voices often left out or marginalized. Participants practice strategies that will help them engage others with respect and empathy.
  • Learning through an indigenous perspective with the Bdote Field Trip, offered on September 25,that establishes the importance of place in learning and relationships, starting with the Dakota. (Bdote is a Dakota word meaning where two waters come together—where the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers converge is central to Dakota spirituality and history.)
  • Bdote Field Trip participants

  • More than 900 educational resources on the Absent Narratives Resource Collection, including original literature by Minnesota writers, online resources, videos, and our traveling exhibits.
  • A week-long Summer 2017 Educators’ Institute will provide educators with an ample opportunity to engage deeply with the Humanities Center’s proven approach to increase student engagement through absent narratives. This experience will help guide participants in developing classroom strategies for bringing absent narratives pedagogy into practice, while building a community of educators committed to relationship-based educational change in Minnesota.
    A team of educators from Rochester Minnesota
Learn more at

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