This month, children returned to classrooms across Minnesota, which means the contentious debate around closing the K-12 education achievement gap that exists between Black and white students in our state will begin anew.
For many, the answer to Minnesota’s dirty little secret is having more Black teachers in classrooms that students can readily identify with and relate to culturally. After all, representation matters at all costs, right?
No, what is most urgent right now is that Black students learn how to read, write and do arithmetic at grade level and beyond, so that they are adequately prepared to become productive members of society, which includes being ready for today and tomorrow’s technologically advanced workplace.
Let’s be honest, teaching is an increasingly difficult profession. One that is often demonized and undervalued in our society. The reality is most men and women become teachers because they have a love for imparting knowledge and helping young people grow and develop into the best version of themselves.
Most people do not pursue a career in education to become rich and famous or because they hate Black children. In fact, just the opposite. Many teachers in the most challenged school districts in Minnesota and around the country spend thousands of dollars of their hard-earned money each year to ensure their students have the school supplies and other essentials required for success in the classroom without any type of financial reimbursement. Now that’s true dedication and love for your profession.
As an African American, I know better than most that representation has a critical place in our society. I grew up in Minnesota at a time when diversity, equity and inclusion wasn’t a slogan or policy demand. I had no Black teachers until I got to graduate school, and my sisters and I were often the only students of color in our respective classrooms.
Luckily, I had the next best thing. Black parents who were committed to ensuring their children received the best education possible. In addition to making sure we mastered the three “Rs,” they also saw to it that we knew and understood our triumphant history from slavery to Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement to the White House, which is American history at its finest. My parents also went out of their way to ensure we had role models we could relate to in our future chosen professions, because they understood children model what they see.
I learned very early on the importance of education, because my grandparents and great grandparents were not afforded the luxury of one due to pernicious segregation and systemic racism in Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi. As a result, I grew up with the belief that education was a privilege and should never be taken for granted because people who looked like me were beaten and even died for my right to sit in a classroom.
It was also not lost on me that people like James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962, which was within my parents’ lifetime. Or the fact that nine young Black kids fought violent white mobs in 1957 to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., just 18 years before my first day of kindergarten in St. Paul.
Today, Minnesota has one of the largest education achievement gaps between Black and white students in the country. According to the 2021-2022 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, just 31% of Black students are proficient in reading compared to 59% of white students. In addition, just 20% of Black students are proficient in math in comparison to 54% of their white counterparts.
Minnesota’s Black community should be outraged by these appalling statistics. This should also serve as a wake-up call to elected officials and policymakers of all political stripes that we cannot afford to wait for children to have teachers of the same race or ethnicity to address our education achievement gap crisis.
Sadly, Minnesota has never been a hotbed for racial diversity due to its persistently cold weather, the lack of a large Black middle class, and limited career mobility for even the most well-educated people of color in comparison to other cities. Therefore, I’m convinced, now more than ever, that there will never be enough Black teachers to meet many of our parents’ desire for more racial diversity among our state’s teaching ranks, particularly in the short term.
Due to this reality, Black parents in Minnesota must become their children’s first teachers if they wish to close our growing achievement gap, which has already had a detrimental effect on so many young people’s lives across our state.
Black parents must stress the importance of a solid K-12 education to their children, as well as obtaining some type of higher education if they want their offspring to be competitive in our global economy.
If Black children in Minnesota do not receive a quality primary education, their school-to-prison pipeline stats will only get worse, while our state’s Black unemployment rate will continue to remain in double digits, even during times of prosperity. In addition, Black folk’s desire to build generational wealth will continue to remain elusive.
Yes, racial diversity in the classroom is important. However, we cannot wait until there are enough Black teachers in our schools to begin to address Minnesota’s shameful K-12 education achievement gap. Black parents must continue to work and pray for real systemic change in our education system, while simultaneously teaching their children that their very existence depends on them doing well in school today regardless of their teacher’s race, ethnicity, disability, religion, sexual orientation or cultural competence.
Lee Hayes is a St. Paul-based public relations and public affairs consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.